CHAT IN A CHAIR: Eames Demetrios
Eames Demetrios is our guest of honour for this month’s Chat in a Chair. Sarah-Jane Pyke had the fortune of visiting the Eames House this time last year as part of Modernism Week. As luck had it, she had the chance to reminisce and discuss the reality of that iconic house as a home, The Eames Office today and the future personal endeavours of Eames Demetrios, Geographer-at-Large and grandson to the most influential design soulmates of the modern era.
In the design community the sublime, good-humoured, brilliance that is Ray & Charles Eames is universally magnetic. Their truly visionary legacy lives on in their grandson, Eames Demetrios.
Demetrios is one busy man. Not only does he oversee The Eames Office, whose mission is “communicating, preserving and extending” the life work of Charles and Ray Eames, but he also finds the time to work on ‘Kcymaerxthaere’ – described as a 3-dimensional parallel universe – a project so detailed and expansive, that the horizon is somewhat elastic. Somewhere in between his work and passion, he finds the time to tour the world engaging audiences with his philosophies on the importance of scale as the new geography, and humankind’s omnipresent global connectivity.
His chair of choice, the Herman Miller Eames Moulded Fibreglass Chair, is well known and loved. As Eames Demetrios explains, this chair is and always will be in a state of evolution. First made in wire mesh, then metal, then fiberglass with a rope edge, then polypropylene, the iconic chair is now available in a new environmentally friendly fibreglass material that allows it to have that original compressed fibre texture.
One quote from Charles Eames that resonates with Eames Demetrios is the idea of the “Guest/Host relationship – the role of the designer being that of a good host, anticipating the needs of the guest”. What a truly empathetic fundamental statement that is so relevant that it transcends time. Demetrios was so very generous with his time and his passion, we struggled to leave out any of the details. If you too have ever wondered “What were dreams like before movies?”, pondered the importance of design vs. style, or what’s upstairs at the Eames House, please read on.
SJP: I was so thrilled to visit the Eames House recently with a group of friends, and we all found the day to be really emotionally charged. I think it was because we were taken through the house by a member of your family.
ED: Did she have dark hair? That’s my sister Lucia.
SJP: I think it was that personal connection… That it was a family home…
ED: That’s what we want, that’s awesome!
SJP: I have to ask, because we couldn’t see it, what is upstairs at the Eames House?
ED: Upstairs is the master bedroom and the two bathrooms and wardrobe. There is a really cool guest room that was a sliding wall in the master bedroom, if they didn’t have anyone staying there then their room would just be bigger. We used to stay there when we were young, if all five kids came then we would stay in the studio. Right now, one of the reasons you couldn’t go up there is firstly, just wear and tear on the stairs and also, we are doing some work up there and most of the equipment that runs the sensors we are using need to feed into something up there so it’s a little inelegant for visitors!
SJP: Your sister told us some great stories of her memories of times in house, especially around Ray setting the table and creating special meals with all the different dishes. What are the lasting memories for you?
ED: I have a bunch of memories that centre around being there and photographing with Charles, spiderwebs out in the meadow, then there was also the Neutra House next door which had a swimming pool so we used to go swimming over there… I think all the kids have a strong series of memories around the way food was presented up there, picnics out on the patio and on the meadow. Breakfast was always very beautifully presented but not pretentiously so, just beautifully considered in a lovely way. I also remember Charles & Ray had this really cool telescope and we took it out and were able to see the rings of Saturn from the meadow.
SJP: There was a really beautiful sense of the family still really being part of that space which felt very special.
ED: It’s a family home, and it’s easy to forget that. What I find interesting about that house historically, is that it was important to a lot of people, relatively quickly. In the sense that Jorn Utzon stayed there on his way to Sydney. His son came by like 20 years ago and we started talking, he said “oh yeah my dad stayed here” and what was most striking about that fact was that in the mid 1950s an architect in Scandinavia knew he should go there. Where as now this would be on Architizer right away and we would see all these images and that would be great too, it’s just interesting that we think we have invented word of mouth…
SJP: The important things have always travelled quickly, and you’re right, it’s interesting that the house asserted it’s importance so quickly. So, you talked about taking photos and making films with Charles and that’s obviously part of your work today…
ED: Charles and I always had a special connection, with film making especially. We were both very excited that the summer after my senior year in high school I was going to work in the office, but he died the summer before. So my older sisters, Lucia (who you met) and Carla got to work at the office for a summer and that is something I could never do. On the other hand I learned a lot by running the office for so long that it’s been a different kind of apprenticeship.
SJP: Can you tell us a bit about The Eames Office today?
ED: Our mission statement is about communicating, preserving & extending Charles & Ray’s work. One of the interesting things about that is you take something like the house, and even though people probably don’t know how much work it is, they have some idea of what conservation means there. In the case of the chairs conservation is a little different because what’s interesting about the Eames chairs that Charles and Ray were designing, is the chair that Herman Miller makes tomorrow. In other words, multiplicity was always part of it, this idea that you can keep making authentic objects. So that has a whole set of challenges so different than when, say an artist or a painter dies and there are no more paintings. I think a lot of people bring that fine art ‘idea of authenticity’ to design when actually there is something else. I think it has to do with the fact that multiplicity was inherent in their designs from the beginning. Whereas when you look at a painting, say a Jackson Pollock, you’re standing where he was in relation to the canvas, and there is only that one.
Charles and Ray were so forward-looking that to not do something new is also not being true to them. So, what can you do that is new and true to them? We decided that education is the key. We can do new things in education that communicate their spirit and their values. We do a lot of work about the ‘Powers of 10’ (see below) which is the film I showed here at the film festival and also on youtube. Lots of people have seen it and don’t know it’s an Eames film. The work we do is centred around the idea that scale is the new geography and if you don’t understand scale in this day and age it’s a form of illiteracy so we try to help people know that a map is important, know that a timeline is important.
SJP: Tell us about your work with ‘Kcymaerxthaere’
ED: It’s a global work of multi-dimensional story telling. It’s almost like a novel where each page is in a different place. The idea is that I’ve created this parallel world and I go around and install markers in historic sites that honour events in the fictional world in our world. The thing about reading in particular, is that when you read something you see the horses on the beach or what that text is, reading from your mind’s eye. But what is really weird is that if you put a camera in your eye you would see letter’s on a page, so what you are seeing is not what you are seeing. I wanted to use that aspect of how our minds work to create an interesting way to tell a story which is related to, but disconnects to our world. We have 99 sites in 22 countries right now, and a lot more work to do.
One of the things I thought a lot about is how we visualise things. One of the facts of movies today is that now you can see everything. There are instances, like in horror movies, where what is not seen is very effective, but at the end of the day you are seeing what the story is. This got me thinking, wondering, what were dreams like before movies? Maybe we just didn’t have the words “it felt like a movie” to describe what dreams were back then. So maybe they haven’t changed, but maybe they have changed. If you take a Madonna and child painting from anywhere in the world, Russia, Mexico, Kenya, Italy in the Renaissance, they all look different but they also look the same. Nobody got a PDF that had the guidelines, but they all tell the same story. The idea is so powerful that when they render it, they render the same thing.
I thought that it would be cool to do something similar with my stories. So, we created something called “disputed likenesses” which we workshopped at Vivid Festival at the MCA where I told stories and gave out postcards that were blank on one side, and on the other the text of the marker we installed in Australia. We asked people to draw what they think the story looked like then this gets mailed to the people who did the last workshop. Then, when I do the next workshop, those will be sent back to Australia which builds of this idea of the disputed likeness. One of the most impressive groups I did this with was a group of artisans in Namibia, who embroidered their vision.
SJP: Architecture and design are a part of your DNA. If by some twist of fate you were born to another family, what alternate history or future could you imagine for yourself?
ED: Let’s put it this way, I have always been filmmaking and always been interested in story-telling, so maybe I would have done Kcymaerxthaere a little earlier, or other films. One of the things that makes this probably a little unexpected for me, is that I really had no plan to take care of the office. I was never raised to take over the family business. It was really something that came from me, when I made a film about The Office. After Ray died, I documented the studio and realised that if one of us didn’t pay attention, things we cared about would go away. The process of making the film, actually made me look more closely at my heritage and my legacy and I realised that my mum couldn’t do it on her own. I had this intuition that it could work. Things were pretty difficult for a while there but I think the work was always good and was beautiful, it just needed to be shared communciated and protected.
I now feel like I have two full-time jobs. One is taking care of The Office, and the other is my parallel universe project, which in a way is an extension of the film making I used to do. I say used to do, while I still make films, everything I do now is either animated or mostly documentary type things. The fiction work I used to do is now channelled through the Kcymaerxthaere experience. So I feel like I am in that parallel universe already.
SJP: Charles and Ray’s work is so iconic, what do you think is the essence of that?
ED: They believed in something they called the Guest/Host relationship, the idea that was best expressed by Charles when he said that the role of the designer is basically that of a good host, always anticipating the needs of the guest. What’s really important about that quote for me is that they meant it literally, they really lived it. Therefore, when you sit in their chair, you are their guest and that has consequences. For one thing, there needs to be ways to keep making them if they want you to be their guest 20-30 years after Charles died. So, we have to create a system and have someone who is fighting for the design. You have to make sure all the forces of mass production are making the design better. You have to think about the warmth of it, you are literally their guest.
Another thing that Charles said was, “how do you design a chair for use by another person?” He said that, “you design it for yourself, but the trick is you design it for the universal part of yourself”. It’s not the place where we are different, because that is usually on the surface. We have a lot more in common with each other’s people than we do with a cow or a stone yet all we talk about it difference… we have so many more things in common. Those things are what he and Ray respected when they designed these chairs.
Ray once said, “what works good is better than what’s looks good because looks good can change, but what works good will always work good”. Another way of saying that, it that the extent to which you have a design style is the extent to which you’ve not solved the design problem. For me that has a lot of resonance for many ways, but one of the interesting things I find when I travel and talk about the Eames’ work is that the guest/host relationship is universal, every culture has it. It’s human nature. All those factors are really literally expressed in their designs.
When I travel, one of the things I realised I have to do is when I speak in a country where my words are going to be translated, is first talk to the translator to be sure that when I say the word ‘design’ and the word ‘style’, that they translate them with different words. All around the world we use those words interchangeably. In general, design has allowed itself to be defined primarily visually.
I’m sure you’ve had this experience where a friend of yours says, “I just bought this designer coffeemaker. It didn’t work. It was too design-y. You’re a designer. Right? Well, it was too design-y”. If it didn’t work, in fact it wasn’t design-y enough. Again, this shows how the perception of design has been this almost elite thing as opposed to something that people have been doing for millennia.
One of the things Charles and Ray did is that when they designed their furniture they did a lot of iterations of the designs. And so, that sounds very ‘designery’ but actually they would have argued that was just how it happened. If you had a chair 500 years ago in a little village and it was not your favourite you probably couldn’t have afforded to throw it away. But, when it did finally break you would say to your dad or whoever made it, “Did you notice how it was always rocking like that, can you do something about that?” And over time someone else might say, “why did we make that chair out of that wood that we don’t have around here, let’s use a local wood”. And that’s how all these things develop over time where they become these distinctive styles or approaches for any given village or country. And so, what Charles and Ray wanted was to accelerate that process by doing iteration after iteration. Even after the chairs went into production they would change them, they would make them better. Sometimes collectors fettishise the early models (which is totally ok because its interesting to see how they developed), but those aren’t any more authentic than the ones that are made today. For example, the first one of these chairs had a rope edge, and the reason they had to was because they couldn’t make the edge soft enough and it was actually kind of sharp. This was only the first 2000 chairs. So these are a premium. We don’t do the rope edge today, they are no more authentic, it was just a journey they were on. This is why turning these into eco-friendly fibreglass after 15 years of not making them is amazing.
SJ: Can you tell me about the chair, while you’re sitting in it?
ED: These are one of the few forms they designed and explored in different media. The wire chair is the same shell, they did it in plastic, in reinforced fibreglass, and a version in metal (which never went into production). They were exploring this form and it was too bad that we had to discontinue it in fibreglass for ecological reasons. About 4 years ago the folks at Herman Miller heard about a material that was being used in the automotive industry but in a way that was not visible to the public. So one of the big challenges was making this be able to be seen in beautiful colours that would be consistent and make sure that the fibreglass fibres would be surfaced in the right way.
SJ: Because the way that they are still visible is a really big part of the patina of the chair.
ED: Exactly. Where as when it was used in the automotive industry nobody cared, so it didn’t matter. And what was interesting was that this also really proved to me something that Charles used to say, that we used to talk about, which was this idea that aesthetics can be a part of function. This whole ‘either/or’ thing… Form and function are both important. Part of the problem with this whole ‘design/style’ thing is that we compartmentalise the two as opposed to realising that they are both of value. So for example, it would be less functional (as you know as an interior designer), that if all the oranges [of the chair] were a little bit different, then that is one look. But you would probably want to achieve that look by actually using totally different chairs. If you had a bunch of different variations sitting around a table but they are all the same chair you would sort of be, like, why? And that would interfere with its functionality in a lot of its applications. In terms of its look, we wanted that to be consistent so there was a lot of work that went into calibrating this to be exactly right. In the end it was worth it.
Yet, we still continue the polypropylene version because there was another dimension that Charles and Ray explored which was trying to make it a more uniform surface completely to the touch. So for people who really want that same ‘object same object same object’, as people do from say, the Aluminium Group chair, then the polypropylene is perfect for that. What’s interesting is that different colours work better on that than this [fibreglass] material. People think that it’s all plastic or it’s all ‘this’, what’s the big difference? There is so many ways to really master the achievement of a different experience. Even with the polypropylene, Charles & Ray experimented with something very close to that in the 70s. So the point is that they had designed one of the most successful chairs of all time and they were still trying to make it better even 30 years later.
SJ: What I find really interesting as a designer, is that the colour palette has remained current for this long? There hasn’t been a time when this palette wasn’t relevant.
ED: I totally agree. There are some old colours we may bring back and we are not against doing some new colours but what’s amazing is that pretty much every colour that people say “oh you know, you should do that”, we say “well we can, but we are re-issuing”. They don’t realise that when the Aluminium Group chair came out, we brought it out in mesh. We got a lot of grief from certain self proclaimed experts, saying how dare you do it in mesh and violate their vision. What they didn’t realise was that the first version of that chair was in mesh, the indoor/outdoor version that is at the Herman Miller house. The question should be “is it working, is it good?”
There are still ways we are discovering what Charles and Ray did that are so ahead of their time. That makes it a great collection to work with.
Credits: Photography by Ben Pyke