The Eames House was assembled in Los Angeles in 1949, almost like a kit of parts, combining off-the-shelf steel elements with panels of glass, metal, stucco and other materials, some in primary colors. The husband-and-wife team Charles and Ray Eames — titans of modern design who were becoming known for their innovative furniture, as well as their contributions to architecture, film and industrial and graphic design — created it as a home for themselves, in a eucalyptus grove in Pacific Palisades.
But it was also known as Case Study House No. 8, because it was commissioned by Arts & Architecture magazine as part of a program challenging architects to design progressive but modest homes in Southern California that demonstrated what life could be like in the modern age.
The Eameses lived in the house until their deaths (his in 1978 and hers 10 years to the day later), and furnished it in a way that mirrored their energetic personalities and curiosity about the world. Strikingly, the 17-foot-high living room was not a hard-edged example of modern design, but a comfortable lived-in place, rich in cultural artifacts and artful clutter.
The house is now maintained by the Eames Foundation, set up by Lucia Eames, Mr. Eames’s daughter from his first marriage, and her children. While the family still uses it occasionally, it has survived as a kind of time capsule that shows how the Eameses lived.
But temporarily, for the first time since 1949, the living room is empty, its abundant contents — all 1,869 items — meticulously cataloged and transferred to a replica of the room installed at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art as part of a show called “California Design, 1930-1965: Living in a Modern Way,” which runs through March 25.
Two of the Eameses’ grandchildren, foundation board members Lucia Dewey Atwood, 55, and Eames Demetrios, 49, recently talked about the living room and their memories of spending time there with Charles and Ray.
How does it feel to see the entire contents of your grandparents’ living room reassembled somewhere else?
Eames: It’s very cool, but it’s also very surreal to come around a corner and see one of the living rooms I grew up in — in the middle of a museum.
Lucia: I felt a little bit of vertigo. It was really weird because it felt like a very familiar space but completely out of context. Though what I enjoyed was the sense of warmth.
Have you ever lent out the contents of the house before?
Lucia: We have not lent out any of the objects that would be visible to a visitor at the Eames House, since our goal is to maintain the authenticity of the visitor experience.
So what convinced you to lend everything in the living room to the museum now?
Eames: It’s funny, but our mom has always said, “Wouldn’t it be an interesting experiment just to empty out the living room so we could see it the way it was when Charles and Ray moved in?” We wouldn’t have done it just as a thought experiment. But when we realized we’d be able to do some important restoration work on the house, it was a great opportunity. For one thing, the floor was starting to wear out.
Lucia: It contained asbestos, so it was necessary to get rid of it while it was still in a safe condition. We’re in the process of looking at flooring substitutes. It’s very difficult because of the wonderful texture, the flecks, that asbestos gave. There are also concerns about the sound and the feel — it’s not just the physical look of it.
How did the actual move go?
Lucia: It was terrifying, because many of these objects are so old.
Eames: Besides being emotional, it was an incredible logistical challenge. There were two teams, including conservators, working simultaneously with a representative from the foundation. The process took a week, just to pack up the living room. Then, about 1,500 items had to go into a freezer for five days to kill any possible insect infestations. Thank goodness, there were none.
Is there pressure to finish the restoration before the show closes?
Lucia: It will be an enormous success if we are able to replace the flooring, and if we’re able to analyze the house to assess its needs and condition.
Eames: But to raise the money to restore the house is a big deal. We’re doing some cool fund-raising events.
Eames: Charles and Ray did a Japanese tea ceremony with Charlie Chaplin and Isamu Noguchi, so we’re going to recreate that. On Oct. 15, we’re going to have a fund-raiser where you’ll be able to walk through the empty living room for the first time. And there will be a Christmas event on Ray’s birthday.
Many of the objects in the room seem to have stories behind them. For instance, what is that dried tumbleweed hanging from the ceiling?
Eames: That tumbleweed is not just any tumbleweed. It was very special to Charles and Ray. When they were married in Chicago, in June 1941, they were pretty much broke. And when you’re broke like that, your idea of a honeymoon is a road trip to California to start a new life. It may sound unromantic, but actually I think it was incredibly romantic.
They came out here because they were trying to figure out how to produce molded plywood in compound curves, to solve the problems of their earlier chairs. Somewhere in the Southwest, probably near Canyon de Chelly, they found this tumbleweed and tossed it in the back of the car — a beautiful, beautiful tumbleweed. You can see that in silhouette photographs they took of it, and it showed up in some of their Herman Miller showroom installations.
They hung it from the ceiling, attached by a string, spinning in the light. We always loved it as kids. It was incredibly hypnotic. It eventually got brittle and smaller. And the museum people thought it was way too fragile to move (they found their own).
But that reminded me of how our mom has always said, “When it’s finally just a piece of string attached to the tiniest bare nub, it will be our responsibility — our generation’s — to go out into the desert and find just the right tumbleweed and hang it from this ceiling.”
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