Education as a Found Object Posted July 20, 2020 by Daniel Ostroff

Charles and Ray Eames often talked about “found education,” which they defined as “education that is come upon, not prescribed.” And they didn’t just talk about it, they applied “found” lessons in some very surprising and delightful ways.

We will examine a very surprising application of “found education” in the IBM Pavilion at the 1964-65 New York Worlds Fair in this blog. But first, let’s review Charles’s “Education as a Found Object” May 1977 lecture at the Smithsonian Museum. There he declared:

“First, that there is an urgent national need, not for more teaching but for more ‘found education.’

Second, that more emphasis on ‘found education’—on learning rather than on being taught—would mean a shift of opportunity towards our Institutions-Not-Committed-to-Teaching – whose business is to leave good things around to be found.

Third, that this would also mean an erosion of the barrier between ‘recreational’ and ‘educational’—an erosion, which has already begun.

 And fourth, that these changes would also mean a sharp increase in demand for the skills involved in putting together cogent models (higher demands than either ‘educational’ or ‘recreational’ programs make as long as they stay apart).

 Like a good collection of found objects, it isn’t come upon casually, by any means—not without effort, and even sacrifice. It’s sought after, piece by piece, and probably through a lifetime.”

One example of “found learning” in Eames work is their experience with plywood molding during World War II. Their first industrially produced product was the  Eames leg splint, which was completed in 1942. This, their earliest work with molding plywood resulted in “found learning” which they later applied to develop the very popular Eames Molded Plywood Chair in 1945.

The surprising application of found learning was one of the many unusual aspects of the 1964-1965 IBM “Information Machine” movie experience they designed for IBM at the New York Worlds Fair. The centerpiece of this was a ten-minute film “Think” presented to the audience on 15 screens arrayed inside an egg-shaped theater.

By 1964, when they made “Think,” Charles and Ray Eames were old hands at multiple-screen movies. Their learning about how to do multiscreen productions was “found” by doing. First, they wowed visitors to American Exhibition in Moscow in 1959 with “Glimpses of the U.S.A.,” a seven-screen show, each screen 30 feet across and suspended in a tight array inside a geodesic dome. Audiences for “Glimpses of the U.S.A.” stood on the floor of the geodesic dome and watched that show while standing on their feet. Then in 1962, for the United States Science Exhibit at the Seattle Worlds Fair, Charles and Ray made a six-screen movie entitled “The House of Science.” At the U.S. Science Pavilion, the audiences sat on the floor for the ten-minute long film.

The audiences for “Think” first walked up a complex of catwalks to a 45-degree tilted grandstand, where they could sit on comfortable cushions. Charles and Ray named this grandstand “The People Wall.”

Once the grandstand seats were filled—and here comes the surprise—a Master of Ceremonies, dressed like a magician in black tie and tails, came gliding down on a tiny platform suspended from a telescoping pole.

He welcomed the audience and promised them that they would soon learn in a delightful way that computers can be used in daily life to solve problems. A minute later, the M.C. ascended upwards and the entire People Wall moved hydraulically 53 feet up into the main theater, an egg-shaped venue 115 feet long, 89 feet deep and 58 feet from its base to the top. Inside this “egg” the M.C. continued to engage with the audience, calling their attention to a movie that was displayed on 15 screens of various shapes and sizes.

One wonders: wouldn’t it have been spectacular enough to simply whisk the grandstand “People Wall” into the theater, with its delightful array of 15 screens on which a fast-moving and witty movie was presented? It would have been, were it not for “found education.” The presence of a live host with this, the third Eames multi-screen movie, was predicated on “found learning.”

Charles and Ray seemed to have gotten the idea to include a live host at “Think,” their third multi-screen show, from an experience Charles had at their second multi-screen show.  In late 1962, after “The House of Science” opened, Charles traveled to Seattle to watch the film with an audience. Before the audience filed into the room to see the film presentation, an exhibition attendant told the audience that “the producer” was in the audience. Charles described the audience reaction in a letter to Serge Bouterline, an audience engagement expert who had worked with the Eameses in Seattle: “The crowd reacted entirely differently. Seemed to be drawing more from the film—laughed and responded on cue, and applauded loudly at the end. This was repeated on four occasions and the results were identical. I believe it is of more significance than a show of deference to the ‘creator’—in some way it woke them up and they were forced to pay attention.”

Wanting to incorporate this phenomenon in the “Think” experience, Charles and Ray added the tuxedo-clad host. The entrance of the host, a Master of Ceremonies, was dramatic, and this combined with his tuxedo gave the entire show the feeling of a magic act.

The audiences were surprised and delighted by his entrance because he was brought in through a trap door in the back of the theatre egg.  From there, seemingly out of nowhere, he ascended down to the audience level on the tiny round platform.

Schematic of the egg, showing the M.C.’s perch highlighted in red.

After his introduction and initial audience engagement, he whisked up and away into the theater, and then the audience followed on the smoothly rising People Wall.

Here you see him on the inside, positioned on his own perch amidst the screens where he introduced each section of the film.

Esquire magazine reviewed “The Information Machine” in very positive terms, especially relative to the other pavilions are the fair, in an article headlined, “The Thinking Man’s Exhibit. “And there will be at least one genuinely distinguished exhibit at the fair…the IBM Pavilion, a 54,039 square-foot display dominated by an enormous ninety-foot high egg nesting in a sprawling grove of steel trees. The egg is probably the most unusual theater ever designed.” And most unusual of all, thanks to “found education,” the movie-goers are welcomed by a live M.C. who “who woke them up.”  The following drawing was published in the July 1964 Popular Science magazine, who also gave the “Eames show” a very positive review.

Charles’s speech, “Education as a Found Object,” can be found in its entirety in An Eames Anthology.