Five Decades in Five Weeks, 1970s

It is easy to assume that projects and recognition happen by a stroke of genius or without many iterations. Charles Eames, when asked if he designed a chair in a flash, responded with, “Yes, it was a flash of inspiration…a kind of thirty-year flash.”

In the coming five weeks, we’re highlighting five important Eames Office accomplishments for each of the five decades of Charles and Ray’s oeuvre. We hope that this allows you to further grasp the timeline for their contributions and their ability to simultaneously balance architecture, furniture, films, photography, lectures, exhibitions, and a duty toward sustaining a design-centric, playful livelihood.

1)  The Norton Lectures

The 1970’s brought the Eameses additional opportunities to connect to the masses, conveying their ideas through the media of film, lectures, and exhibitions. In the first year of the decade, Harvard University selected Charles Eames to participate in the Charles Eliot Norton Professorship of Poetry, which is a six-part lecture series (more affectionate known as the Norton Lectures) given by a prominent contributor to the fine arts.

The lectures given by Charles highlighted the Eamesian belief of the Guest-Host Relationship: “The role of the architect, or the designer, is that of a very good, thoughtful host, all of whose energy goes into trying to anticipate the needs of his guests.” Multiple images were projected onto a screen behind Charles as he spoke of discipline, connections and constraints, and finding value in the ordinary objects and moments of one’s daily existence. Years later, Ray compiled the visuals and audio of one of Charles’s six Norton Lectures to create the film Goods

2)  Polaroid SX-70

After the success of corporate partnerships, such as Mathematica and the World’s Fair pavilion for IBM, the Eameses continued to collaborate with larger identities to further their ideas. 

Polaroid approached the Eames Office in 1972 with its newest invention: the Polaroid SX-70 instant film camera. Charles and Ray were invited to conceive of a short film introducing the technology to Polaroid’s stockholders; the film was so well-received by the corporation that they decided to distribute it as a marketing tool.

SX-70 combines functionality and aesthetics in an Eamesian fashion, demonstrating the science and mathematics behind the camera’s structure, alongside vignettes of the camera being used to document landscapes, people, and intentionally-arranged objects. 

3)  The World of Franklin and Jefferson

For five years, the majority of the Eames Office’s efforts focused on an international museum exhibition titled The World of Franklin and Jefferson. This bicentennial celebration explored the two men’s lives through images, physical ephemera, and approximately 40,000 words of text. Charles described Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson as “good learners in the sense of hands-on experience…who tended to act as if they owned the place, which made for a real continuity between their life and work.”

Charles and Ray aimed to inspire visitors to live more intentionally by demonstrating how Franklin and Jefferson used their resources and met the demands of their circumstances. The extensive display opened in Paris in January of 1975, continued to seven locations in five countries, and concluded in Mexico City in June of 1977. Some American reviewers turned a critical eye on the show, unsure of the connection between art and the nation’s founding fathers, but the exhibition was given high praise in other countries around the world.

4) Powers of Ten

Expanding upon a 1968 “rough sketch” film devoted to the relative scale of things in the universe, Charles and Ray began rethinking universal size and what it meant to add a zero to a number.

The Eames Office made Powers of Ten in 1977 for their client, IBM, and incorporated several ideas from their previous decades of work. The film’s initial frame begins with a man and woman enjoying a picnic on a lawn near a lake in Chicago. It expands upward at a rate of 10x meters per second into the depths of cosmic space, then zooms back inward toward the couple on the blanket, entering the man’s hand with the same pace at the molecular level.

Charles once expressed that his and Ray’s films “are not really films at all, just ways to get across an idea.” Powers of Ten illustrates, with scientific and mathematica concepts, the humanistic idea that a fundamental connection exists between everything from the atoms in our hands to the stars we rest beneath at night. 

5) The Art Game

The final project the Eames Office took on before Charles’s passing in 1978 was The Art Game, an achievement in the new technological realm of interactive design. The project remained a secret, as they created it for corporate research purposes at IBM, and it didn’t exceed the design and prototype stages. Charles and Ray planned to format the game for the newly-released laserdisc with the objective of teaching the user two things: art history and the nature of computerized feedback systems. An Eames Office staff member commented that the interactive game was intended to “develop skills of visual recognition that might still be applied profitably to other areas of image recognition.”

Discover more about Charles and Ray’s work throughout the decades in the other installments of this series from the 1940s, 1950s1960s, and 1980s