Eames Archives: Bread Smells

Sample Lesson was a lecture series hosted by the University of Georgia’s Department of Fine Arts in January 1953. The department wished to develop a new educational direction for teaching its undergraduate students. Dean Lamar Dodd initially hired George Nelson as a consultant, and Nelson thought it would be best to have the additional input of Charles Eames. Edgar Kaufmann Jr., MoMA’s curator of industrial design, served as a consultant for the lectures, and designer Alexander Girard aided in preparing the presentations. The Rockefeller Foundation provided funding. The goals for Sample Lesson were stated by Charles as: “the breaking down of barriers between fields of learning…making people a little more intuitive…increasing communication between people and things.” 

How did Charles Eames (with the enormous work and support of Ray and the Eames Office staff) attempt to remove these intangible barriers and make the students behave more intuitively? A solution was a 6-minute 30-second film slideshow, shot in color on 16mm, titled Bread. Yes—Charles Eames attempted to explain education to a lecture hall filled with professors and faculty members by creating a short movie about bread! The film was unnarrated, yet it sufficiently told a story with images and live-action scenes with bread of different shapes, textures, and purposes. Without speech or text, the Eameses taught the audience—in Charles’s words—“the way bread is used in nutrition, bread as an art, bread as a political tool, bread as a symbol.” At the surface level, Charles was educating the audience about bread; the real message was that an influx of paired photographs and videos could be just as effective (or perhaps more effective) in teaching a subject than standard educational practices.

After its proven success in Georgia, the series traveled to UCLA in June. In a letter from Charles to Girard dated May 15, 1953, Charles noted that Betty Cabin (the Dean’s assistant) was to send “bread smells.” He confided in Girard that he hoped there were enough smells and asked him if he was busy organizing the remainder of the “smell stuff.” The UCLA screening of Bread had an additional element: various bread-related scents traveled through the air ducts of the lecture hall. As the faculty continued to view vignettes of bread, the smell of yeast transitioned into the familiar aroma of baked loaves. The Eameses took the educational value of multimedia presentations one step further by engaging the audience’s sense of smell.

George Nelson claimed that Sample Lesson, “produced both confusion and enlightenment, generated enthusiasm and hostility.” Overall, these presentations fulfilled the objective of “increasing communication” in their intended audience, and also internally taught the Eames Office new methods of communicating. Bread was the Eames Office’s first attempt at stating an idea through the use of photographs in the form of a multiple-slide presentation. Charles, Ray, and the Office staff quickly adopted this type of multimedia presentation as the basis for which they developed numerous future projects.

Read the introduction to the Eames Archives: An Image as an Idea series here, and stay tuned for monthly installments.