Design Philosophy

Posted October 8, 2013

Selections from an interview with Phylis and Philip Morrison about the life and work of Charles and Ray Eames.

Philip Morrison was a professor emeritus in astrophysics at MIT and the Book Editor of Scientific American magazine. Phylis was a longtime teacher of children and their teachers. Philip and Phylis Morrison were close friends and collaborators with the Eameses. The most familiar connection may be that Philip Morrison narrated the 1977 version of Powers of Ten (which forms the basis of the Scale is the New Geography education system), but their work together began over a decade earlier when the Morrisons were part of the Commission on College Physics, which commissioned the Eames Office to help improve the teaching of physics. They worked closely with Charles and Ray on many other projects as well. After Charles’s death, the Morrisons and Ray wrote the book transformation (now a collector’s item) of the second Powers of Ten, which bears the same title.

Eames Demetrios conducted this interview with Philip and Phylis Morrison as part of the Charles and Ray Eames Video Oral History Project, an ongoing project of the Eames Office. The interview took place in the sunroom of the Morrison’s home in Cambridge, Massachusetts on 16 March 1992. Interview ©1996 Lucia Eames dba Eames Office (created for the Charles and Ray Eames Video Oral History Project)

At this point, the discussion focused on how it is that Charles and Ray produced the singularly consistent and personal vision that is the work of the Eames Office, especially given the wide variety of work completed by the Office and the number of people working for them at various points in times.

Q: [I’m trying to get at the issue of the consistent voice in the work of the Office of Charles and Ray Eames] So is it…would you say it’s right to refer to [the work] as Charles and Ray Eames’s pieces even though they’re…somebody else may be [doing specific aspects of it . . .]

Philip Morrison: Well, I think they had exactly the right name. Why do you dodge it? I would say “These are the pieces of the Office of Charles and Ray Eames.” And that’s what it is. It was a wonderful place. It was like the, I think, as Phylis began by saying, long ago: It’s like the things you read about in Vasari’s The Lives of the Painters. It was an atelier. In the midst of a very thriving, vigorous world, with all kinds of things going on, here’s a group of people, a shifting group, but there is a center and a style and it all follows that. It isn’t a very limiting one, but it does prevent individual departures that are very far from the main stem. And my position was very nice: I was a physicist and I wasn’t making movies and I could do whatever and I was just…I thought it was a wonderful opportunity to have some role in doing this kind of thing and I was delighted. But if you weren’t that and if you were working there all the time and doing just what was done there, I could see the people that were more senior would feel that maybe they should be given a chance to run a film themselves or to do a show. They were not finally given that chance. It couldn’t be done.

Q: How do you think that–and I know it’s hard, I mean, I’m just trying to find the answers to these things so I am sorry to torture you, in some ways, but I need to do it and you can, you know, it’s just the way it goes.

Philip Morrison: Well, try.

Q: The question, I would say, is: What do you think was the means of making it all speak with one voice with all these different hands? How do you think that Charles and Ray…

Philip Morrison: Oh, I think it’s because, as Phylis says, they worked very much harder than the bosses of any place that is creative, that I know, work. Even in television producer…[executive producers that we know are wonderful, devoted people but they just do] not understand every word or understand every shot and go to every place and do all those things the way Charles and Ray did about everything. And you just couldn’t get away from them. They were there, and it wasn’t this “come in every week and give a report”–you had to do it. And they knew what they wanted, and they knew what was right, and I think they convinced everyone and persuaded them and I don’t think there was a bunch of argument about it.

Phylis Morrison: I see many things in the work where there is something of Phil in it, where there is something of myself in it–but I see Jehane’s phrase, and I see Jeannine’s idea, and I see Dick Donges’ hand, and I see Alex’s attention, and that is what makes these things.

Philip Morrison: Yes, they all have to be there, But–I suppose I don’t know this, I am just fishing out of the…out of the little knowledge, but a sense of intuition–probably Chaplin has the same story. I mean, when he made a film, he made all parts of it. He looked through the camera; he wrote the songs; he wrote the story; he found the actresses. He did all those things, right? And then he had directors and cameramen and everything else–he had to, he couldn’t do it by himself–but he was really part of the whole thing and it comes out that way…you know, those films are remarkable.

Q: In this documentary…if there were a documentary made out of all this stuff, what would be some of the important things that people would need to understand about Charles and Ray, at the end of it all?

Philip Morrison: Well, I think that quoting him is probably the best thing to do. I don’t know that I can find the right quotes, but I mean, they really loved the world and how it looked and they tried to understand why it looked that way and what it meant for people and what it meant to see beauty and to see form and to see the absence of those things and everything else and they just went around the world doing that for people–in buildings, and in text, and in film…

Phylis Morrison: And understanding grows out of it.

Philip Morrison: That’s right, understanding grows out of experience. Experience and understanding have to go together. I keep quoting that. I guess I didn’t…I knew the quotation, but I never told it to Charles. I didn’t catch onto it that way. The famous quotation which is the first line of Niels Bohr’s first book on philosophy–the philosophy of physics–says science has two goals: one is to order the world, and the second is to extend experience. Now all the people writing the history of science and the philosophy of science will say that science’s task is to order the world–that is not true, that’s what philosophy’s task is. And the difference is: science can extend experience, just as art can, but in a somewhat different way. And that extension is an essential part of the whole game and if you forget that you are in trouble. And in some way that is what Charles and Ray did; they were always extending experience by bringing things together, by looking at them closely and all, see them and so on…in those ways. They were not just trying to make abstract order out of things nor were they trying to make, just, experience without explanation, without order in them. And to some extent, they bridged the gap between science and art and that’s why I think their stuff is so splendid, especially the films, but also to some degree in design as a whole.

Phylis Morrison: Exhibits even more than films, for me.

Philip Morrison: Yes, exhibits more than films. Yes, but… toys and furniture, too, the same… it’s really the same thing everywhere.

Phylis Morrison: There is the word “inform.” And it says that the thing which brings the understanding comes from inside the structure of things. I think this is what Charles knew and brought out and into the light again and again.

Philip Morrison: Yeah. I think that’s very nicely put. But the way he did that for me was that he first had to grasp it himself to a degree–and then he could go ahead and make something out of it. He worried at it, he teased at it, he struggled at it…

Phylis Morrison: He played with it,

Philip Morrison: He played with it, he made jokes, he challenged it–all those things, until he was finally…and then you…it’s a little thing which happened and you would see and then you’d made some point and that would be it and that would show up in the final thing in a good, helpful way, not before that, and that’s what almost nobody in that kind of business does.

Q: How about…what…if you could paint a picture–I mean a picture in words–of Charles and Ray together, how would you do it for their relationship? A daunting task I know, but as people who saw it…

Philip Morrison: Oh, I remember many occasions, sort of, in the house, and in the studio, where they would be working together on something…around some issue which was outside of them, and they were both regarding it in the same way and trying to make…mold it, put it in place, put this brick in place somehow in the still uncertain edifice that was being constructed. That’s the image that I have all the time. And it goes in all these places. I don’t know if it is visual in any way, but it’s a human relationship. The shared task of making something which is both new and conforming, that’s the thing…like fitting… making a brick in the wall, that’s the thing. I guess adding a piece of paint to a painting, it’s the same thing. It has to be new; it wasn’t there before…it’s no good, no use. But it can’t be foreign to what’s there now. And that, that’s a double thing that is not easy to achieve. That’s what it was all the time. But not just on paint, or not just on a curve, but on everything: words, music, image, idea, need, everything. And that’s the design element that they are talking about. Anything narrower is not right.

Q: That’s beautiful. Is there anything I should ask you that I haven’t asked you?

Philip Morrison: If I could…wish I could remember . . .

Phylis Morrison: The damn thing is so ineffable. It was so rich, it had so many facets, it was so easy because by the time we actually got together there were so many thousands of pieces of subject matter which had been brought in…into the context, and so the context was glorious.

Philip Morrison: They were sitting there in the studio. That was the wonderful part of it–in the office.

Phylis Morrison: Yeah, yeah, But they also were within us.

Philip Morrison: I understand, but that was the great…You could just tell by looking…walking into the studio, you can tell–as you have done–it’s a place that’s very hard to duplicate. That’s what the essence of it is. Anybody who duplicates that in some way will have a similar kind of control. But I don’t know of anyone who does that. There are lots of people who have… The BBC has plenty of widgets on shelves, but nobody understands what they are, because the person who put them there, maybe he understood that one, but he didn’t understand all the others. There are plenty of people who understand wonderful things but they don’t have…they haven’t got the pieces together and haven’t made the imagery and tried to surround it and make them visual. But Ray and Charles did those things and that’s a unique phenomenon, or pretty close to it.

Phylis Morrison: On top of it all, of course, it made itself into a hard but mighty good way of living;

Philip Morrison: [Agreement]

Phylis Morrison: and, that is what Charles was really making

Philip Morrison: That’s right

Phylis Morrison: and that is what Ray was really making.

Philip Morrison: That’s right.

Phylis Morrison: and that is what they were making together.

Philip Morrison: They were building a life together. Yes.



Q: All right. Thank you both.

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