Norton Lectures

Posted March 31, 2014

Charles Eames was one of many distinguished people in the arts to participate in Harvard University’s ongoing series called the Charles Eliot Norton Professorship of Poetry.

The Charles Eliot Norton Professorship of Poetry at Harvard University was established in 1925 as an annual lectureship in “poetry in the broadest sense” and named for the university’s former professor of fine arts, Charles Eliot Norton. Distinguished creative figures and scholars in the arts, including painting, architecture, and music, customarily deliver six lectures. The lectures are usually dated by the academic year in which they are given, though sometimes by the calendar year alone.

At the end of February 1921, Charles Eames’s father succumbed to his wounds from the shootout in Virginia. The emotional impact of his father’s death must have been profound, but he rarely talked about this time in any detail. Fifty years later, in giving what he called an “autobiography of situation” during his Norton Lectures at Harvard, he recalled, “my father died and the instruction reading paid off when I got to be browsing into boxes of photographic chemicals, plates, a Corona four- or five-by-seven with a rapid rectilinear lens, and everything . . . and soon I was. . . mixing emulsions and photographing on wet plates. I did it for a year before I discovered that Eastman had already invented film and this wasn’t necessary. . . . This led to a sort of sequence of events, that completely spared me from adolescence. I don’t know whether it’s a good thing or a bad. I wouldn’t want to risk it myself.”

As he speaks of his father’s death, there is no glibness or apparent suppressed emotion, but rather the precision of acknowledging a milestone too important to ignore but too private to discuss. Instead, the audience was left with a tantalizing connection, that this time of sadness had led to photography—a tool that would be one key to the rest of his life and work.

From time to time, Charles was asked why the Saarinen Office won so many competitions. What’s their secret? Charles was always a bit unimpressed by quick fixes, but he also had a habit of taking even the most annoying question matter-of-factly. This is how he addressed this question at the Norton Lectures:

“This is the trick. I give it to you; you can use it. [The Saarinen Office] looked at the program and divided it in all the essential element—which turned out to be about 30 some odd elements—and we proceeded methodically to make 100 studies of each element. And making, at the end of the time, 100 studies, we tried to get the solution for that particular element that suited the thing best, and then set that up as a standard below which we would not fall in the final scheme. Then we proceeded to break down all logical combinations of these elements . . . and this turned out to be quite a few. And we made 100 studies of all combinations of these elements, try[ing] to not erode the quality that we had gained in the best of the 100 of the single element. And took these elements, and began to then to search for the logical combinations of the combinations.”

There were several more stages before they even considered a plan. Then there was: “study after study after study and on into the other aspects of the detail of the presentation. It went on—it was sort of a…a…a…a brutal thing.”

In the Norton Lectures, Charles said, “the thing about models, about using them, is that a model doesn’t have to be a total theory of a field. It doesn’t have to be a golden thread that sort of leads you through a labyrinth. A model, a true model, in the experimental and feeling-your-way sense, can just be a kind of a tentative walk through the experience by which you can then retreat, consolidate yourself, re-group, and . . . and take a try again.” In this sense, modeling became the intellectual equivalent of the many, many prototypes of the Eames chairs.