From the Metropolis Magazine cover story, SAVING THE EAMES HOUSE
Q + A
By Paul Makovsky
Last October I traveled to Los Angeles to interview Lucia Eames. Sitting at the kitchen table of the Eames House, she talked about why she had set up the foundation and her future dreams for it, the creative spirit of the Eameses, and what it was like to grow up with Charles and Ray. After the interview I was given a tour and began to think about the preservation issues facing the family: How do you keep a historic building authentic and alive? What is modern patina (the cracked leather on the Eames lounge chair)? And what needs replacing (the flaking white floor tiles)? I also focused on the living details, like the vase of freshly cut flowers arranged by the Eameses’ longtime housekeeper, Teresa. During my visit I met other members of the family, including two of Lucia’s children, Llisa and Eames Demetrios, as well as his kids. An artist, Lucia Eames studied sculpture and design, and currently lives in Petaluma, California. Her son, Eames, participated in the interview as well. www.metropolismag.com
PAUL MAKOVSKY: What was the idea behind starting the foundation?
LUCIA EAMES: We felt we needed help to sustain all of this in the future. Our mission statement is to preserve and maintain the house and create educational experiences that draw from the work of Charles and Ray. But I really feel that the house is the keystone. If it can be secured, then I hope it will be like the center of the sun radiating out, enticing people who are interested in new ways of communicating. This can take different forms. We can sponsor a professorship and host teachers’ nights up here. We also hope to attract and build an endowment. That’s crucial.
PM: The preservation of the house and studio is clearly a huge issue, but what about moving the foundation forward in the future?
LE: It’s not enough to focus on the past. We have to make Charles and Ray’s work relevant to future generations. The house will always give a feel for their approach. It’s very tangible, almost primary source material. There’s wonderful quote from Charles about making connections, where he talks about “the details, the details, the details.” Well, that’s true. But their work was also about the joy and rigor between work and play. That’s another primary source. An exhibition like Mathematica presents information not to make it beautiful but to make new connections that are so carefully researched that an expert would feel, “Mmm, yes, that’s right” and a young, bright child would think, “Ahh!”
PM: There’s also a spirit to the house that goes beyond the objects in it.
LE: There was a wonderful freedom in growing up and knowing that a price tag did not establish the value of something. The price tag might mean you could only visit it in a museum or only enjoy it someplace else, but the same care was taken whether Ray and Charles sent someone a beautiful papier-mậché mask or Steuben glass. In either case they cherished each wrapping. So as you go through the house there’s a marvelous sense of liberation. We call it the climax vegetation state of the house. You start with a swamp begins to dry out, and then there’s forest. That’s the climax. Obviously the house is flexible, but this is a valid and important stage because it shows what they valued.
PM: Once the foundation is in place, will you make the house and studio more open to the public?
EAMES DEMETRIOS: It is not so much that it will be more available to the public. The brutally obvious thing is that right now—with a relatively low profile—we get three thousand visitors here, and the building can’t take the traffic. So we’re trying to create different ways for people to experience the house. In the future we’ll charge admission, but students will be admitted for free. You’ll also be able to get a membership to the foundation, which will get you in for free. Maybe we’ll hold group meetings in the studio. So if you were a company and design was part of your business, you might want to have a creative team meet for a day in that studio and be surrounded by that light. Because it’s not just the room—the room is incredible—but it’s also the relationship to the outside. It will be inspiring for people to brainstorm there and really work stuff out. This goes back to Mom’s vision from the beginning, which has to do with the house as a primary source.
LE: On the fiftieth anniversary of the house we had seminars here, and it
worked out well. It was no more than ten people, but it provided a different kind of experience. I also think it could serve as a benefit for someone willing to help with the foundation. I really hope that in the first ten years of the foundation, the companies and people we work with will tell success stories about how such and such a product line came out of time spent at the Eames studio. There’s something about this place that’s so much about the built environment and the natural world. It seems sustainability would be one of the issues people could work on here. Preservation is great, but if you’re not doing something that contributes to the future, if you’re only looking backward, then you’re not honouring the ideas behind the house. The items, the furniture, the films—those are all great—but even more marvellous was Charles and Ray’s approach, how they worked.
PM: When did the idea for the foundation come about?
LE: Well, when I realized that I might get hit by a truck at any time. I mean, we always had a sense within the family that we wanted to preserve the house, but then an additional reality factor kicked in. if I died unexpectedly my children would be put in a terrible position because they feel as I do about the house.
ED: It’s true. The IRS taxes you on the highest value of the property. You’ve probably spent enough time in Los Angeles to know that this property is conservatively worth about ten million dollars. It is three acres of land. We don’t have that kind of money. That’s not who we are. So we would have had to sell the house to pay for it.
PM: Did the family have long discussions about this?
LE: No. Preserving the house was always in our minds. We just sort of moved toward that decision instinctively. I was not challenged at any point. We all felt the same way.
ED: None of us ever thought, “Oh, it’s going to be a financial bonanza!” We weren’t brought up that way. We have our own lives and work, and the only way this could be a windfall is if the house was destroyed. Why? If we sold it for the amount of money that would create a windfall, a developer would bulldoze this place.
PM: Does the family feel they’re making a big sacrifice?
LE: No. It’s very nice of you to say that. But I remember something Charles said after working in Mexico to support himself during the depression: “Wow, I’ve found how very little one needs to survive.” We also spoke about not putting a price tag on everything to indicate value. So being fortunate enough to have been brought up that way, this wasn’t a sacrifice.
ED: Obviously someone could transform this house into economic value. But one of the great things about having done this as a family is that I feel completely at ease, as chair of the foundation, about asking people to contribute. We never thought of not stepping up to the plate. But now that we’ve done it, I feel comfortable saying to somebody, “Can you make a contribution?” Because we have too.
LE: I think the destruction of Neutra’s Maslon House was such a wake-up call. At least I hope it woke people up.
ED: It would be great if architecture in America had better preservation laws. If Mom had wanted to drive a bulldozer through this house, we could have stopped her for six months. And this is with full landmark protection. Then we could have stopped her for another six months—because I’m sure we would have gotten an extension—but a year and a day after she decided to raze the house, it would have been gone. Now I don’t think that should be possible.
PM: Is this building landmarked?
LE: It is a local landmark. It has met the fifty-year criterion for the national list. But the only official status it has at the moment is with the city of Los Angeles. It received a twenty-five-year award from AIA, which doesn’t confer any form of protection, but it is something. There are rumors that somebody’s trying to put together a historic preservation district around the case study program. This is another project the foundation could be involved with. We’d like to help the Modern preservation movement, have that be part of the foundation’s mandate.
PM: In looking around the house, I’ve noticed a lot of sustainable features: for example, natural ventilation instead of air-conditioning and the roof overhang, which cuts down on the sun’s glare. Are there certain things here that still amaze you?
LE: I hadn’t thought of it that way. But there are great elements in it. When you take the spiral staircase up and look down, you notice that the living room is a pattern. In one part of the room is the alcove. There’s a nice pillow with pleating that Asha Sarabhi gave Ray, other things they’ve collected, the pull-down projection screen. The space opens itself up very well. The skylight provides ample light above the stairs, even on dark days. The house is built into a hill, which works as insulation any time of the year. The spiral staircase takes up minimal space. It is more of a challenge as one gets older, but it works. It’s a small space, but it’s safer than a lot of the open, palatial houses. The living-room planter is on wheels. You can hang things from beams and ladders, and then go up and change them, which Charles and Ray did frequently.
PM: When you were growing up, did you travel with them? They were doing the Nehru exhibition, did you go with them to India?
LE: No. When the house was built I was already in college. It was designed for a professional couple with a kid at school. But I was here. And I had the fun of listening to them talk about it. They knew certain parts would take forever because it was wartime. They actually moved in on Christmas Eve 1949. By then I was already a sophomore and about to get married.
PM: At one point you took a photography course with Charles. What did you learn from him?
LE: One of the important things was to compose the picture in the frame, to minimize it. The other was when you’re developing a black-and-white image to have something to anchor the tones in between. I took a lot of pictures in college and had a good time developing and mounting them.
PM: Did Charles critique them?
LE: Oh yes, he would help and guide. We would photograph together. There was this wonderful sort of sharing and guiding but letting you learn the lessons yourself. Recently I heard a young protégé of Itzhak Perlman say, “He guides you by letting you learn to teach yourself”—and it really rang a bell because essentially that’s what Charles would do. As I grew older I saw it with the people in the shop. He gave them full reign, always moving around and watching, then changing direction, and keeping them on course, but with deepest respect.
PM: You also studied color and composition with Ray. What did you learn?
LE: To look at a scene—a still life or a selection of colors—then cut just one element out to get the feeling. And then not to expect to nail the idea right off the bat, but to come back and explore, redo. That was part of the rigor.
PM: The house was conceived and built in the 1940s yet it has a number of forward-thinking, almost futuristic features: natural ventilation, sensitive siting, prefab materials.
ED: This brings up a point that is critical to what we’re trying to do with the foundation. Charles and Ray had this blend of vision and pragmatism. I think the foundation represents the pragmatic part—it’s the physical object, the place where they created their visions. But they can’t be separated. So if it’s just this highfalutin philosophical exercise…well, the world doesn’t need another foundation like that. But the world perhaps could use another foundation that values both parts of the equation.
LE: I hope that major supporters will have the same view. Through films like Powers of Ten it would be wonderful to reach into schools and inspire future generations.
Lucia Eames on the making of the Eames House: “The house was designed as a home for a working couple whose children have gone off to college. For several summers before anything was built on the meadow, I had loved the picnics at the property, listening to Charles and Ray and John Entanza discussing plans for the Case Study Houses. I went to college the year before the building materials finally arrived and construction on the house began, but always came back to touch base. I loved the house and its surroundings. Staying there has always been a liberating experience. When one wakes up in the morning, there is the most wonderful shadow play as light filters through the eucalyptus leaves onto the screens and walls. One takes a delighted look at the beautiful pattern of the living room, as seen from above, and then a wonderful spin down the spiral staircase and into the sudden openness of the living room before settling into the kitchen for breakfast.”
Lucia Eames on Charles Eames: For all the years that I knew him, it was fun and exciting to be with my father. His example made clear that work and play were seamless and that rigor & joy enriched and invigorated both. Among the pleasures which he took seriously, admired, and shared were comic strips and circuses. When love, discipline, and meeting of need effectively combined to hone concept & execution in an effort to express and/or reach a sense of a universal experience & understanding, all hearts & minds connected.
Eames Demetrios on the future of the house: “I think that people coming into the space makes it alive. We have to protect it, but if enough people are coming in, drinking coffee, and thinking, it’s going to make it much more vibrant.”
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