There is a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean where huge eucalyptus trees shade a grassy meadow. It's the perfect place to picnic on a blanket, bathed by the cool ocean breezes and sheltered from the sun by the dappled shade. Perhaps as you lie there looking up at the summer sky, your thoughts turn to the infinite magnitude of the universe, and how small a place we hold in it. Or perhaps you observe a blade of grass, and marvel at the complexity of the microscopic world.
In 1945, a young couple from the Midwest enjoyed picnicking in this meadow so much they decided to build a house here. It would be a modern house, affordable, and made of inexpensive industrial components. Their architect proposed a design with a cantilevered wing that stretched out over the meadow. Wartime scarcities delayed delivery of the manufactured steel parts, and while they were waiting, the young couple had second thoughts. Why destroy this beautiful meadow?
Charles Eames and his wife Ray redesigned the house together to make a more gentle impact on the site. It was built in 1949.
The house is tucked up alongside a rising slope at the north side of the lot, beneath a 200 foot long retaining wall. The house is really two boxes - a long oblong box with the living quarters separated by a paved courtyard from a square box housing the design studio. The facade is livened by an irregular grid of steel frames and panels, with blocks of color - it feels a little like a painting by Mondrian.
We were thrilled to be invited by a friend to the annual fundraising tour by the Eames Foundation, to support the continued preservation of the house. We were introduced to Charles's daughter Lucia and to her daughter, also named Lucia, who heads the Foundation and the Eames Office, which continues the designers' work. We also met film-maker Eames Demetrios, grandson of the designers.
Best of all, we were treated to a rare guided tour of the inside of the house and studio, now sixty years old.
The Eameses were much more than designers. They made a mark on every aspect of life. They designed comfortable furniture made to fit the human form. Ray designed fabrics and graphics. They created toys. They compiled slide shows from a collection of over 350,000 photographs of their works and travels, and made presentations. They created over 80 short films, including the well-known "The Power of Ten."
The Eames House site and exterior can be seen by appointment only - instructions are here at the website. A tour of the interior is offered only once a year to members.
Our tour started with the studio, which is being used today as an office by the Foundation. Because work takes place in the studio, it is not preserved in its original state, although most of the furnishings belonged to the Eames and were used by them both here and at their office in Venice.
We crossed the courtyard to the main house, which is kept as close as possible to the way it was.
Unlike the stereotype of a modern home being minimalist and sterile, the Eames home is filled with objects and items the designers found interesting. Ray in particular liked to display her things - tables and surfaces are covered with flower arrangements, arrays of candlesticks; collections of small dolls and figurines, toys, fabric throws and books. The house looks lived-in and loved. There are works of art and furnishings from artists - Isamu Noguchi, George Nelson, or the Indian folk art they loved. You can see Ray's style if you look at the images available at the Foundation's website.
A kitchen table is set for breakfast. The 50's era stove is backed with a wavy glass divider separating the cooking area from a utility area. Little collectibles are ranged along the backsplash.
A spiral staircase - purchased by catalogue from a marine supply company - leads to a sleeping loft upstairs. The double-height living room includes built-in cabinets as room dividers, and a cozy nook with built-in banquettes on one side. The windows are floor-to-ceiling glass, opening onto a patio sheltered by the overhanging roof.
When I spoke to Lucia she told me about the efforts to preserve the garden. Again, breaking with the stereotype of modern design as something spare and minimal - Ray liked displaying her flowering plants, and brought pots of whatever was in bloom to the front of the house. Plants out of season or in need of rehab were kept in the narrow pathway behind the house. Traditional flowers like roses, foxgloves, and geraniums cheerfully bloom away.
This is one of the geraniums - notice its unusually shaped flowers and deeply cut leaves? Yet another interesting collectible that must have caught Ray's eye.
Like the designers themselves, the Eames House is playful, fun, quirky and interesting. As Charles Eames once said, it "takes pleasure seriously."