I suppose when referring to the names Charles and Ray Eames, what pops up immediately in one’s minds is the image of La Chaise. An elegant lounge chair, but somehow an icon of Post-War America, where materials, such as the fiberglass originally used in the aerospace industry, became attractive to artists and designers in California [1].

However, for the visitor of The World of Charles and Ray Eames (Barbican Centre, London, 2015-2016), the chair becomes just one of a number of possible aspects of the whole of their “World”: architecture, furniture and product design, photography, exhibition-making and, finally, film. Yet, still, throughout all of Eames’ film works the concept of “chair” is deeply relevant. In Ancient Greece, Plato supported the division of the world in two dimensions: the physical and the ideal world. For the philosopher, any physical chair would be an inferior copy of the ideal chair – the “chairness” – existing somewhere else.

In Eames’ world, the research for other dimensions also prevails. Powers of Ten: A Film Dealing with the Relative Size of Things in the Universe and the Effect of Adding Another Zero (1977, final version), starts with a couple having a picnic on a “lazy afternoon”, framed in a one-meter-square image, which is then zoomed in to at a rate of one to the power of ten per 10 seconds. Slowly, we get to see Chicago, the Earth, the Solar System, the Milky Way and, finally, the dusty emptiness of the Universe. Then, back to the afternoon scene, back to the man’s skin, the zoom accedes to another dimension: the miniature of our cells and atoms.


A Film Dealing with the Relative Size of Things in the Universe and the Effect of Adding Another Zero, 1977. © Eames Office LLC

This led to the moment of a “Cosmos’ fever”, with the launch of Sputnik (1957) or the Moon landing (1969), as an everyday’s reality. Nevertheless, we could perhaps retrocede to the 19th century when discussing Eames’ procedures on zooming and scaling. The Victorian engineer James Nasmyth (1808-1890) in his book The Moon: considered as a planet, a world, and a satellite (1874) [2], sought to prove that Moon’s surface was as volcanic, and used the scale of his own rough skin to prove age’s effects on evaporating mass surfaces. Just like the Eames’, Nasmyth played a sort of visual synecdoche – the specific stands for the whole -, since the surrealism of his hand was the closest he had to prove something wider as the Universe.

In House of Science (1962), again, we get to understand the power of the act measurement in Sciences. Here, as Eric Schuldenfrei explained at the Barbican screening, the couple were seeking to bring scientific knowledge to wider public awareness. There was always a didactic intent in Eames’ practice, and this is prevalent in that scale features everywhere: in sports diagrams, in maps, in design and in architecture. A church, for instance, is always an assemblage of the parts that makes the whole possible, as their movie Two Baroque Churches (1955) shows.


James Nasmyth, Back of the Hand (to illustrate the origin of certain mountain ranges resulting from shrinkage of the interior), 1885. © Internet Archive

In 1919, Walter Gropius’ manifesto for Bauhaus feature on the cover a cathedral to remind us about its programme ideal: Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art). Totality is the key feature of Eames’ world: the total of their production and the total of the Universe. Singularity disappeared in the globalized world we live in. Everything is now connected: the micro and the macro. By using simultaneity in their film works, the Eames’ remind us that if images loop everyday on our screens, what we sense as distraction could be perhaps a new form of attention [3].

Contrary to Plato, Charles and Ray Eames never diminish our earthly dimension. They transmit a sort of ecology to their public: it is our scale that makes the expansion to others possible; as such, one must preserve it. In the end, as the Powers of Ten (1997) teaches us, the land, the picnic, the couple, their anatomy and all those atoms are the real macro, not the Universe.

Beatriz Medori

Beatriz Medori (1991, Lisbon) is an art historian based in London. In 2014 she graduated with a BA in Art History, from the Faculty of Human and Social Sciences of the New University of Lisbon. During the year of 2013 she attended Sorbonne University (Paris IV) under the Erasmus Programme and currently she is enrolled on the MA Art History at UCL. Her academic interests can be defined as a Visual Studies approach to Contemporary Art: departing from 19th century Arts and Technology to the modern thinking of subjects, such as cosmology and sciences, the visual and the digital.

[1] Hanor, S., (2011), ‘The Material of Immateriality’, in Phenomenal: California Light, Space, Surface, University California Press, Los Angeles, pp. 123-149.

[2] Nasmyth, J., (1885), The Moon: considered as a planet, a world, and a satellite, John Murray, London, Stable URL: https://archive.org/details/consideredasmoon00nasmrich (14/01/2016)

[3] Colomina, B., (2001), ‘Enclosed by Images: The Eameses’ Multimedia Architecture’, in Grey Room, Inc. and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, pp.6-29

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