Deborah Sussman and Andrew Byrom celebrate Charles and Ray Eames’ love of the commonplace in an intimate exhibition at the A+D Museum Los Angeles.
Living in Los Angeles, it’s easy to become jaded by the traffic congestion, the poor air quality, and the propensity for the superficial. Even a simple activity like visiting a cultural institution can seem daunting. So when one sees “… the uncommon beauty of common things …” plastered on the facade of the A+D Museum as part of the Eames Words exhibit, skepticism is a natural response. After all, can words really change perspective?
The creative team behind Eames Words banked on this simple premise in spite of the fact that Charles and Ray Eames—largely considered the most influential American designers of the 20th century—are traditionally known for their furniture and industrial design, architecture, exhibitions, and toys. When we see a presentation of the couple’s work, we expect to see a display of iconic form-fitting chairs, not walls of quotes. Yet it is this largely typographic presentation, coupled with everyday objects, that breaks our surface familiarity with the Eameses and shows them in an intimate new light.
In conceiving the exhibit, curator Deborah Sussman (SEGD Fellow and Founder/Principal of Sussman/Prejza, Los Angeles) offered something few could: an insider’s point of view. She had developed a close relationship with the Eameses while working for their office in the 1950s and 1960s, before establishing her own design practice in 1968. For a young woman studying at the Chicago Institute of Design, an internship with the Eameses was heaven, not just because of their innovative work but also because of the way they lived. Eames’ employees were an extension of their family, with workdays and weekends blending into one. Occupying this world for a time, Sussman caught a rare glimpse into the couple’s life and philosophy.
“People know about the products, but not many people know what it was like to be alive then,” she says. “I saw the exhibition as a catalyst for a way of revealing some truths about Charles and Ray.”
These “truths” drive the experience, enveloping visitors in black-and-white graphics integrated at varying scale on the walls, columns, display fixtures, and floor. With little time and literally no budget to create the exhibit, Sussman intuited that using the Eameses own words as a foundation would be an effective, inexpensive, and fresh way to tell their story. She named the exhibit accordingly, and invited typographer Andrew Byrom to collaborate on the exhibit design.
For the quotes that provide an interpretive backbone for the exhibition, Byrom specified DIN, a classic sans-serif typeface already used by the museum, but he manipulated size and weight to achieve a layered look. Some quotes are purposely large, to get visitors to take notice; other quotes are purposely small, allowing visitors the process of discovery. Placement relates to the association between the words and a whimsical selection of non-precious objects.
At the entrance, 8-foot high dimensional letters announce the show. As part of the Getty initiative Pacific Standard Time: Art in L.A. 1945 – 1980, Eames Words is one of many presentations of Southern Californian visual culture. At just under 5,000 square feet, the A+D exhibition is one of the smaller spaces (at the neighboring Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Living in a Modern Way consumes 11,000 square feet and includes a full-scale replica of Charles and Ray Eames’ living room). “We knew LACMA would be strong and dominant,” explains Byrom. “We wanted to scream to that crowd.”
But the show transcends materials and medium. Signage, exhibition graphics, and display serve dual purposes and reinforce the notion of the creative process so integral to the Eames philosophy. The superscaled “Eames” lettering stretches across the museum’s Wilshire Boulevard façade. The “A” and “S” are vinyl applied to the glass doors. The “M,” built of MDF, extends out from the building. And the two “E’s” elongate into the exhibition space, becoming the primary mechanisms for display, an idea put forth by Todd Erlandson and Lara Hoad of the Los Angeles architecture studio (M)Arch. This not only created continuity between the outside and the inside, it also solved the dilemma of how objects would be supported physically.
The design team contemplated visuals that would support the Eames quotes underpinning the exhibit. Goods, a 7-minute film Ray made as a tribute to Charles after his death and the final film produced by the Eames Office (1981), enchanted everyone on the design team. The film includes audio and a three-screen slide show—depicting images of kegs of nails, bolts of cloth, reams of paper, and other common objects that have inherent beauty—from a lecture Charles Eames gave at Harvard University in 1970.
Byrom suggested including objects from the film, as well as other objects that directly relate to the quotes, throughout the exhibition space—on the shelves, on the floor, and hanging from the ceiling. The relational connections between words and objects help narrate the exhibit. The unspoken rule: If something is referred to in the film, it had to be there. So quote/object pairings range from an Army-green Willys jeep (“The jeep is an automobile that America can be proud of”) to an installation of Bob Evans’ Force Fins (“If you free yourself from the idea ‘I am going to design a new and novel glass’ then you have a chance – if you say in your mind, ‘I want this vessel to bring this liquid in the best possible way.”) to real bread (“You can tell more about a country from its bread and its soup than you can from its museums and concert halls.”).
“The main idea was that you walk in and have no idea why these [everyday objects] are here. There is a bit of confusion,” states Byrom. “By the end of the exhibition you find out what that all means.”
The “end,” as Byrom describes it, refers to the back of the museum, where visitors hear the voice of Charles Eames becoming more distinct the closer they get. The screening room loops seminal films like Goods, Design Q&A, and Toccata for toy trains on the main screen (several others play on a side wall). Paul Prejza (principal at Sussman/Prejza and friend of the Eameses) curated two walls of photography: a selection of Charles’ photographs of India and images from a slide show called Konditorei (1955).
That’s not to say Eames Words follows a linear progression. It’s preferable, in fact, to explore without direction, letting the organic assembly of objects and words draw you deeper into the couple’s psyche.
Finding freedom within constraints
The fact that Eames Words feels natural and unforced is difficult to believe given the complicated history of the project. Originally a different exhibit was meant to occupy the space. When that didn’t materialize, Tibbie Dunbar, the executive director of the A+D Museum, called on Sussman to conceive and curate a show with only four months until the opening date.
To call the museum a client, however, is a bit of a misnomer. Dunbar and staff didn’t impose any rigid institutional guidelines. Sarah Lane, Membership and Special Programs Coordinator, served as the liaison between the museum and the designers, coordinating site logistics. Her adulation for the so-called “Eames Team” is evident; she likens the members to superheroes. “We fully entrusted them to put together an amazing exhibit,” she says. “From the get-go, we knew it would be phenomenal.”
While the “Eames Team” enjoyed freedom within the creative process, they were restricted in other ways. All labor and materials had to be donated. “One of the lessons I learned from the Eameses was that you work within the constraints be it time, financial, or physical,” reflects Sussman. This guided the simplicity of the graphic approach, and materials were also kept to a minimum: vinyl, MDF, paint, and simple lighting.
Charles and Ray Eames left an indelible stamp on Los Angeles and the world at large, and their legacy has been honored many times over, in the form of exhibitions, publications, and most recently, a documentary. There’s always value in new scholarship, but the biggest blockade to understanding the past is how to bring clarity to why ideas are relevant now. In Eames Words, Sussman and Byrom allow the subjects to speak for themselves and, at the same time, situate their voices within a living laboratory. Utilizing a deceptively simple graphic program coupled with everyday objects, the exhibit conveys an authenticity typically lacking in architecture and design presentations. Quite simply, we feel connected. “The Eameses were like caricatures because of the collective cultural awareness of them,” says Byrom. “But this makes them into real people.”
--By Jennifer M. Volland, eg magazine No. 01, 2010
Editor's note: Jennifer Volland is a freelance writer and curator based in Long Beach, California. She co-authored Long Beach Architecture: The Unexpected Metropolis and was the co-curator of the exhibition Grand Hotel.
Client: A+D Museum Los Angeles
Budget: In kind
Project Area: 5,000 sq. ft.
Opened: October 1, 2011 through February 20, 2012
Exhibition Concept and Design: Deborah Sussman, Andrew Byrom
Architecture: Todd Erlandson, Lara Hoad
Consultants: Eames Demetrios (advisor/audio visual), Paul Prejza (photography curator), Eder Cetina/Los Angeles Art Collective (creative consultant), Tina Beebe (“Ray’s Table”), Ariana Vardi (project manager), Daniel Ostroff (research)
Graphics Production: Olson Visual
Fabrication: Michael Grosswendt, Michael P. Johnson (coordinators); All Coast Construction, Davidson Paint, Michael P. Johnson Fine Woods, Sherwin-Williams
Photos: As noted