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More Than Chairs at Oakland Museum's 'The World of Ray and Charles Eames'

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Charles and Ray Eames selecting slides.  (© Eames Office LLC)

I know what you’re worried about. You’ll go to the Oakland Museum’s new exhibition, The World of Ray and Charles Eames, and leave so seduced by the elegant furniture that you’ll immediately drain the savings account to buy one of those beautiful Eames walnut-and-leather lounge chairs. Then, your rent will be late, your electricity will get shut off, you’ll be eating ramen and milk in your cold apartment—and when friends come over to check on your well-being, you’ll be sitting in the corner, muttering to yourself, “At least I have the chair.”

Fear not. The World of Ray and Charles Eames isn’t about chairs. Well, mostly. What it is about is the Eames’ keen eye and approach to design in all things: the home, the city, the office, the shopping center, the world. Witness the 12-minute film Glimpses of the U.S.A., made for the 1959 American National Exhibition in Moscow, which plays a series of over 2,200 images of America on seven oval screens. Incredibly well-curated, the photos appear like an Instagram feed from an “influencer” living in 1959—but instead of a celebrity, the influencer is the United States.

Charles Eames with the Pattern Deck, House of Cards, 1952.
Charles Eames with the Pattern Deck, House of Cards, 1952. (© 2018 Eames Office LLC)

A table of nearly 400 slides taken by the Eames is, essentially, Instagram in miniature, with closeups of food, store signs, decaying buildings, leaves. Other items here have less modern analogues (an algebra-based board game would be a hard sell in 2018), or are dying to be reissued in some form (the Polaroid Land camera). Some are playful for play’s sake: a waterfall of xylophone bars played by cascading ping-pong balls, or a pair of giant wobbly tops, upon which visitors can sit, spin a while, and then reach for the dramamine.

The husband-and-wife team were an art exhibit unto themselves, of course, and they steal the show at certain points, as in a black-and-white TV interview with Arlene Francis, or a nook featuring an incisive Q&A about design and its purpose. All told, the exhibit is about their attraction to the “uncommon beauty of common things.” And it’s more than chairs.

Wait… did someone say chairs? Ah, on the way out, there they are. A bank of the famous Eames lounge chairs. You sit in one. Impulsively, you reach for your phone and look up the price. “This chair costs $5,295,” you tell your friend. “But man… It’s really nice.”


‘The World of Ray and Charles Eames’ runs through Feb. 17, 2019, at the Oakland Museum of California. Details here.

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