Over the last decade or so, discussion of the Eameses’ work has often focused on exactly who was responsible for what. Charles was a bit of a prima donna, and has been accused of taking credit for others’ work, Ray’s not the least. However the actual breakdown of attribution winds up, it should be noted that the business was always the Office of Charles and Ray Eames, and that some of the blame must be laid on sexist and star-hungry media. The current batch of exhibits, as well as the excellent accompanying catalog, goes a long way in sorting out the individual contributions of the Eameses (as much as such a thing is possible) as well as those of other members of their design team. As a modest sidebar to this rehabilitation, the Eames Office has mounted a small and charming show of Ray’s early drawings and paintings in its Main Street gallery in Santa Monica.
But the most problematic and perhaps the most interesting aspect of the Eameses’ disparate oeuvre is its relationship to corporate capitalism and the American government. It seems unlikely that such a convoluted and idiosyncratic path — from utopian furniture and architectural design through toy design, quirky films, slide shows and interactive educational exhibits — could be supported, even nurtured, by the skittish, top-heavy bureaucracies of today. But in the emerging military-industrial complex of the Cold War, things were not as carefully regulated as they seemed. Charles and Ray Eames rode the crest of a distinctly American cultural wave, with a vision of the world’s social problems eliminated by great design and effective communication. And while, in context, their long collaborative relationships with IBM and the United States Information Agency may be read as public-relations spin control in the midst of the Vietnam War, the obvious sincerity and dazzling inventiveness of their lifework easily puts to rest any suspicions of black-budget allocations paying for movies of spinning tops. Instead, these shows stand in nostalgic testimony to perhaps the last period in American history when intelligent, humanist, creative and optimistic individuals could be comfortable, even to the point of attaining the heights of their discipline, as official, unironic representatives of their society and culture.
THE WORK OF CHARLES AND RAY EAMES: A Legacy of Invention At the L.A. COUNTY MUSEUM OF ART, 5905 Wilshire Blvd. Through September 10
CHANGING HER PALETTE: Paintings by Ray Eames At the EAMES OFFICE GALLERY & STORE, 2665 Main St., Suite E, Santa Monica | Through September 30