Eames House in Pacific Palisades

Hear the name “Eames,” and you probably picture bent plywood “potato chip” chairs, or midcentury tables resting on “paper clip” legs — iconic home furnishings that shaped the legacy of their designers. Less celebrated is Charles and Ray Eames’ 1949 Pacific Palisades home, though it has profoundly influenced how Southern Californians nest, even to this day.

Their glass-and-steel house and studio — like monolithic Mondrian canvases springing from the ground — were not merely a residence and work space. They were incubators for a new way of living…

The house was the direct result of the Eameses’ friendship and collaboration with John Entenza, editor of the L.A.-based Arts & Architecture. In 1945, the magazine inaugurated the Case Study program to design cost-effective housing for a booming postwar nation.

Entenza purchased 3 acres on a bluff in Pacific Palisades and commissioned Charles Eames and his friend and colleague, Eero Saarinen, to create two houses — one for Entenza and the other for the Eameses.

As originally conceived by Charles Eames and Saarinen, Case Study No. 8 was a cantilevered structure made from off-the-shelf parts.

“During the war, America had figured out how to build fast,” said Eames Demetrios, Charles’ grandson. “The idea that my grandfather and Saarinen had was to put prefabricated pieces from industrial catalogs into a new, affordable configuration.”

Due to postwar supply shortages, three years passed before all the parts were delivered. “During that time, Charles and Ray would have picnics on the meadow lined with eucalyptus trees,” Demetrios said. “They realized that they would be destroying the site with a building.”

Charles and Ray ultimately decided to reconfigure the house.

“They were good at solving problems and working within challenging constraints,” Demetrios said. “They treated it [the house] like a big pile of Legos.”

Though it has been suggested that Charles was responsible for the hard, masculine edges and Ray did the soft interiors, Demetrios said the partnership wasn’t that simple.

“Charles was trained as an architect, Ray as a painter, but they had a holistic collaboration, where each was the other’s most important sounding board,” he said. “Their collaboration was always blurring the line between technology and art, and their designs flowed from an understanding of the materials and the needs of the user…”

“He strung a rope swing from the ceiling and let the kids swing across the living room into a wall he made out of empty cardboard boxes…” Demetrios recalled the house as “this magic place, this semipermeable membrane you could dip into and out of.”

“If you were outside on the meadow or inside drinking hot chocolate,” he said, “you were still a part of the experience that had been created: a totally honest steel box that looks completely comfortable with nature.”

Walking through the house, which remains exactly as Ray left it when she died in 1988, one realizes that Modern did not mean minimal to the Eameses. Rugs from around the world cover the well-worn, white ceramic tile floor. Colorful textiles are draped on prototypes of the couple’s classics.

Tabletops and a towering bookcase in the living room are crammed with windup toys, wooden tops, hand-carved jungle beasts, kachina dolls and American Indian baskets — all vivid reminders of a lifetime of globetrotting.

“It’s been said that Charles and Ray introduced the idea of decorating with everything,” Demetrios said. “They had a comfort level with all kinds of artifacts and understood the human need to collect things.”

“Charles and Ray Eames grew up in a very traditional world and time. Loving this house is easy. We are used to it, and it’s become trendy,” [designer Neal] Harrison said. “For them to remove themselves from the detail-oriented and the ornate and strip things down to an early prefab, Japanese-style, indoor-outdoor box with whimsical colors is completely radical thinking and very inspiring.”

Or as Ray famously put it: “What works good is better than what looks good, because what works good lasts.”

David Keeps
LA Times

Charles and Ray Eames, hamming it up