Monday, May 12, 2008

The Origins of Serious Play, Revisited

Coming June 17th: in celebration of Charles Eames Centennial Year, the Eames Office will host a celebration of the first day of issue for the Eames postage stamps. The event will be between 11 am and 1 pm at the Eames Office at 850 Pico Boulevard, Santa Monica.

Ruminations: in the next few posts, I'll be talking about some of the topics covered in Art Center's Serious Play conference this past week. Eames Demetrios had a scant ten minutes to talk about the work of the Eames Office, yet touched on some important themes. First, his bemusement that the world focuses almost solely on the furniture designs of Charles and Ray Eames: as beautiful as the objects are, the ideas behind them are as important. In the lunchtime roundtable after the talk, some seemingly pulled up a chair only because they wanted to know where to get their vintage chairs restored. Demetrios is always gracious in fielding these sorts of inquiry, but steers the conversation to the heart of the matter: the Eames Office ethic, the process, the ideas. A few choice selections: 
The Eameses never delegated understanding.
The design process never ended; the play process never ended.
Eero Saarinen couldn't wait to be an adult, because then he would really be able to play.
Eames' experience bumming around Mexico during the Great Depression: he saw there people who were living a rich life despite having nothing. He learned that he could live on next to nothing and stopped using "making a living" as an excuse for taking a job he didn't believe in.

Here's something that will blow your mind. Most people think there are two versions of Powers of Ten: Rough Cut, created in 1968 for the Association of College Physics, and the later, final version. There are three versions, not two. In 1963 they created a rough sketch of the concept in a simple line-drawing animation without sound, just because they had the idea and wanted to test it to see what sort of camera movement would create the illusion. When the physicists requested the film a few years later, the Eameses had the proven idea ready to execute.  This was typical. They explored ideas they were interested in, and eventually the clients caught up with them.

Note to young designers: were the ideas that captivated the Eameses forms of self expression, or did they spring from other motives? Contrast this with German designer Boris Hoppek, who says, "Everything I do is for myself, I try to do what I like. I am an egoist and get paid for it." Witness his design for Copenhagen's Hotel Fox, which purports to be the "soft-sewn world of a baby's cradle:"

Is good design fashion? Is it timeless? 

Early on, the Eameses realized that the age of information was coming and that designers could have something to contribute. IBM bought a thousand copies of the film that resulted. Though the Eameses were consultents to IBM for the rest of their lives and created out of that collaboration such jewels as the exhibition Mathematica, it came about from a pure motive to explore a noble (and way ahead of its time, I might add) idea.

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