At one point in the documentary Eames: The Architect and the Painter, viewers are treated to a few quick shots of some letters Ray Eames sent to Charles when he was traveling in Europe. Calling them “letters” doesn’t really do them justice; they’re more like scrapbook pages–colorful collages packed with updates and anecdotes alongside hand-drawn maps to Ray’s favorite stores and instructions for the gifts to bring back from them. The letters make clear that the duo’s unique creative sensibility could translate to paper just as readily as furniture and film. And as evidenced by a new exhibition of the Eames Office’s relatively obscure graphic design work, it occasionally did.
The exhibition, “Addressing the Need: The Graphic Design of the Eames Office,” recently wrapped up at London’s PM Gallery & House. The show included a wide range of graphic works that were often overshadowed by the projects they supplemented–things like magazine ads for the studio’s iconic chairs, pamphlets for their celebrated multimedia exhibitions, and even a book version of their seminal short film Powers of 10.
But the various graphic design projects show some of the same principles that made the duo–and the rest of their team–so successful in all their other pursuits. As Vanessa Moore, the gallery’s exhibition coordinator explains, the pieces show how “they really did approach every aspect of their work in the same way–they treated furniture design as a problem-solving exercise just as they treated creating a poster as a problem-solving exercise.” The name of the exhibition, taken from a quote by Charles, touches on this idea of design as the product of a specific circumstance; when asked who his and Ray’s designs spoke to, he responded, “Design addresses itself to the need.”
The pieces also make clear the duo’s passion for visualizing the answers to interesting questions, be it the staggering enormity of the universe or just how many Eames chairs dealers could expect to sell in the coming season. The latter is covered in a funny little piece of ephemera that’s essentially an advertisement for an advertisement–a cheeky mail-out that clued retailers in to an upcoming campaign in House & Garden that would undoubtedly cause sales to “soar.” “They had an interest in absolutely everything and a desire to explain things to the rest of the world,” Moore says. The pieces give a sense of the “importance that they placed on getting the organization of this information right so that it could be easily accessible to other people.”
In all, it’s a nice look at an oft-ignored slice of the Eames body of work and an interesting backdoor into some of the thinking that inspired the studios’s other celebrated designs. That being said, the exhibition also proves how part of good design is picking the right medium for your message: I can’t imagine that Powers of 10: The Book would have blown my elementary-school mind quite as effectively.