Friday, June 19, 2015

Exclusive interview with Daniel Ostroff, author of "An Eames Anthology" (Yale University Press, 2015)

Thanks to Carol Eisner - book publicist for Yale University Press - today we publish the first part of the exclusive interview that Daniel Ostroff granted to Eamesiana blog. Ostroff is the author of An Eames Anthology (Yale University Press, 2015, 420 pp., ISBN 978-0-300-20345-5 $50.00, available at bookstores, through online booksellers, at, or by calling Triliteral Customer Service at 1-800-405-1619).

Ostroff is the author of Modern Classic, Eames + Valastro, and Collecting Eames. He was consulting curator for Eames Words and curator of Collecting Eames: The JF Chen Collection, both for The Getty Museum's Pacific Standard Time Consortium. He has consulted for The Eames Office, The Museum of California Design, Herman Miller, LACMA and SFMoMA, and others. Ostroff also produces feature films, television, and documentaries.

An Eames anthology: Articles, Film Scripts, Interviews, Letters, Notes, and Speechesby Charles Eames and Ray Eames"collects for the first time the writings of the esteemed American architects and designers Charles and Ray Eames, illuminating their marriage and professional partnership of fifty years. More than 120 primary-source documents and 200 illustrations highlight iconic projects such as the Case Study Houses and the molded plywood chair, as well as their work for major corporations as both designers (Herman Miller, Vitra) and consultants (IBM, Polaroid). Previously unpublished materials appear alongside published writings by and about the Eameses and their work, lending new insight into their creative process. Correspondence with such luminaries as Richard Neutra and Eero Saarinen provides a personal glimpse into the advance of modernity in mid-century America.

Thanks to Carol Eisner, Daniel Ostroff and Rob Payne for images.

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The interview:

Andrea Terranova (Eamesiana): 

Through essays, drawings, movies we have now a rich set of tools to understand the work of the Eames. Nevertheless the real secret of their modus operandi is yet to be revealed and with your work you are probably the author that has caught the essence of it. If you were to explain their method of work with a few key words what would be your choice?

Daniel Ostroff:
I hope you do not mind that I quote myself, from my own Introduction, in answer to this question.
For the beginning of a film about their molded plywood chair - the one designated by Time magazine as "the design of the century" - Charles and Ray Eames wrote: “The problem of designing anything is in a sense the problem of designing a tool. And as in designing a tool it is usually wise to have a pretty clear idea of what you want the thing to do. The need it is to fill, its particular objective.”
By approaching their work with this attitude, as simple as it may seem, and by committing themselves to a "nuts and bolts" process, the Eameses had an extraordinary impact on our world. They created a well-documented legacy of architecture, furniture, toys, films, exhibitions, books and graphic design.
The principles of the Eames process that applied with great care and deliberation. Some one else recently asked me about this, and I guess I can add the following statements:
There is something that Charles said that also addresses this question: “The process is always the same.”
In putting this book together, I looked for texts that revealed all of the aspects of the Eames “process.”
These include: “service and performance,” a passionate focus on these aspects of their work products whether they were films, furniture, exhibitions or architecture.
The “look” of their chairs has more to do with this Eames rule—“easily repairable, easily replaceable parts,” than any apparent visual style. In an interview, Charles refutes the idea that there is a “visual” throughline in the Eames work, and most would agree with that. As Eames Demetrios points out in his book, An Eames Primer, "Their La Chaise chair and their ESU were done within two or three years of each other. One is all curves, the other all right angles." But there is a consistency to the straightforward approach to connections, which they did not conceal. No Eames chair is a “black box,” and the idea of “no user serviceable parts” was anathema to them. Even on the Eames Chaise, and on the Eames lounge chair and ottoman zippers are sued so that if the cushions need restuffing, the customer can do that. If the pads need to be removed, you don’t have to take it to an upholsterer, and you can buy replacement pads.
They believed in using “humble materials,” that are plentiful and that have stood the test of time. Charles bragged on the non-revolutionary use of leather and down on the Eames Lounge chair.
When talking about objects or art, or architecture, the highest compliment that Charles and Ray would pay something was that it was “Un-embarrassed and un-self-conscious.” This was true of their own work, it was the ideal to which they aspired. When talking about the Eames aluminum group design process, Charles noted they were on constantly on guard against doing something sculptural. Every part of an Eames work was purposeful, relating to the need it was to fill. Charles and Ray extolled the virtues of tools, and advised young designers to learn from the design of tools.

The Eameses with their works are great "story tellers" (possibly this one of the reasons of their great success): could you elaborate on that and tell us according to your knowledge of their work what is the “story” that they tell us and the recurring elements of that story?

By story telling, I am imagining that you refer to their sharing stories about the circumstances by which the great designs and art of the past were created, and how they referenced these in illustrating their principles of design for today and tomorrow.
From the past, and in particular, the "pre-Industrial Age" past, they learned many things, including:
a. That great designs were done by people who were faced with great constraints: no machinery, no technology, no "new materials," and that all design should be done with constraints.
b. That traditional societies produce quality goods, not because they have an art tradition, but because they have a tradition of what is good, and what isn't, which is taught to every one in those societies at a very early age.
They loved 18th Century German Baroque, Pueblo Indian Kachina Dolls, Navaho rugs, the Japanese tea ceremony, American colonial silver, Chartres Cathedral, and much, much more.

In '50s and '60s most of the critics - with the exception of Paul Schrader - have underrated Charles and Ray’s movies: what is your "professional" opinion about ?

It's probably because, as Charles said,
"They’re not experimental films, they’re not really films. They’re just attempts to get across an idea."
Most professionals in film use film to tell stories. When you consider Hollywood films, on a basic level, there's not much different between a Hollywood movie and 2000 years of Greek drama. Charles and Ray saw film as a means of communication, and used it that way, and most people expect movies to be "stories."

(… to be continued on next monday)