Ray’s Displays

The Eameses have been on my mind a lot lately. My husband and I are doing some redecorating in our living room, which has had me doing a lot of reading on mid-century modern furniture and (admittedly) a little browsing on eBay–as I’ve been scheming ways to work an Eames chair into the room (and into our budget).

In The Work of Charles and Ray Eames: A Legacy of Invention I read an essay by Joseph Giovanni, “The Office of Charles Eames and Ray Kaiser.” He discusses how it was only recently that Ray began to receive the recognition she has deserved, both as a full partner in the Eames Office and as an artist in her own right. I thought I’d poke around in some of the collections at the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art where Ray should be most apparent, and I hoped to find a treasure or two along the way. Unfortunately, the most I saw of Ray in the American Abstract Artists records was her name listed in the dues register and one of her paintings reprinted in one of the group’s magazines. Knowing that Hans Hoffman was Ray’s mentor, I also gave the Art Students League records a try. Nothing. I fared a bit better in the Esther McCoy papers, finding a few pieces McCoy wrote about the Eameses and their house (Case Study House #8), along with a handful of photographs of Ray, but nothing surprising or amazing.  So I was quite pleased when my co-worker called me one day and exclaimed, “Look in Saarinen’s miscellaneous photographs. Isn’t that the Eames House?” A quick search of the internet confirmed this was indeed the Eames House, and I was pleased as punch! Of the 11 photos, two screamed RAY EAMES.

Table setting at the Eames House, ca. 1950 / unidentified photographer. Aline and Eero Saarinen papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

The first is shows a table set for breakfast on the patio at the Eames House. On the crowded table are breads and jam, boiled eggs, fruit, coffee in a Chemex, and a bowl of cigarettes. In the upper left is, of course, a molded plastic chair designed by the Eameses. I like to imagine that this was a table setting Ray created for a visit from the Saarinens (who were longtime friends from their days together at the Cranbrook Academy of Art.). It would have been amazing to sit down with them all for a cup of freshly brewed coffee and conversation about design.

Interior decor at the Eames House, ca. 1950 / unidentified photographer. Aline and Eero Saarinen papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

The second image, though, is where we really get to see Ray’s propensity for “display” at work. Shown is one corner of the house with artworks and decor by the Eameses and others.  It’s a mish-mash of objects including large butterflies, a painting by Hans Hofmann, and two small tables filled with knick-knacks. The large many-faceted tower appears to be one of their pieces created for Alexander Girard’s “An Exhibition For Modern Living,” commissioned by the Detroit Institute of Arts in 1949. What looks like a version of the Hang-It-All rack is on the table. And hanging from the ceiling: a polygonal sculpture.

Much has been written and noted about Ray’s collecting and display aesthetic. To her, every object meant something, placement was critical, movement was imperative (meaning it didn’t have to stay in one place and she could move it from bookcase to table or from office to home). Ray’s displays were a mix of objects: old and new, natural and manufactured.

McCoy wrote a remembrance of Ray for L.A. Architect in October 1988. I found a copy of the article in her papers (Box 21, folder 8). She notes:

“…there was always so much to see at the Eames office. Clusters of toys, of shells, of fine goods, and things which must have come from dream attics.

Grouped on tables, classified and lined up precisely in cabinets, declassified and injected into a setting, they were all in movement. That was the thing about Ray, the infinite number of variations that sprang from those square-fingered hands.”

I could look at photos of the Eames House and, in particular, Ray’s displays forever. I am intrigued by the origins of each piece and why they were collected. Somehow, these displays never feel like too much. When I look at these photographs I want to sit down on the patio (in an Eames chair, of course) for a snack and talk.

Explore more:

Oral history interview with Ray Eames, 1980 July 28-Aug. 20

“Space” from the exhibition, The Work of Charles and Ray Eames: A Legacy of Invention at the Library of Congress, May 20 – September 4, 1999

Landmark Houses: The Eames House Photo Gallery from the L.A. Times

About the Author:
Jennifer Snyder works with oral history interviews at the Archives American Art. When not sending interviews out for digitization, she is writing about extraordinary examples of facial hair for the Archives of American Art Blog.


Categories / "An Exhibition for Modern Living", Alexander Girard, Archives of American Art, Hans Hoffman, Interior Design, Jennifer Snyder, Molded Plastic, Ray Eames