INTERVIEW : EAMES DEMETRIOS

We’re beyond honored to host Eames Demetrios, grandson of Charles and Ray Eames, for Palm Springs Modernism Week at Ace Hotel & Swim Club next week, where he will be holding an Eames Retrospective on February 20 — talking about his grandparents’ work and legend, screening films about their iconic design gestures and discussing the connection with his own explorations and adventures. The retrospective is complimented by a pop-up shop with the A+D Architecture and Design Museum > LA. We have several other events to celebrate Modernism Week, including live mermaids.

We caught up with Eames on the eve of a trip abroad before the retrospective, and he was kind enough to go over some topics both familiar and new. We talked about his epic project Kcymaerxthaere, love, creativity, perseverance and fruitful failure, as well as how his legacy affects his work and process. We wished the conversation could have gone on infinitely, and we’re looking forward to seeing you next week as we keep it going. 

I’m sure that you get asked at every turn about your grandparents. What I was noticing looking through your bio and your work is both that your work is very diverse and it seems like you have an almost spiritual thread through the things that you pursue. I was wondering how your grandparents’ legacy informs the work that you do now, especially this idea of 3-dimensional fiction.

Well I think we are all products of how we grow up and what we are exposed to. And Charles and Ray were definitely a part of my life growing up, and they are pretty amazing people. I think the real place that I find conscious inspiration from them is just this, you know — if you look at Charles right now, they are famous, they are iconic to a lot of different people, which is fantastic. But it wasn’t always that way. There were definitely a lot of struggles for them, especially in the 1940s. One thing I take inspiration from is just this whole idea of really sort of pursing an idea with great passion, an idea you believe in, and trying the hardest you can to pull it off knowing that it won’t happen right away. And I think for me that’s been helpful to know that it has worked for other people, it has happened to people that are a part of my legacy. But I think it’s inspiring to everyone. Because you know when you’re doing something that is really new, you don’t really know whether you are going to succeed or not. And so, one of the nice things I think for them, and certainly for me, was the process — I mean whether Kcymaerxthaere becomes incredibly world famous and successful and all that, it’s been an amazing experience no matter what. I’ve met amazing people, I’ve been to incredible places, and I’ve done some work that meant a lot to me. And so if you can approach things in that way, then whether or not you get the material success, it certainly helps you do more work, and I would be very happy about that — but it also means that you have something that you can feel good about looking back, no matter what. And Charles and Ray, I think, were very pleased with things that things worked out, but I think if they hadn’t, they’d had an amazing time learning about these materials — making the splints, understanding plywood better — and indeed if you look at what they actually did, the final chair that really sort of put them over the top, was not the plywood chair but the plastic chair, which came from their deep engagement with the challenges of molding plywood, even though the final result was plastic. So again, the process really is of value no matter how it turns out.

And you’ve spoken also about — in your Ted Talk and I think in your lectures that you give around the country and around the world — about this idea of “surrendering to your design journey.” Do these ideas relate to that, and what does that mean to you, necessarily?

Well I think that it is related to that. I would agree with that. I think of it particularly in terms of deign itself in the sense that there are so many times you hear about companies, or whatever, where people say they want to be design-driven, but they really have a specific end result in mind. And it’s not that that can’t work out sometimes, and sometimes that end result is really good insight, but very often it’s not really about being willing to surrender yourself to what you learn, and to what results from what you learn. And I think that that’s what I mean by surrendering to the design journey, and being really willing to do that. It doesn’t mean sort of giving up and not pushing back and not trying hard and making sure that ideas aren’t explored carefully and rigorously. But it does mean letting it take you where it goes. Because if you focus on what your real need is, if you keep your focus on that actual need, then certain other things become… they become…. they don’t take center stage when they shouldn’t. So, to use that example of that chair we just talked about, the important thing was making a comfortable and affordable chair. And they had an insight, keep in mind, that the seat and back is one, but there could be something really important there. Now, if the only acceptable outcome was making a mold of plywood, then you could be right, but you could also be destined to failure. But if an acceptable outcome is a successful and affordable chair that combines the seat and back, then success may come. They tried it in metal, they tried it in plywood, and they tried it in plastic — and that’s the one that eventually worked. And then, even with that, over the course of the next 20 years, they were constantly improving it, they were always trying to find a more of a uniform finish to it, and that whole time they had just designed one of the most successful chairs in history and they were still trying to make it better in the 70s.

One success of the molded chair that is misperceived as peripheral, or somehow less important, is its use of color. When the chair is used now, its color is often used to punctuate really, especially when, you know, there is just one in the room that is red, or there’s an even line of white chairs, or a yellow and a green chair together. And I was thinking about color in your work as well, looking at “A Gathering of Elephants,” and then also the kind of nested doors of the Embassy Row, the Heart of the Parisian Diaspora… I have sort of a vague question about color, but I’m having a hard time phrasing it because I think it’s more of a spiritual thing in terms of design — I’m wondering if you can speak to that a bit. 

Well speaking for myself, I think that color is a pretty remarkable tool in shaping space. And I certainly consider myself only at the beginning of understanding it. But I definitely found that in some of the work we’ve done it’s been a great way to shape people’s experience. Part of Kcymaerxthaere is that we’re really trying to give people the storytelling experience, and so some of those stories are sort of what that sounds like, which is words that tell you use to tell a story. But then other parts of the story should be a little bit more elusive in a way, and yet still be evocative, and color is great for that because we all seem to respond to it in different ways. The other beautiful thing about color is that it’s quite possible that we are not — in fact its more than likely that when we are looking at the same color we are each seeing different colors. If you look into any of Joseph Albers work, the interaction of color actually changes how you experience the color. I really like when we did the one out in western Australia, which is the concrete forms out in the middle, and putting dye into the concrete. It was important to not paint it, but to actually make the color integral to the form, because as it wears it should also still retain that color. And yet it’s amazing how striking it is to see that color in that dry lake bed. Or in Embassy Row, it’s amazing how much people smile when they see that row of colors, because you kind of have to walk down the aisle on the other side, so you are sort of aware that there is color and you’re seeing light reflected though the glass, so you know that color is on the way. But then when you come around and see it, people just smile. It’s just such a good feeling, and its definitely intangible, or maybe better people than I can make it tangible. But my way to make it tangible is to try to give you that experience. 

I have a more personal question. I was looking at the end of your bio where you say, “As the expression goes, I live in Southern California with my wife and two kids.” I guess I was thinking about Charles and Ray, and I was thinking about Calder and his wife, and just how creativity fed those relationships. And in a way, how much do you feel like your creative work, which does feel like it has, a kind of —  I keep using this word spiritual and I don’t mean in a religious way — but a spiritual thread in your work. How much do your philosophies around surrender and experimentation influence your personal life and change your perspective outside of creative work and production?

That is a very hard question to answer. I think, you know, it’s probably one of those things that one could always do better at, in terms of really weaving them fully into your life. But I will say that doing the Kcymaerxthaere projects brings me a lot of happiness and it’s a happiness that I enjoy sharing with the family — they’ve been not on all of these adventures but on a few of these adventures, or with my youngest son, before he went to college, we drove across Australia and installed a few things along the way, and that was pretty magical. And my older son has helped with a beautiful installation out in Deming, New Mexico. And actually, speaking of color, that was all about the color of the rock and that was pretty great. We had a hundred tons of rock delivered to a piece of land I bought on Ebay for about a few hundred dollars. And the whole family has helped with various other installations, and my wife pitches in quite often. I think that what’s great about… you know its hard to describe, but I really love the places the project takes me both internally and externally. The places it literally takes me, but also just this sort of constant questioning and exploration of the world we see in front of us. And I think one of the most interesting things, which is sort of a bleak answer to your question, is that very often when I talk to people about it… one analogy I would use for the project is when you see a red car, it’s very hard to only see the color red, because your brain interprets what your eye sees before your mind even knows it. Which is actually really great, especially when you’re crossing the street because you don’t want to get into a metaphysical discussion, you just want to avoid the car, right? But the other side of it is, that you don’t actually see all the things that it’s not. You don’t see all the things that are not there. To which many practical people would say, “Well, who cares whats not there?” I was sort of sending these ideas to the mayor of a small village in Armenia where we are going to do an installation. I said, “Well you know, think of it, most of the important, in fact probably all of the important things in your life didn’t exist before they did.” Whether it’s a family or a relationship or business or a community or whatever. It’s actually those things that end up really being fantastic and having meaning. So the ability to do something that helps people explore those ideas even more is actually one of the most practical things one can do. And Armenia is a perfect example. The independent nation of Armenia had existed in the past, but for most of the 20th century it was just — it was not something that was there. But it was there in a sense by people being able thinking of it.

And that increases so much of your sensitivity to, and your intake ability, with what does exist if you know what doesn’t exist.

I think it’s really true. I think you see possibilities. I mean we have such a tendency to see the visual environment as inevitable, and it’s not. All sorts of things could have happened instead of the ones that did. I am always fascinated by the human mind — it’s an amazing thing. I don’t know if you have ever wondered about this, but I always find it amazing that you can not see a childhood friend or somebody for ten years or twenty years, and you actually recognize them. Because somehow your brain is able to, in a fraction of a second, assemble all the possible, do a sort of time lapse projection in your mind of what that person would look like now, and you recognize them. And then also, in your brain, on some level, that becomes the new image in your mind of who that person is. So we have this very amazing thing actually happening all the time. Even though it sounds like I’m doing something unusual [with Kcymaerxthaere] we actually are engaged in this process all the time. Another good example is if you’ve ever looked yourself in the eyes in the mirror. You actually probably haven’t done that because you can only look at yourself in one eye. So then when you look in the other eye, do you see your eyes move? You never see them move, because your brain edits that out. So if we can help our brain imagine things that aren’t there, not just on a purely visual level, its really a very rich and amazing experience.

I’m very interested in things like visual ambiguity. The fact that most people think that Ghandi looks like Ben Kingsley, even though they can still recognize a picture of the real Ghandi. We do have this other thing that’s in front of us, and if you think about it, that has happened throughout the millennium, that is not a unique phenomenon. If you were a villager in England a thousand years ago, or 600 years ago, you probably would have very little idea exactly what the king looked like. You have an idea, but it might be different than your neighbors idea, and yet it would be completely sufficient for a dialogue in the ruling of the nation. And sort of this shared visual ambiguity I think is an interesting place to go. And so right now we see most stories, first of all, heavily mediated. You actually see the Transformers doing their thing or whatever in the movies, which is all well and good but it means that in the end we only see — we are only shown — things that we can actually see. I am more interested in helping people see things that they can’t see.


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