The husband and wife team Charles and Ray Eames produced some of the most iconic designs of the mid-twentieth century. This episode engages with a wide range of topics, from Charles and Ray’s training and inspiration, to their collaborative design process, to the challenges of preserving and conserving modern architecture. Recorded at the Eames’ home and studio in the Pacific Palisades neighborhood of Los Angeles, this episode brings together in conversation Eames Demetrios, the grandson of Charles and Ray Eames, director of the Eames Office, and chairman of the Eames Foundation; Thomas Hines, a renowned architectural historian; and Susan Macdonald, head of field projects at the Getty Conservation Institute.
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JIM CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
EAMES DEMETRIOS: They brought their process, which was not a style, but a way of looking at things, to all the work that they did. And the beauty of the house is that it brings it all together.
CUNO: In this episode I speak with Susan Macdonald, Eames Demetrios, and Thomas Hines about the iconic mid-twentieth century home and studio of Charles and Ray Eames.
The Eames House, also known as Case Study House No. 8, sits on a wooded bluff in the Pacific Palisades neighborhood of Los Angeles overlooking the Santa Monica Bay. The site features two structures that served as the home and studio of mid-twentieth century husband-and-wife designers Charles and Ray Eames.
The design of the house was first sketched out by Charles with Eero Saarinen in 1945. Charles and Ray later reworked the design to make better use of the natural properties of the site, preserving the surrounding meadow and trees. They moved into the house on Christmas Eve, 1949, and lived there for the rest of their lives. Much admired for its use of prefabricated materials and address of the site, the house has become an icon of modernist design.
Charles died in 1978 and Ray, ten years later. The Eames Foundation was established in 2004 to protect the house and the designers’ original intentions. Seven years later, the Getty joined forces with the Eames Foundation to assess the condition of the house, its contents, and its setting. As part of the Getty Conservation Institute’s Conserving Modern Architecture Initiative, the Getty and the Eames Foundation will work together to develop long-term conservation management and maintenance plans to ensure the preservation of the house for generations to come.
To discuss the house and project, I recently met with Eames Demetrios, grandson of Charles and Ray Eames, director of the Eames Office, and chairman of the Eames Foundation; Thomas Hines, renowned architectural historian; and Susan Macdonald, head of field projects at the Getty Conservation Institute. We gathered in the studio on a rainy Los Angeles afternoon.
CUNO: Welcome everybody. Thanks for joining us on this podcast.
DEMITRIOS: Our pleasure.
CUNO: Tom, why don’t you describe the house for our listeners.
TOM HINES: The house is a— is two buildings, connected; a residence toward the ocean, and a studio to the east. Seventeen feet high, I think, something like that. About 2500 square feet, the two buildings. A kind of steel cage with glazed and solid panels, panels for insulation and visual variety, mostly red, blue and black. It is set back of, north of, a line of eucalyptus trees looking out, down the meadow, to the Pacific Ocean. The materials are steel frame, Cemesto panels, is that it? Infill.
CUNO: Susan, what are Cemesto panels?
SUSAN MACDONALD: So the Cemesto panels are two layers of cement fiber-rich material that contain an insulating material in between them. They’re a modern material that was designed for insulating material, and used here, typically of many of the other materials, in taking a kind of prefabricated material and then crafting it in a particular way in the house.
CUNO: We should probably describe that in this metal cage you’re talking about, some of the open spaces are filled in with glass; some are filled in with this Cemesto panel. Some with wood, some with, I guess, plaster, I suppose it is, huh? What was the thinking about why certain parts of it would be glass, certain parts would be the Cemesto panels? Or was there insulation factors inclined? Of course, there was light that was taken into consideration. But what was the—
HINES: As much light as possible. I’m not sure that insulation was a major factor. Was it? In this climate, it frequently is— There’s not enough of that. But you have to give up something to get something, and that’s what they got here, this inside-outside interaction.
CUNO: Yeah, Eames.
EAMES DEMETRIOS: I would say that the major insulation was putting it into the hillside. The second major insulation was being under the trees.
CUNO: So all along the north side of the house, it’s a hillside, so there’s no windows looking north, or the windows are all east, south, west and south?
DEMETRIOS: If you want to be totally trainspotting, it’s actually the west side and the east side, because the coast curves here. So when you look in the morning, you have the beautiful shadows of the eucalyptus trees on these amazing plastic sliding panels. Another thing that people often notice, is that many of the panels are painted.
DEMETRIOS: And they gave a lot of thought to that and it’s one of the ways they were so good at making aesthetics a part of function, because they talked a lot about how when they were using those colors, it was also kind of a way to shape space. If you look in the ceiling of the living room, you’ll see that these beams here, which already have two different colors over three beams, there there’s actually three different colors: black, white, and kind of a yellowish color.
And so this is a way to define space, as opposed to that white box we often associate with Modernism, that it’s all gotta look uniform and you almost don’t have your bearings. They saw that color would be a way, which we think of as being ornamental, but actually to help you understand how to use the space, how to— You know, what was in it, where you stood in it. And you see that throughout their work, this refusal to reject either traditional idea of function or a traditional idea of beauty, but really accomplish both.
CUNO: Well, why don’t we back up for a second and talk about Charles and Ray Eames and their career and what brought them here. And why on this bluff?
DEMETRIOS: Yes. Well, Charles and Ray are best known as furniture designers. And that most people come into their work through the door of furniture, but they also made over 100 short films, they designed exhibitions, they did graphics, they did textiles, they did multimedia design, they did lectures, they did toys.
The amazing thing is that they brought their process, which was not a style, but a way of looking at things, to all the work that they did. And the beauty of the house is that it brings it all together.
HINES: Charles Eames was born in St. Louis in 1907, I believe, and educated in the schools there. Two years at Washington University, studying architecture, which he didn’t finish. But he left to go to Cranbrook Academy in Michigan, where he studied with one of his great idols, Eliel Saarinen, and became a great friend of Eliel’s son Eero Saarinen.
And Ray also joined him there. She had been born in Sacramento. 1919?
DEMETRIOS: 1912, although she would’ve appreciated that.
HINES: [over Demetrios] 1912, alright. Born in Sacramento, 1912, and educated mostly in New York, with the painter Hans Hofmann. And who also told her about Cranbrook and encouraged her to go there. So the two of them met at Cranbrook.
CUNO: What brought them to Los Angeles?
HINES: Several things. I think they wanted to get away from the East and Midwest. They didn’t want to go to New York; they said they knew too many people there, and they wanted to branch out. They were attracted by the presence of the film industry and by the tradition, already tradition, of Modern architecture in Southern California. Irving Gill initially, turn of the century; then Frank Lloyd Wright here; then Rudolph Schindler and Richard Neutra, all of whom came as emigres to Southern California and established and built wonderful work. They were quite aware of that. Ray told me several times how, I think the word she used was thrilling, it was to live in Neutra’s Strathmore Apartments in Westwood, where they did one of their early plywood experiments, did they not?
DEMETRIOS: They did. They did quite a few.
HINES: Yeah. In the bathtub.
CUNO: What do you mean by those experiments? What were they experimenting with?
HINES: Well, the first one was the famous splint, for the Military. And then I believe they began thinking about chairs, still at Strathmore.
DEMETRIOS: The sequence is slightly different, ’cause there’s one other piece to the puzzle, is that when they came out here, they had actually already— Charles and Eero—who you mentioned, who was probably Charles’ closest friend, both personally and professionally—they had done the Organic Chair together. And that had had the prize that any designer, young designer today would also pretty much kill for, which was that your chair was actually gonna be made.
And so they won the prize in early ’41. Ray did not—was not involved in the design, but she helped prepare the drawings—the presentation drawings. But then they had a slight problem, which is that you couldn’t make molded plywood the way they thought they could. They meaning Charles and Eero. And so there’s a nice letter to Elliot Noyes, where Charles says, “If I’d known it was going to turn out this way, I would’ve designed it very differently.”
So by the time they came out here, they were actually planning to experiment with plywood. And so they did a couple of shells that are quite crude, and they also did two sculptures that are quite beautiful. And then the war started for the US. Obviously, it had started in other countries a few years earlier. But for the US, it started in Pearl Harbor. And a doctor friend of theirs had talked about how when they took the soldiers off the battlefield, the metal splints actually amplified the wound even more, tore it open even more.
So they said, “Hey, we’re working with wood.” So the reason why the sequence matters is that were coming to experiment with chairs from the beginning. But their first real experience with mass production was with the splints, as Tom was talking about. And they made a splint, they took it to the Navy, the Navy said, “Make 5,000 as a test.” They scrounged together the money. John Entenza helped to find that money. John Entenza was also the publisher of Arts and Architecture magazine.
And then they got great news. “We’ll take an order for 150,000 splints, and we’ll pay you when you deliver them.” That was way above their pay grade. So then that’s when they partnered with Evans Products to make those splints, and that’s why Evans is in the early story of the Eames furniture, even though most people listening to this will probably think of Herman Miller and Vitra as the manufacturers.
CUNO: So this is 1941 that you’re talking about. That’s when things get started with the plywood splint. But by 1945, they’re with Saarinen. Charles is designing this house. Tell us about the Case Study program and about John Entenza, whose name’s already come up once.
HINES: Yes. Well, John Entenza is a key figure in all of this. He was born in Michigan, went to the University of Virginia, was planning to go into the Diplomatic Corps. But he was a well-educated man of many interests, one of which was architecture. The arts in general and architecture. And he decided to come here. And he got a job here with MGM, doing experimental films.
And then with some money he had inherited from his mother, he looked around and got a job with California Arts and Architecture magazine. And several years later, he was able to buy the magazine and he became editor. And then decided he wanted it to sound not quite so parochial, and he dropped the California, and it became Arts and Architecture magazine, and was a major vehicle for many things.
But certainly, in spreading the word that Southern California was a lively place for the arts. After the war, during the war, thinking about the end of the war, he was concerned, as many were, about the course of architecture in the postwar era. Housing especially.
CUNO: ’Cause the need of housing was so great, so many people were coming back after the war?
HINES: [over Cuno] So great, yes. Not only the war, but through the Depression, housing had been in decline. And then the war, and then everyone knew there was going to be quite a market for housing. And Entenza was especially interested in providing models for the new architecture. And he decided that the magazine would sponsor a program of models, of Case Study houses, he called it, from which architects, builders, clients, patrons, could draw ideas and inspiration.
That was the beginning of the Case Study program. And John Entenza was a very orderly person. The only thing disorderly was the numbering, which is kind of a mess. It doesn’t make much sense now. The numbers were awarded, and the building might either not be built or be built so much later that the numbers no longer corresponded. But initially, Entenza had hoped the magazine would sponsor the houses and select the architects and clients.
That proved to be economically not quite so feasible. And so what he did was he encouraged interested people, patrons, to apply for a Case Study designation, after which he would show them the list of approved architects that they could choose from. And there were ultimately close to a dozen architects on this list.
Richard Neutra was one, and Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen. And this was Case Study number eight and—
CUNO: But on this bluff, there are four or five other Case Study houses.
HINES: There are three others or four others?
DEMETRIOS: Well, I think this speaks to your numbering issue. There are four official Case Study houses, but one other one that was designed by Neutra. And I just imagine the ceremony where the house was stripped of its number because the owner— the person that Entenza had found— flipped the property with somebody in Malibu, and the new owner wanted nothing to do with the Case Study program.
So the house is designed by Neutra, and it’s really quite nice. But it’s oriented wrong and— And so he disavowed it.
CUNO: Did Entenza own this bluff property that we’re on, where these multiple houses were built, ultimately built?
HINES: Susan knows this story.
MACDONALD: Well, my understanding is that Entenza purchased this piece of land here and invited a number of people to design houses for it. And the first one that Charles Eames was involved in was actually one that was to be designed for Entenza himself. And that was designed by Saarinen and Charles Eames together, which sits next door to this house. And where we’re sitting in the studio here, you could, when it was still the Entenza house and was originally conceived, sat, you know, just across there, and we would be looking at it— at it right now.
So that was the house that was designed for John Entenza himself. And then Charles and Ray purchased this block of land and designed— initially designed a house with Saarinen here, which was known as the Bridge House, which actually sat perpendicular to the house as it now stands, and into the meadow.
And that actually went through a whole design process and was approved by council. But then before it was actually built and just before it was about to start construction, they developed a new design for the house, which was approved, and then is the one that we have now.
DEMETRIOS: Yeah. And this house was designed by Charles and Ray.
DEMETRIOS: So there’re a number of things about this house, also. That it was made out of prefabricated parts, off-the-shelf parts. So when the parts were delivered, it was really a kit of parts that was delivered for the first design.
CUNO: The Bridge House.
DEMETRIOS: The Bridge House. And Charles and Ray realized that what they were doing, they were doing what— making a mistake that architects often make, which is to find a beautiful site and then destroy it with a building. So they redesigned it to be built from the same pile of parts, and they only had to order one extra beam. And that became the house you see here.
And it was really about preserving the meadow. And one of the things that I believe about Charles and Ray’s design in general is that you can see their thinking in all their work. You can see the ideas in the form of the objects or the work. And the house, I think, is a perfect example. Is that it is two steel cages. They are connected, they are one piece. And yet somehow this house is so in tune with the landscape, more in tune than with many houses that you see with— that are very biomorphic.
And I think it’s because of the idea. That they valued this site so much they changed their design to accommodate its best feature, rather than— They didn’t have to chop down any of those trees. The trees were here before the house.
CUNO: All these eucalyptus trees that we’re surrounded by? I mean, it does give you the sense that you’re in a treehouse, sitting here looking out through the glass windows and through the canopy of trees. So it’s rooted onto the site. No doubt the site was extremely important, to be rooted onto the ground. But it does give you that sense of elevation.
HINES: And I think it was Ray who was not an actual designer of the Bridge House, but a critic.
HINES: And was very much a participant in the discussions. And she made the observation that it was an elegant design, but it, quote, “wasted” so much space that could’ve been living space and work space. Which also led to it being shelved for the second design, which she was co-designer on.
CUNO: Yeah, tell us about Ray and how Ray and Charles got together in a working relationship, as well as a marriage relationship.
DEMETRIOS: What’s interesting about reading their correspondence and hearing, talking with people who knew them at that time and hearing what they said, is that from the very beginning, there was this idea of a relationship of love and work. I mean, their letters when— before they got married, that correspondence is filled with you know, work they wanted to do together. And it really, it was a meeting of minds.
And Charles’ first wife is also my grandmother and was an amazing person, and I think in a different era, would probably have been an amazing businesswoman. She had a great, you know, a great ability for management and things like that. But in terms of a simpatico meeting of the minds, it wasn’t there. And with Charles and Ray, from the beginning, they had this connection.
And so when they came out here, it was really, I think, to start fresh, as you were saying. And to start fresh, also, as— you know, as creators together. And so I mean, one of the things that I think is interesting—and this house is actually a great example—is that in their process, there was a lot of iteration, meaning they would do version after version of an idea. If you ever get a chance to see some of the furniture exhibitions, you see all these different prototypes. And what’s interesting is that architecture is one of the most expensive media in the world, maybe even the most expensive. And yet they found a way to iterate here.
To do this idea. I don’t think any of them, even Eero, I’m sure, did not think, oh, we wasted our time doing the Bridge House. It was just a way to complete some thinking. They completed it so far they ordered the parts. But they saw it could be better. So when you ask how did they work together, I think that this idea of three-dimensional prototyping is really important. Because we’ve all had the experience where you look at a plan and the contractor sees one thing, you see another.
One of the things that Charles wrote to Ray before they married was, he said, when she was in New York and he was still at Cranbook, he wrote, “We must see each other soon. This business of being dream people in each other’s minds is no good.” So it is super-romantic. But it’s also very relevant to this collaboration, because they didn’t wanna make the dream house in their minds, the dream design; they wanted it to really be there.
So when you ask how did they work together, by always being very visionary, but very pragmatic at the same time, and focusing on what they were actually able to accomplish. They would push the envelope, they would challenge what other people had done before, but they were always working on actual forms. And you see it really clearly in the furniture; but I think you also see it here.
CUNO: Susan, what you had a—?
MACDONALD: I was just gonna go back to that point about the location of the house in relation to the landscape, ’cause I think it’s quite important in terms of thinking about the house today and implications for its conservation. So one of the things that you experience now, by pulling the house back, nestling it into the hillside and setting it behind this row of eucalypts, which date from the 1870s, from a former scheme of plantings, Abbot Kinney and bringing eucalypts to the US, is that you have—You have the hillside one side, and you—then the house opens up into this sort of lightweight sides and glass, and you get this very strong relationship between the screen of the trees and looking through that to the landscape.
And the other thing that that did was create this incredibly lively façade, which I think is really important here. So you get this interplay of light and shadow across the façade, the changing way the light is experienced, both from the inside and the outside, and changing through of the seasons and things. Which I think is so special about this house, that quality of light. The way you experience the house from inside is very beautiful, and special, and changing. It’s never static. And I think that also went to the way the house was then occupied and furnished and changed, and things that they collected, you know, came into the house and were moved around. And so there’s this sort of feeling of playfulness and joy that you get from this very lively façade, that is then sort of echoed inside the house, in the way they lived and worked here, and how that related to their design process and—
And I think that some of that’s a tangible thing and some it’s intangible and it’s about spirit of place that we talk about sometimes with this house, which I think is really quite lovely and quite special. And the fact that that can be experienced here is really what makes it stand out, I think. And it’s a different Modern house in that regard.
DEMETRIOS: And even the way we used it when we would stay here is that it is two buildings. They are connected by this retaining wall that goes into the hillside. But even the way the courtyard and the patio have almost a grid—not almost, they do have a grid—invites you to think of those as rooms that just don’t happen to have walls and ceilings.
And my recollection is very vivid of when we would come here, it would be very natural; you’d walk in the door that has the doorbell next to it. But almost immediately, you’d open the kitchen door. And I’d be curious if you had a similar experience when you visited Ray up here. And then this door would be open, and almost immediately, you would have a very long building, not two shortish ones.
And it would just be this very open experience. And I think that that’s, again, pretty key to how they viewed it and how they shared it with other people and how they used it for themselves.
HINES: Another way of assuring variety is the fact that the two buildings are not the same size. The living residential part, to the west, is longer by several bays.
CUNO: So we’re sitting in the studio. This was conceived as a workspace, and you distinguished it from the residence in the other building. How long was it the center of their work? Or was it always the center of their work? But at some point, they open an office. They were here for a few years before they opened the office?
DEMETRIOS: Their first studio was actually, well, on Santa Monica Boulevard, not far from The Barn, by Quincy Jones, which had not been built then. But their first—
HINES: [over Demetrios] Studio was really the Strathmore Apartments.
DEMETRIOS: Yeah. That was the first [inaudible]
HINES: [over Demetrios] Neutra Strathmore Apartments.
CUNO: And the bathtub.
DEMETRIOS: Yeah, absolutely the bathtub. And even, I think, my mom’s room was pressed into service when she went to college. But then they went to a couple places, but in 1943, they went to 901 West Washington Boulevard, which is now Abbot Kinney. They had the front part of it—That was their office.
And then it was the molded plywood division of Evans Products. And then around there there was a factory where they made some of the splints, as well as on that site. So when this place came along, they had been working together professionally, you know, for eight years. And they built this, and this was actually intended to be a film studio.
Like, a lot of the photography for the House of Cards toy was done here. The early films—Toccata for Toy Trains, Traveling Boy, Blacktop, and a number of others—were all done in this space. And then in 1958, three things happen simultaneously. The first thing is after Herman Miller took over the manufacturing in the US, the back part of 901 was used by Herman Miller as a factory. So again, if you think about this maker idea of the feedback loop between design and manufacturing, it was perfect. There was a factory back there.
But the problem was at a certain point, Miller didn’t need such a small factory. The Eames Office got their first big commission from IBM. And then even more important, my three older siblings, who came here to California after our mom divorced her first husband and they needed a place to say, they stayed here. Charles and Ray invited them here. And the logical place to have them stay was here in the studio in the house.
They got to have a rope swing hanging from that ceiling, and swing off the stairs into a pile of boxes, which I still feel enormously oppressed that I wasn’t part of. But what happened was, is that confluence of things really meant that the whole creative center of gravity shifted to 901. So after 1958, this was primarily a residence. And the studio became— sort of functioned as extended living space. Ultimately, Charles and Ray had five grandkids. If we all came down together, we would stay here. If we were by ourselves, we could stay in the house part.
And if you look at the photographs, after about 1962 or ’3, pictures of the living room look pretty much identical to how it looks today. Which is one of the things that’s helped us as we decide what period of time to choose. It’s not like we’re choosing the moment two seconds before Ray got—was hit by a truck. We’re instead choosing a moment that they had really evolved a visual experience that they—you know, worked for them.
CUNO: Now, that’s a perfect segue to bring the Getty Conservation Institute into the conversation, because when you said what time to choose, I think you mean what time to sort of arrest it as a memorial and as a [Demetrios: Correct] great monument to Modern architecture. How did you decide that time? And how did you decide that that’s what was going to be the work of the foundation, the preservation of this historic house? And then how did you get connected to the Getty Conservation Institute?
DEMETRIOS: So if you look at the sixties and seventies, the house was pretty much as we see today. Charles died in 1978; Ray died ten years to the day afterwards, August 21st, 1988. And she had explored a lot of different options. I have a strong feeling that Tom was somebody that she talked to. And in the end, she decided that the thing that she could rely on the most was to have the family take responsibility, both for the work and the intellectual property, but also for the house itself.
And you know, one of the things one has to recognize, that in America, architecture is just real estate. And it’s a whole other topic. But when a house like this comes onto land that’s this valuable, you have to take it off the market in some way, because you cannot rely on every single buyer wanting to have— You know, these are three acres overlooking the Pacific, in one of the most valuable zip codes in America. Ironically, when Charles and Ray built it, it was out of town.
So there was that awareness that we were gonna have to do something. Our mother, Lucia Eames, she was aware of that. But Ray also knew that she could count on Mom to do the right thing. And so Mom inherited the house, and for the first year after Ray died, my sister Lucia lived here. She’s the only person to have an extended living experience here besides Charles and Ray. And then we moved the Eames Office here from 901, ’cause it had—that had to be closed.
And so we kind of had a very conservative approach. We didn’t change anything. We followed this idea of, you know, do no harm. But in general, we really just didn’t change anything. And it worked for a certain amount of time. Then at a certain point in time, we realized that it was too much wear and tear on the house to have the Eames Office here, so we got a gallery. And so some operations were here.
And in that time, we had decided to really choose the moment in time to arrest it, as you say, to be the moment Ray died. But really, in this context of it meaning much more than that. That if this were forestry, you’d call it the climax community. It’d be— That’s what the— visually, this whole thing had evolved to. And this side had always been a multipurpose area. So for a while, it was as we discussed. But then it was the Eames Office and then—now it’s where the foundation office is.
So it was more important to keep this structurally identical; but the actual collections at any one point in time didn’t have the meaning that they have on the other side. So our mom created the foundation in 2004, because if you sold this house, you could not be sure that— Even if the first owner promised to keep it exactly as it was, sooner or later there’d be an owner who would sell it, who’d sell it for condos and make a killing on it. ’Cause in America, you can also save a building from everybody but the owner. When sometimes it’s the owner that you really need to save it from. And so these are not great ways to run a culture, but it’s how we do it.
And so within that context, the best choice is to, hey, you know, create this foundation, give the house to it, so it’s—The owner of this house is not the family, it’s the Eames Foundation. And so that started in 2004.
And then at a certain point, we realized that we couldn’t always not do something, because we need to be more proactive. So we created something that my sister Lucia leads, which is the 250 Year Project. And we’re trying to write the book, kind of almost a metaphorical book, that you would need in 250 years if you were in charge of the Eames House. Because if you think about it, if this were a brick house, people know what to do with brick. I mean, people know what to do with wood. But the Crystal Palace, as I understand it, was basically the first all-steel building, and that’s less than 250 years old.
So that tells you how young it is. Even though we think about the Cemestos as being the young materials, even steel is young. You know, there’s steel swords, but in terms of building. So then what really catalyzed a whole series of conversations was thinking about the contents, thinking about climate control. And another thing that happened is that we got to the point where the tiles in the living room were deteriorating quite rapidly. They were becoming what you saw, rather than their being what they should, which is the floor of the room.
And one of the interesting things about the climate control is that when we consulted experts, they assured us that the most important thing to do was to seal off the house and to install air curtains and all this kind of stuff. And we said, “Well, that’s totally not the spirit.” We’ve already talked about how there was this real openness, but this indoor-outdoor feeling. And they said, “You have to do this,” and we said, “Actually, we don’t have to do it. We’re responsible for this house; we need to do what’s right for it.”
And we got in touch with the Getty and you guys were incredibly empathetic to that viewpoint, that maybe that— maybe it wasn’t one size fits all, when it comes to climate control. Maybe you actually have to think about the building it’s in.
CUNO: So what is that? That’s 2011 or ’12, huh?
CUNO: Yeah. So— and is that when the Getty gets involved, 2011?
MACDONALD: Yeah. So we actually were just thinking about launching our Conserving Modern Architecture Initiative at that time, and we hadn’t in fact launched it. We didn’t do that till 2012, in March. But word was out on the street that we were starting to think about this. And in fact, what happened was that the architects Escher GuneWardena, who were working with the Eames Foundation, approached us and said, “There are some tricky challenges here with doing the work that was immediately on hand, which was the floor.
“Is there any way that the Getty might be interested in supporting or helping us with this work here?” And in thinking about the Conserving Modern Architecture Initiative, we knew that we were probably gonna want a field project somewhere. And we had been thinking that to have a field project in California would be really terrific, because it’s such an important place for Modern architecture, particularly of the— sort of the postwar era. That seemed a good fit for us. I mean, many of our projects are international, but we felt that it would be a great idea to do that.
So the Eames Foundation contacted us and said, “Is that something that you might be able to help us with?” And we thought, wow. I mean, what an incredible privilege, to be able to think that our first field project might not only be in California, but might be in Los Angeles, and actually might be to somehow help in some way to contribute to the conservation of this house, which is internationally important, I think. And it also was a great fit for us ’cause it exhibited a lot of the challenges that conserving Modern architecture has.
Things like the innovative use of materials and construction techniques. That brings very conservation challenges. That issue of trying to demonstrate how we might be able to apply typical conservation approaches and methodologies to a Modern building. And then the third thing that we thought was really important here was, as Eames said, how do you provide the right museum environment, if you like, for this very important collection of objects and furniture and things that related Ray and Charles’ life and tell you so much about their design process and their story, in a way that doesn’t impact on the architecture?
And the house is actually quite robust in some ways, but fragile in others, but it’s incredibly intact. It’s had, as we’ve heard, very little change over time. And so how could you find that balance between finding— being a good a place for this important collection to be living, with not having an impact on the architectural fabric, and also maintaining the way that the foundation liked people to be able to experience that— the house, that relationship between interior and exterior?
I remember it quite distinctly, that there was one weekend where we were sent a whole lot of reports that the foundation had commissioned to try and, you know, do the right thing, and every time they looked at one problem, more challenges would arise. And [they] asked us to have a look and give our opinion and think about whether there might be some new ways to think— or different ways to think about that.
And my environmental engineer-scientist that worked within, Shin Maekawa, looked at things. We looked at them over the weekend and we said, “We think there’s another way to think about this. And we can draw on the GCI’s work in hot and humid climates in managing museum collections, combined with our work on modern materials, and combined with our thinking about conservation methodologies that brings all these different strands of our work together, and actually meets a whole lot of needs and challenges of international relevance for conserving Modern architecture.
So we kinda came back after that weekend and had some conversations internally at the Getty and went, “We would love to try and be able to help you.” So that’s sort of how the story emerged, and we’ve sort of moved along ever since, so— And we didn’t know each other very well at that time. But I think what quickly emerged, that there was a bit of a meeting of minds here, because the way we do our field projects is that we don’t grant fund projects. You know, we bring expertise and experience and capacity building and scientific research to bear on these things.
And so the way we work with our partners is really important. So one of the things that we thought was really important here was that here was a family, a foundation, who had a very, very careful approach to stewardship of the house. They’d been thinking about it long and hard. They recognized that it needed a very gentle and slow approach. They were very interested in this idea of how research and good information can actually inform the decisions that you make. And they were really interested in the process of conservation.
You know, it was really exciting for the foundation to see how those things linked together. And so it was really interesting for us, because they already had the 250 year plan concept, and so there all— there was a lot of alignment on values and about approach; that we might’ve talked about it slightly different, but at its core, there was a strong intersection there.
And I think that’s why we felt that this could be something that could be quite successful. We don’t normally jump into projects that quickly, I would say. But this one, we launched it fairly quickly. And I think that was because there was a strong feeling that we had some very similar interests and aligned values behind what we were thinking about, and what we could bring to it and what the Eames Foundation might be receptive to and might be interested in exploring. And there’s also this idea that could the conservation of this house provide a model for others that are engaged in this challenge of stewarding these houses into the future?
DEMETRIOS: And in a way, all that process that Susan describes was very Eamesian. ’Cause I’ve always thought one of the things they were so good at was prepared spontaneity, which is, I think something they admired about the circus. And so even though it was, you know, a rush my sister Lucia had been thinking about this this 250 Year project in a very specific— Not—
’Cause the abstract part, I won’t say it’s easy, because not that many people have done the abstract part. But it’s one step. But the next step is to take apart what that requires. And so therefore, she had been working on that for some time. And my personal moment of feeling like things were gonna go great was when you guys—
Well, first of all, meeting Shin was amazing. And he’s certainly still missed. But he—his spirit and his approach, and also the fact that he had done the Terra Cotta Warriors and the King Tut’s tomb, and done these things that seemed so glamorous and far away and all that. But he saw that this was, in its way, as important. And that is obvious to us, and maybe all of us at the table; but to have that same rigor brought to the challenges of our space was pretty fantastic.
CUNO: Well, Susan, rather briefly, could you tell us what it is that you’ve learned over the course of the last, I guess, seven or eight years on the house? And also what the next steps are?
MACDONALD: Sure. So when we got past the initial thinking about how do we solve this immediate problem of replacing the floor, and then balancing that with a whole lot of other things that couldn’t be done immediately, we really saw this project as being able to do three different things. And the first one of that was really to demonstrate how you can, and in fact should, apply the conservation methodology that we might use for our other projects like King Tutankhamen’s tomb or our work in China or any of our other projects, how you could apply that to Modern architecture.
Because I think that had been something that people involved in conserving Modern architecture had been struggling at. And we really wanted to demonstrate how and why you should do that and what that process is. So that the second thing we did, after dealing with the floor, was to suggest that we did something called a conservation management plan. Which is basically a blueprint that goes through a process of really looking at the history and the place and understanding what’s important about it. And that ends up being a guide that can be used on a day to day basis or a medium-term basis, on a long-term basis for the house. And we’re just about to finish and publish that particular piece of work.
But the second thing that we recognized was that through the conservation of this house, you got to tackle some of the material challenges that we’ve heard a lot about—how the use of innovative new materials, the use of traditional materials in new ways, was very much characteristic of this particular property and of Modern architecture generally, and raises very particular conservation challenges, because the materials haven’t behaved in the way that we thought they might or we don’t know how to conserve them yet, or various things like that.
And so we were able to bring the Getty’s ability to do scientific research and understand how things deteriorate and why, and then think of solutions, and then trial them, and then implement them here. So we started with trying to work out, you know, what sort of floor covering could replace what was there before, in a way that didn’t off-gas and affect the collection.
But also things like how do you conserve that wood, with its particular treatment, you know, that was again sort of characteristic of that era? How do we deal with things like the steel frame windows? So we did things like paint research and we learned a lot about the history of the building and its care and maintenance, through looking at the stratigraphy of the paint, for example. And now we’re working on these Cemesto panels to work out how can we retain them and preserve them and— in the future? So there’s lots of things about lots of the different material issues that, one, demonstrate a sort of process for how you can understand Modern materials better, and then preserve them. That also eventually will lead into tackling these things one by one in the house.
And I think the third thing was this issue of how do we balance good museum standard collections care and dealing with the internal environment, for what is essentially a single-pane glass box with original glass in it and an original frame. And so that delicate balance between minimal intervention and preservation. So there are kind of three big headings of things that are not uncommon for lots of Modern buildings.
So we thought, if we can point to the process and some of the actual solutions to those things for this house, and share that through the way the Getty often shares, between publications, training, et cetera, that will be of great benefit. And then, you know, then we’ve found some solutions for dealing with it at this particular house.
And I think that what are we doing next? And what are we doing right now? Well, we need to finish our conservation plan and publish that. And that’s identified priorities that the Eames Foundation has already started to implement. So they’ve been looking at the landscape and dealing with a whole lot of issues related to that.
The Eames Foundation did a first very light conservation project on the house and the studio, in terms of doing some light sort of holding repairs, if you like, to the frame. Making sure that it was weatherproof, that the windows opened and shut, things like that. And then replaced the roof. Flat roofs, another challenge for Modern architecture.
And we’re now moving into the next phase of that, which we’ve talked a bit about, the Cemesto panels, a little bit. And the issue there being that they’ve got asbestos in them. While they’re not actually actively falling apart, they’re not toxic, so is there a way that you can contain the ones that are still in good condition, and therefore keep them? Recognizing that, you know, there’s a lot of original fabric in this house and we want to try and keep it as much as possible. And if we have to replace them, what sort of materials could be used to replace them? So there’s some of those material challenges that we’re still doing.
The other piece that we’re working on right now is this environmental strategy. And we’ve sort of got to that point now, where we’ve been able to say, okay, well, we understand what’s important about this house. We want to minimize the impact on the envelope. You know, we don’t want to replace the glass. We don’t want to completely seal it. So how could we introduce some light types of dehumidification and air flow in the house, in way that doesn’t introduce lots of equipment and have to put ducts everywhere?
How can we still respect the Eames Foundation’s wish to operate the house, have the doors and windows open so people can experience the breezes through the house or, you know, have the door open and look inside, but still protect it from UV light and rapid changes of heat and things? Can we put film on the window? What sort of film should that be? Could we be clever about how the curtains might be able to embed, I don’t know, UV fabric in them?
Can we have some sort of operational guidelines for what time the windows and the curtains should be opened and closed and things? So we’re right at the moment of sort of coming up, developing with the Eames Foundation, what that environmental strategy could be that suits them. And then the next phase would be to implement and introduce some of those environmental controls. So that’s where we’re up to right now.
But if I could just say—I think one of the things that we learnt very early on was that when people talk about this place, they often think about the architecture. You know, they talk about the Eames House. And I think the first thing that we learnt from the family, actually—and it goes to how you need to conserve it—is that this is a special house in a very beautiful landscape, with a important collection. And there’s a symbiotic relationship between the collection, the landscape, and the house.
And you can’t treat either one of those things in isolation. You have to understand how each one of those aspects is important and how they relate to each other, so you can make these decisions about what to do about the fabric or the visitor management or the, you know, the collection itself. And I think that as well as the physical fabric, the other thing that we learnt was there are some intangible values that are inherent here in this place, that relate to the family and the Eames Foundation, and the way Ray and Charles lived and worked in the house, that was really important to identify and try and work out how you can continue and preserve those.
Because they tell you something about this couple and their work that you know, if the house had been passed on to, you know, some guardians that weren’t part of that family, wouldn’t have continued some of those processes and traditions and ways that they use the place. So things like the arrangement of the flowers in the house, the tradition of picnicking, this guest-host relationship, in the way that the Foundation greets people and allows people to experience this place—that’s very much part of that Eamesian story.
And so I think what we were able to do in the conservation plan, which you would never have expected for a Modern house, was to identify some of those intangible values, that spirit of place, and then try and work out, well, how do we make sure that they continue in the management of the house in the future? And so we needed to identify them and write them down, so that we could essentially get them preserved. Because there will be a moment when the people that are looking after this house don’t have that direct connection with Ray and Charles. And that’s why I think it was really important that the foundation recognized why it was important to do this type of work right now.
Because this was the moment where you have this lovely connection between the past and the present and planning for the future that you only ever get when you’re dealing with a modern house. We never have that when we’re dealing with more ancient sites. And it’s one of the things that makes it really quite special. And I had always liked that about conserving Modern architecture. What I hadn’t understood how you could maybe capture it and sustain it. So that’s something that I think we’ve learnt.
And we’re trying to help others that are at that moment be able to do that same thing, in some of the work that we’re doing in other parts of our work through the program, and helping other people who’ve been getting grants from the Conserving Modern Architecture Initiative, who are lucky enough to be in that very special position where there’s that link between creator and steward, which is, I think, unique and just really quite special.
CUNO: Yeah. Well, tell me, Tom, as an architectural historian, your view of the work the Getty’s undertaking, and of course, the responsibility that the foundation is undertaking.
HINES: Well, I’m just very impressed and appreciative. Gosh. I mean, as a friend of the Eames House, as a historian and citizen of Los Angeles, all of the above, it’s wonderful. There were people at UCLA who were very excited about the possibility of UCLA moving into this. But they didn’t have the grasp of the family and of the distant, distant future needs.
DEMETRIOS: Our whole family, my whole generation has been involved. Lucia has been intensely involved, I’ve been involved intensely at various points. But our three other siblings, without them, without their support, the foundation, you know, wouldn’t be here. Because we all believed, as our mother did, that this was a special place. We had it in trust. It didn’t belong to us, in a way; it belonged to the world.
And so we’ve been seeking always ways to make that happen. And I think we’ve been successful so far. But we wanna pursue that, because I think that for me, one of the reasons I think that taking care of architecture is important, is that what’s interesting about architecture is, you know, why do we care about old buildings? Because, you know, couldn’t you make the same building today? I mean, couldn’t you just basically do the same thing?
And I think the reason why older buildings matter is that every piece of architecture represents an opinion about the future. And you can’t go back in time and have that opinion after all that future has already happened. So therefore, they teach us a lot about what people saw, what people thought could happen, what materials they thought would work well. And I think that this house is a— is a great example of it. I mean, it’s in some ways, a very conservative house. And yet it comes across as very radical. I mean, it serves the needs incredibly well.
I visited a guy who owned a house that Charles designed in St. Louis in the thirties. And I knocked on the door, as people who care about architecture do, to the— And I said, “This is gonna sound kinda weird, but I think my grandfather designed your house.” And he goes, “Oh, yeah, I heard about Charles Eames.” He said— he said it was the only place he’d ever lived where everything was in the right place. And I think Charles would’ve thought, great; I did a great job.
And so I think that that you see that in this house. And you see it in the whole Case Study program. You know, this bluff is very unique, you know, in terms of—to have such a concentration of opinions about the future. Because what’s fascinating to me about this program is that it wasn’t Levittown, one size fits all and then everybody—And Levittown was a smart idea. This was a very different idea; it was that you were invited to collage your own house from the pieces of the Case Study houses you saw.
And that’s a very different idea. And Charles and Ray, in my mind, have always been sort of collage culture meets garage culture. Because they had that working in the garage, that Hewlett-Packard, that you know, Jobs and Wosniak thing. And they literally did, in that Neutra apartment. But there was another part, which was taking pieces and seeing connections that maybe other people hadn’t seen.
So when you come to this house and you walk up to this bluff and this driveway, you’re invited into that way of thinking. And not everybody leaves their mark in the world that way, that their spirit can be seen through the physical things they left behind. But Charles and Ray are on that list, and that’s what this place is.
HINES: Yeah, I would add that not only did they think about the present and the future, but it reveals the ways they thought about the past. This is the most famous of all the Case Study houses. It is also the most unique of all the Case Study houses. It’s the most unlike the others, which we need to think about more.
CUNO: Well, thank you all for all of your time on this project. And I have to say that [background noise] you’ve got this quality, but you’ve kept the quality of the house as if maybe Charles and Ray had just left, popped out to the store, and might be back any moment.
HINES: That’s the remarkable thing.
DEMETRIOS: Yeah. Well, I think that’s one of the challenges of homes in general, is that any other kind of building, you can repurpose. You can turn a Carnegie library into a good restaurant, and probably a Radio Shack, with, you know, a certain amount of pivoting. But a house always has to be a home. And so how to keep that feeling into the future, but in an authentic way. ’Cause it has to also be real. I know we’ve spent a lot of time thinking about it, and I think like everything else, it takes hard work.
Our theme music comes from “The Dharma at Big Sur,” composed by John Adams for the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles in 2003. It is licensed with permission from Hendon Music. Look for new episodes of Art and Ideas every other Wednesday. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts or Google Play Music. For photos, transcripts, and other resources, visit getty.edu/podcasts. Thanks for listening.
JIM CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
EAMES DEMETRIOS: They brought their process, which was not a style, but a way of looking at things...