Architecture and Design, Art, Behind the Scenes, Conservation, Getty Conservation Institute

The Eames House – Conserving a California Icon

The Eames House

Eames House, the iconic landmark of mid-20th century modern architecture built in 1949 by husband-and-wife design team Ray and Charles Eames.

At the base of a coastal hill in Los Angeles, alongside a large meadow and among eucalyptus trees, sits the Eames House, a masterpiece of midcentury modernism. The 1949 home is part of a group of five houses on a five-acre parcel—formerly part of the Will Rogers estate—located on a bluff with expansive views of the Pacific Ocean. It was designed under the influential Case Study House Program, initiated by John Entenza, editor of Arts and Architecture magazine.

Built by prolific American designers Charles and Ray Eames, the house was an experiment in the use of prefabricated materials and mass-produced, off-the-shelf products to rapidly construct a residential structure. The use of industrial materials for home building was unique at the time. The shape and height of the house and studio, as well as the personalized use of interior space, are equally exceptional. Charles and Ray Eames inhabited the house and studio until their deaths in 1978 and 1988, respectively. The paired structures, as well as their contents and collections, tell us much about the design and architecture of this era and about the role the Eameses played as innovators of modernism.

In September 2011, the contents of the Eames House living room were temporarily relocated to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art for exhibit in California Design, 1930–1965: “Living in a Modern Way,” part of Pacific Standard Time: Art in L.A. 1945–1980. The loan to the exhibition provided an opportunity to address physical conditions at the house that had not been examined in detail since its construction. The Getty Conservation Institute partnered with the Charles and Ray Eames Preservation Foundation Inc. (Eames Foundation) in March 2012 to develop a conservation management plan for the long-term care and maintenance of the site. This effort became the first field project under the GCI’s Conserving Modern Architecture Initiative.

Undertaken with the support of the GCI Council and the Dunard Fund USA, the project addresses a number of interrelated conservation issues that focus on the building envelope and the development of an appropriate environment for the interior fabric of the house, which includes its contents and collection—all part of the design legacy of Charles and Ray Eames.

The project team is providing conservation advice, investigating the interior and exterior environmental climates of the house, and performing scientific analysis of the material fabric, with assistance from Getty Museum conservators.

Kyle Normandin, project manager of the Eames House Conservation Project, collecting light measurements.

At the beginning of the project, a multidisciplinary team of conservators, scientists, architects, and engineers faced a number of challenges.

In the living room, after sixty years in place, the square vinyl tiles had lost adhesion to the concrete floor and had become loose and brittle. In addition, the tile and adhesive materials were laden with asbestos and required careful removal. Once the tiles were removed, it was clear that moisture was seeping through the concrete floor. To prevent further damage, the GCI worked with the Eames Foundation’s consulting architects, Escher GuneWardena Architecture, to find a liquid moisture barrier system for use beneath new vinyl composite tile flooring. It was also aesthetically critical for the new living room floor tiles to match the originals in appearance and to be long-lasting. The moisture barrier system also had to be compatible with the new flooring, to ensure a healthy interior environment.

Another area of GCI investigation was the use of color and paint at the Eames House. In July last year, GCI staff were able to document more fully the use of color at the house. Ray Eames was an artist and colorist, and her influence on the selection of paint colors and patterns at the house was clear in the investigation of the paint stratigraphy. By careful examination of paint samples removed from the interior and exterior metalwork, researchers recorded the series of painting campaigns over the life of the house, confirming how the color changed over time, as substantiated by the Eames Foundation.

GCI staff Emily Macdonald-Korth carrying out paint excavation on exterior metal work.

GCI staff Emily Macdonald-Korth carrying out paint excavation on exterior metal work at the Eames House.

The GCI carried out on-site paint excavations at selected areas of the metalwork and steel window frames. Using stainless steel scalpels and on-site microscopy, conservators made small exposure windows on painted surfaces, peeling back each paint layer to reveal the layers underneath. Through this examination, the GCI discovered a first-generation paint layer of a light, opaque warm gray. The paint was distinctively mixed and possibly tinted by hand with mineral pigments such as red iron oxide, Prussian blue, and chrome yellow—a finding that tends to confirm the original warm gray color of the metalwork described in early accounts of the house. Understanding this paint stratigraphy, combined with documentary evidence, will assist in making choices about repainting the metalwork, both now and in the future.

Whereas a tremendous amount of information exists about most of the materials used to construct and fabricate the Eames House, little information existed about the wood paneling wall in the living room. The long narrow panel boards in the room are configured vertically from floor to ceiling and form a continuous walled surface of warm golden wood that spans the interior rear wall of the living room and continues on the other side of the glass wall to the south-facing exterior terrace area. The large glass expanses meant long-term exposure to daylight, including ultraviolet light, that has caused some degradation of the living room wood finishes (and some distress to the living room contents as well). Getty Museum conservators identified the wood species by removing small samples, and examining the cellular structure microscopically.

GCI scientist Joy Mazurek carrying out an investigation of the wood panels.

GCI scientist Joy Mazurek carrying out an investigation of the wood panels.

This examination, which included studying the size and arrangement of the wood vessel pits, confirmed that the wood is a species of eucalyptus (Eucalyptus microcorys) commonly known as Australian tallowwood. Interestingly, similar eucalyptus trees stand outside the Eames house and populate the neighboring hillside.
Conservators recommended a treatment for the paneling that would preserve the original tallowwood and varnish treatments, including the patina. Treatment began with a gentle overall cleaning of the wall with a mild aqueous solution to remove soil from the pores of the wood. Then several re-saturating varnishes were evaluated for color and appearance, with minimal aesthetic impact to the original wood substrate being an important consideration. The treatment chosen involved a light re-saturating varnish that maintained the warm glow of the tallowwood paneling.

One of the goals of the Eames House Conservation Project is demonstrating how a maintenance-based approach to conservation can prolong the life span of building materials and prevent unnecessary replacement.

Current and past investigations and continued environmental monitoring of the interior and exterior climates will lead to greater understanding of the original building material fabric and of the care needed to enhance its durability—information that will guide decisions by the Eames Foundation about the maintenance of the house.

Development of a conservation management plan that brings together historical documentary evidence, physical analysis of the existing fabric, and knowledge of its performance will inform a long-term strategy for the care and conservation of the house.

At the same time, this project will provide a model for the preservation of similar buildings from this era by demonstrating ways that thoughtful conservation can be applied to modern buildings.

For more information about the work of the GCI at the Eames House, click here.

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