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What’s in a Wood? How Science Helps to Reveal the Eames’ Vision

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

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

Exciting things continue to happen at the Eames House as part of the Getty Conservation Institute’s ongoing conservation work. The iconic house, designed and built between 1945 and 1949 by Charles and Ray Eames (with early plans drafted in collaboration with Eero Saarinen) holds some interesting mysteries, particularly if you like wood.

If you’ve ever visited or seen images of the Eames House living room, you may remember the floor-to-ceiling wall of beautiful golden wood that serves as the stunning backdrop for the room. The aged paneling needed study, evaluation, and treatment. But before conserving an object, you need to know exactly what it’s made of—and in this case, the type of wood was a complete unknown.

I have been a fan of the Eames’ since I was a child, watching the early film by Charles and Ray Eames, Powers of Ten, over and over again at the American Museum of Natural History. So when Kyle Normandin, who manages the Eames House Conservation project at the Conservation Institute, asked me to contribute to the conservation of the wood paneling in the Eames House, collaborating with the Charles and Ray Eames House Preservation Foundation, LLC and other Getty Conservation Institute staff members, I couldn’t have been more pleased.

As a furniture conservator at the J. Paul Getty Museum, I usually content myself with working on and studying the fabulous pieces of French furniture in our collection, so working on a modern architectural icon was an exciting change of pace.

Perhaps you were lucky enough to see the reassembled living room from the Eames House when it was installed at LACMA in California Design, 1930–1965: Living in a Modern Way, part of the Getty’s Pacific Standard Time initiative.

What you may not realize is that the Eames Foundation agreed to loan the furnishings in the living room so that together with the architects, Escher GuneWardena, it could take the opportunity to begin some significant conservation work on the house. The GCI’s initial role of adviser quickly expanded to support the rigorous scientific analysis necessary to conserve the house and the collection of objects inside.

The Eames House Conservation Project is the first project under the umbrella of the Conserving Modern Architecture Initiative, launched in March 2012. You can read more about that effort in a previous post here.

The living room in the Eames House after conservation and reinstallation of the collection

The living room in the Eames House after conservation and reinstallation of the collection. The floor-to-ceiling wall of beautiful golden wood serves as the stunning backdrop for the room. Photo: The Getty Conservation Institute

On site, for me the first order of business was to identify the kind of wood from which the paneling was made. Although a tremendous amount of information exists about the many materials used in the fabrication of the house, somehow this bit of information had been lost over the years. To identify the wood scientifically, I extracted a small sample, about the size of a pencil eraser, from behind one of the electrical cover plates.

I took the sample back to our lab at the Getty and used our microtome, a special tool used to make extremely thin slices of material, to cut the sample into transparent slices I could view under the microscope. By examining the cellular structure of the wood, it is possible to identify the species of wood with good precision. I’ve been doing this kind of wood identification for many years, but I never cease to be amazed at how beautiful wood can be under the microscope, and the Eames House sample was no exception.

Artistry in nature. The Eames House wood paneling seen under the polarized light microscope. The bright white cubes are tiny crystals of calcium oxalate.

Artistry in nature. The Eames House wood paneling seen under the polarized light microscope. The bright white cubes are tiny crystals of calcium oxalate.

Microscopic pits in the cell wall of a wood vessel

They might look like doughnuts, but these are actually microscopic pits in the cell wall of a wood vessel. Seeing the size and arrangement of the pits helped us to identify the wood as eucalyptus.

In the end, we were able to identify the wood of the paneling as a type of eucalyptus (Eucalyptus microcorys), commonly known as Australian tallowwood. This was something of a revelation, as just outside the windows, directly opposite the paneling, stands a stately row of splendid eucalyptus trees.

Using this information, the Conservation Institute project team came up with a theory that the reiteration of the row of tallowwood trees outside the living room windows may have influenced a conscious design decision—it wasn’t just a coincidence that the Eames chose eucalyptus for the wood paneling along the living room wall.

While there is no documentary evidence to support this theory, the eucalyptus trees were clearly of great importance to Charles and Ray Eames. The trees existed on the site when Charles and Ray purchased the land, and the trees prominently remained in early concept drawings by Charles.

Eames House History

Eames House History. Image source at © The Eames Foundation. All rights reserved

In fact, the final location of the house was determined in relationship to this very row of eucalyptus trees, preserving the open meadow landscape on the other side. This discovery provides new physical evidence that allows a glimpse into the Eames’ thought process and the subtle ways they worked to connect their architecture with nature.

Who could have known that looking into a microscope lens would reveal so much about the creative process and prolific minds of Charles and Ray Eames? Not I. The identification of the tallowwood was the starting point for the Conservation Institute’s efforts to conserve the other wood material at the Eames House.

That’s why I love my job. It’s always interesting to unravel a conservation mystery and collaborate with colleagues to see what the material reveals.

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One Comment

  1. Brooke
    Posted October 21, 2013 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

    Bravo, nice sleuthing. That eucalyptus is gorgeous. As a newcomer to the wood world, working with an amazing little flooring store called Pete’s in St. Paul, MN, I’ve learned much about hardwood flooring, how to care for it, what wood needs… if I’ve learned anything, it’s that wood needs careful, dedicated maintenance to be able to withstand the test of time. Your work sounds satisfying indeed. It is a wondrous thing to see wood from another era still standing strong – and with the right care, it can.

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