The Work of Charles and Ray Eames: A Legacy of Invention

Article excerpt


The Work of Charles and Ray Eames:

A Legacy of Invention

New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1997. 205

pp.; 243 ills., 165 color plates. $49.50

The history of modern industrial design seems to be enjoying a fresh lease on life. Almost everywhere these days there are revivals and reappraisals of dusty modernist artifacts of generations past, be it Bauhaus furniture, Art Deco lamps, or 1930s home furnishings. While this cultural trend has been noted for quite some time in the well-heeled world of coffeetable books, it now pervades academic and museum culture as well. A spate of new biographies and exhibitions of late recounting the work of leading modernists reflects an ongoing general reconsideration of modern design's once-lampooned heritage. For many observers, this indirectly exposes the overdrawn account of postmodernism itself, whose oedipal efforts to ceremoniously kill off the dreams and delusions of its famous forebears in a dark round of laughter and forgetting have apparently lost their punch and, in turn, their publishers. But those who greet this development as a kind of Second Coming of High Modernism are poor prognosticators. Much of this has to do with the fact that such modernism is less invoked as guidance for the future than renewed retrospective appreciation and historical orientation. Not to suggest, however, that this fin-de-siecle focus on modernism is simply the result of auction house antics and flea market economics. For it is precisely modernism's old grandiose visions that have attracted special interest. In large measure this is because a good number of the long-range trends predicted by design's avantgarde decades ago-including the miniaturization and dematerialization of technology, instant global communication, "cognitive engineering," and above all the rise of the designer as the main liaison between people and information systems-have all become the common coin of cyberculture. Even if its original visionaries may be long dead and the current generation of designers less inclined to drafting manifestos announcing these revolutionary changes for lay readers, the point is that the interwar dream of design as social engineering has effectively come to pass. True, its realization has scarcely ushered in the leftist utopia that many of yesteryear's design crusaders imagined, as today's WTO protesters and environmentalists plainly recognize; yet it is a brave new world all the same.

Still, it is an exaggeration to say that design history is now unduly preoccupied with turning its not so-distant past into a sort of prehistory of the Internet. Certainly there is some of that taking place, as a range of relatively obscure figures from the world of science and design have been rediscovered in recent dissertation theses and magazine profiles as forgotten soothsayers of the Digital Age. More striking, though, is the extent to which many modern designers of everyday things (especially household goods and furniture) have enjoyed a surprising renaissance in design and cultural studies. Indeed, it is a telling and quite unremarked reaction to the advent of virtual reality: the more digitalized and abstracted the world becomes, the more people seize on a more real and palpable one. Put differently, the global design trend toward ever more sophisticated software has in turn produced a kind of compensatory longing for yesterday's designer hardware. Not that design is unique here; by and large it is following more general developments in the visual arts. Consider the way that postmodern art's initial penchant toward video and television has created a marked backlash preoccupation with physical immediacy and in-your-face sensate experiences, what Hal Foster rightly calls the "return of the real." Such a turn of events is not as rearguard as one might imagine; after all, this kind of rethinking of the familiar and tactile in the face of rapid technological change goes to the very historical raison d'etre of modernism itself. …