Magazine article Humanities

Modern Love

Magazine article Humanities

Modern Love

Article excerpt

It is perhaps not appreciated that the Cold War was actually won in the summer of 1959 by the noted lounge-chair designers Charles and Ray Eames.

It was in Moscow's Sokolniki Park where the Los Angelesbased, husband-and-wife designer duo unleashed America's secret weapon: a twelve-minute, seven-screen spectacle of synchronized photos, film, and music that would, in the words of its sponsor, offer irrefutable "visual proof of the abundance of American society" and, by extension, the superiority of the American Way. Modestly titled Glimpses of the USA, the multimedia barrage had been unglimpsed by its sponsors, the U.S. Information Agency, throughout its production. Even its makers had not seen the presentation in its entirety until it was tested only one night before the opening of the American National Exhibition. This film was conceived as the second half of a tense, hastily organized bilateral cultural exchange perhaps more famous as the site of then-Vice President Richard Nixon's "Kitchen Debate" with Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev.

Glimpses of the USA was the key feature of the exhibition's main pavilion, a gold-anodized, Buckminster Fuller-style geodesic dome known as "The Information Machine." After a dizzying choreography of over 2,200 images of American life, landscape, and industry filled the dome's seven massive movie screens, the film ended with an emotional punch: a tiny vase of forget-me-nots. In his memoir Cold War Confrontations, USIA design chief Jack Masey describes how, as the humble flowers, known as nezabudki in Russian, filled their field of vision, the audience of American diplomats, Finnish carpenters, and Russian construction workers united as one in joyful friendship, tears, and "wild applause."

Such incidents, triumphantly recounted, can make it seem that, four subsequent decades of Cold War upheavals and conflicts notwithstanding, modernism and design had, in fact, delivered on its promise of a glorious, prosperous, and well-appointed postwar future for all. If only, right?

Even for the longtime admirer, it's not so easy to figure out the best perspective to gauge the Eameses' prodigious and far-ranging achievements. The Eameses' towering place in American design history is as indisputable as their continued influence. Their revolutionary early furniture designs, made with techniques and materials adapted from LA's World War Two-fueled aviation industry, are sought-after classics.

The house they built themselves, in a meadow overlooking the Pacific, using only mail-order steel and industrial glass, is an icon of the midcentury modernist lifestyle. While the original 1949 house is being restored, the entire contents of its double-height living room have been transferred to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), which constructed a full-scale, indoor replica to anchor the exhibit "California Design: 1930-1965: 'Living in a Modern Way"' through March 2012.

Eames Studio's films, created for their own enlightenment or for corporate clients such as IBM, combined marketing and cutting-edge information theory with experiment and whimsy. And in their greatest triumph (or failure, or both) decades after their deaths, (Charles died in 1978, Ray in 1988), the Eames name has become the universal keyword for "modern design" on the world's online flea market, eBay.

Throughout their own careers, whether making architecture, furniture, toys, annual reports, or films, the Eameses presented themselves as designers. And despite their forays into education, computing, and international diplomacy, that's how they are typically seen. But calling the Eameses designers while trying to account for their polymathic legacy can be problematic, particularly if we're picturing the designer as a lone, heroic genius: Charles Eames as the Howard Roark of American consumer capitalism. It invites many esoteric and academic questions about process, context, gender, and collaboration, which are interesting but hard to resolve. …

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