The Eames Institute of Infinite Curiosity this week opened their eighth exhibit, titled “Steinberg Meets the Eameses.” The exhibit and catalog explores the friendship between design icons Ray and Charles Eames and artist and humorist Saul Steinberg through a particular collaboration in the summer of 1950. The exhibit coincides with the launch of the newly recreated Eames Fiberglass Armchair with Steinberg’s Cat by Vitra and Herman Miller. The Institute retains two enchanting original Steinberg painted chairs in the Eames Collection.
This exhibit is the story of a “botched Hollywood assignment that led Steinberg to the
West Coast and how he then came in contact with the Eameses.” The works emerged from a collaborative day spent at the Eames Office at 901 Washington Boulevard in Venice, California—including the chair with cat and another chair painted with a nude figure (both remain in the Institute’s holdings). It also includes a number of works that resulted from their connection, including an officious, but entirely illegible diploma Steinberg wittily bestowed on Charles Eames (because he never finished school), and photographs taken by Eames of Steinberg’s drawings being projected onto Steinberg’s wife, Hedda Sterne, and Ray Eames.
The Eames-Steinberg artifacts are exemplary of the sometimes overlooked marriage between wit and modernity. I asked Llisa Demetrios, the Eames’s youngest granddaughter and the Institute’s Chief Curator, to comment on the relationship between these paradigms of modernism and her relationship with the work, especially through the lens of the exhibit.
(All images courtesy of The Eames Institute of Infinite Curiosity and © Eames Office, LLC.)
The Eames Chair and Steinberg’s drawings are icons of modern wit and functionality. How many of these are there, and are they all on display?
The Eames Institute retains the two original Steinberg painted chairs— including the chair with cat, and the other with the nude ﬁgure— in the Eames Collection. The Institute also has two wonderful fake diplomas that Steinberg created for Charles, who had studied architecture, but did not ﬁnish his degree. As a grandchild, they looked handsome and ofﬁcial. And then as I got older and looked more closely, I realized that the handwriting didn’t actually say any words— which made me laugh.
Steinberg had many friends in the modernist orbit (I’m working on a project about Leo Lionni who gave him one of his earliest advertising jobs. And Chermyeff and Geismar had his work prominently displayed in the ofﬁce). Was he indeed a friend of the Eameses? What was their relationship?
The intersection of Steinberg’s ideas and how they overlapped with the designs of my grandparents is incredible and beautiful. Every surface was a possible canvas from chair to ﬂoor. I remember watching the Eames short ﬁlm Traveling Boy, which has a background of drawings by Steinberg. At the Eames Ofﬁce, I would love to see the Steinberg chairs in the prototype area, framed posters, and marvelous diplomas on the wall, or the latest New Yorker out on a table with a cover by Steinberg.
Was this an impromptu act, or did the Eameses ask him to do the drawings?
My grandparents and Steinberg were constantly iterating on ideas and exploring materials while conveying ideas. Charles said, “The most important thing is that you love what you are doing, and the second that you are not afraid of where your next idea will lead.” They were all very hands-on and learned by doing. My grandparents often talked about “[taking] your pleasure seriously.” With Steinberg on that day at the ofﬁce when he drew on the chairs, I think they all took their pleasure seriously.
They must be fragile and certainly valuable— have you been tempted to sit in them?
As a grandchild, I didn’t want to sit on the chairs when I visited the ofﬁce. I just loved looking at them— especially the one with the cat looking so peacefully nestled into the curve of the chair. Today, as a curator, I realize that it must have been an extraordinary day at the ofﬁce when Steinberg drew on the chairs and just wished that I had been there to see that spark of creative collaboration happen!