• Ellen Shapiro

Talking “Eames Words” with Deborah Sussman

“The world knows about the chairs, the films, the toys,” Deborah Sussman said. “But the world does not know what Charles and Ray said, what they loved, what they had for breakfast. They found uncommon beauty in common things: a loaf of bread, a keg of nails, a ball of twine.”

She was talking about her mentors and friends, the late Charles and Ray Eames. It was the evening of April 12, and members of AIGA/NY had packed the Bumble&Bumble auditorium on far West 13th Street on April 12 to hear Sussman speak about “Eames Words,” the exhibition at the Architecture and Design Museum in Los Angeles that she and her environmental and graphic design firm, Los Angeles–based Sussman/Prejza, had been instrumental in designing and bringing to fruition. The talk was ostensibly about the exhibit, which ran from October 1, 2011 through February 19, 2012, but it was really about love, admiration, and passion.

Always inspirational, wearing her signature round glasses and a black ‘Eames Words’ tee-shirt, Sussman began her talk by describing her design education and recalling her first day at the Eames Office, when she was given this assignment: Draw the House of Cards in perspective with a ruling pen.

Deborah Sussman speaks of Charles and Ray Eames—and admiration and passion—to AIGA/NY members.

In front of the museum on Wilshire Blvd.: the people who put the exhibit together, including designers, fabricators, museum staff. Sussman headed a group of four conceptualizers including the typographic innovator Andrew Byrom and the architects Todd Erlandson and Lara Hoad of the Santa Monica-based firm (M)Arch. Other major players were Paul Prejza, Tina Beebe, Eames Demetrious, William Larsen, Eder Cetinam, and Ariana Vardi.

Façade of A+D Museum showing letters floating on storefront glass.

Visitors entered through the “A" of ”EAMES.” Display modules were built in the form of 3-dimensional “E's,” which displayed everyday examples of beauty.

A Rietveld de Stijl chair and an Eames molded-plywood chair. Charles once said, “Rietveld started from intellectual conceptions. . . . We, on the other hand, were taken in by the facts: that a chair is something to sit on, and therefore should be comfortable.”

Those of us in the audience who weren’t able to experience the exhibit firsthand got a complete insider tour of every corner  of it and the thinking behind the the choice of objects and the choice of words on the walls.

“A ball of twine . . . who would throw away a ball of twine?” asked Charles.

Willys jeep with Ray’s quote: “The jeep: now that’s an automobile that America should be proud of.”

“This exhibit was done 24/7 by those of us who were enchanted, possessed” Sussman explained. ”We put it together with little means but lots of big ideas. We didn’t have time to make a plan. We didn’t have a budget. We just did it. We did not want it to look like the Eameses designed it. We wanted it to look like it was done with today’s knowledge, skills and sensibility.

“Charles always said, ‘The extent to which you have a design style is the extent to which you haven’t solved the problem.’ When is the problem solved? He said this about kites: ‘Either it flies or it doesn’t fly.’

Area representing the personal treasures of Charles—a letter he wrote to his family while traveling in Russia c. 1959, drawn in the form of a rebus—and Ray, a composite of her poetic table settings.

Close-up of rebus and dining table, showing objects and flowers picked in the garden typical of Ray. A poem by Charles’s daughter Lucia appears typographically on the table surface.

“Ray’s genius was to know the difference between art and not art, between a great treasure and an ordinary thing. L.A. designer Lou Danziger once said that if she had three pencils, she would arrange them in a way that was art,” she added.

The exhibit was part of the Getty Center’s “Pacific Standard Time,” a multiple-museum initiative of L.A. art and design. It featured several Eames-related shows, including the L.A. County Museum of Art’s “California Design, 1930-1965: Living in a Modern Way.” Visitors were also able to schedule appointments to tour the iconic 1949 Eames house in Pacific Palisades.

For me, Sussman’s talk was also a walk down memory lane. When I was a design student at UCLA, we were force-fed—happily force-fed—a multidisciplinary, Eames-influenced curriculum. The first assignment in Professor Gil Rios’s drawing class was to draw a brick wall with a ruling pen. (The assignment, however, was attributed to ‘Mies’—we were sternly instructed that design was about precision, and this was how Ludwig Mies van der Rohe taught his classes at Harvard.) To the late John Neuhart, longtime collaborator at the Eames Office and co-author with his wife Marilyn of the definitive book, Eames Design, design was also about whimsy. Professor Neuhart had us design and fabricate kites, then take an early-morning class field trip down to Venice Beach and fly them. I made a giant flying ‘K,’ in Times Roman, with serifs. After five minutes in the air it crashed into the tennis courts. I didn’t know until I heard Deborah Sussman speak that, as cute as the kite may have been, it failed Charles’s “does it fly?” test.

From 1987 to 1989, when I was on the AIGA/NY board, we polled members to find out what kinds of events they’d most like to attend. One young member suggested “Events that feature little-known designers like Charles and Ray Eames.” I took the bait and organized an Eames Celebration evening; the chapter brought the Neuharts and Ray to New York for what turned out to be Ray’s last public appearance, speaking about her life and work to a packed house at F.I.T. Ray died in 1988, ten years after Charles, little-known no more—thanks to Deborah Sussman and others who are keeping the flame alive to inspire the next generations of designers.

Cookies, scarf and posters designed and made to accompany the exhibit. Visit Eames Words to see an interactive postcard revealing the entire pattern.

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