The Other Eames House

By Dan Gregory, Originally Published in Houzz.com

The Eames family compound rides a rolling landscape -- like a modern wood version of an Italian hill town.

The 1949 Charles and Ray Eames house in Santa Monica, California, is justly famous as an example of innovative design thinking. It was both a design studio and a home for the most influential industrial designers of the 20th century -- and an extensive restoration with the help of the Getty Museum is nearing completion. But there is another Eames house: the Sonoma County, California, home of daughter Lucia and granddaughter Llisa Demetrios and her family. Both Lucia and Llisa are sculptors.

Designed by William Turnbull, one of the original architects of Sea Ranch, their extraordinary barn-like compound is a treasury of Eamesiana and includes a hardworking artists’ studio. Llisa gave me a tour. It was a ride through the imagination — like being in Powers of Ten, the famous Eames film about scale. Follow me into a design wonderland.

The house itself is a kind of art stockade — white board and batten walls wrap around a large rectangular central courtyard. Enter the portal and you see the living room ahead and the bedroom and library tower to the left, combining references to the towers of San Gimignano in Italy and early "bay region" designs by William Wurster.

As you would expect in an Eames house, there are several lounge chairs .... not to mention plenty of other chairs, though most of them — like the ones Lucia and Llisa are sitting in here — are historic early examples. Llisa recounts that when her mother was a student at Vassar in the 1950s, she had an unusual dorm room: It was full of Eames furniture. Charles always sent Lucia the latest prototype, signed “With love to Lucia” on the seat bottom, which gives secondhand furniture a whole new meaning.

Some of the rooms in the house are devoted to aspects of furniture production. Here we see an array of early molded plastic and fiberglass seat samples. One room functions as a lofty gallery and contains objects from Eames-designed exhibits like "Mathematica: A World of Numbers and Beyond," commissioned by IBM for the California Museum of Science and Industry in 1961. In the center of the room are two tables covered with letters, illustrations and other memorabilia under a sheet of clear Plexiglas. What a great, simple idea — turn a dining table into a collage of family history! An idea for your next birthday party.

Storage was a big deal in Charles and Ray Eames' office — with its vast collections of found objects. You can get a sense of what it was like to preserve images before the digital age here; this rolling cabinet was designed to hold slide carousels.

Some distance away from the house is a workshop, in another expansive barn, where examples of sculptures by both mother and daughter are found. Shown here are Lucia’s “In the Curl” steel tables, which evoke her childhood in Los Angeles, when she spent a lot of time bodysurfing.

Here we see Llisa’s “Core Sample” series in bronze, which abstractly explores themes of geology and time — a fitting subject for a family enterprise that daily builds upon its remarkable legacy in new and exciting ways. I was especially attracted to Llisa’s studio, with its wall of maquettes. The plank shelves and the diminutive wooden sculptures form a very compelling visual whole — the supported and the support — telling a hieroglyphic story about invention.

After spending time with Charles' daughter and granddaughter, I began to see everything in new ways.

Eames on Film: The Architect and the Painter

For example, it suddenly struck me that from a distance the Eames compound is really a modern board and batten version of an Italian hill town: The house is both an archive and a living laboratory.

In 100 Quotes by Charles Eames, a delightful little book published by the Eames office, I found a statement that seemed to fit my tour: “The house must make no insistent demands for itself, but rather aid as a background for life in work. This house acts as a re-orienter and shock absorber.”

I absolutely agree. I think you could say that the best houses are frames to set you free.

Metal sculpture by Lucia Eames

09/30/2013