Q&A: At Home with Lucia

Charles Eames's daughter talks about preserving the legacy, saving the house, the new foundation, and making it all relevant to future generations.

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Sitting in the famous fiberglass chair, with Ray's accumulation of treasured objects still arranged on the kitchen counters.

Photography by Misha Gravenor

We just received news that a great friend of the magazine, Lucia Eames, has died. The daughter of Charles Eames, Lucia was 83. In January 2005 our editorial director, Paul Makovsky, had the opportunity to sit down with Lucia and her son Eames Demetrios. What follows is a conversation that illustrates her commitment to both preserving and furthering design.

Last October I traveled to Los Angeles to interview Lucia Eames. Sitting at the kitchen table of the Eames House, she talked about why she had set up the foundation and her future dreams for it, the creative spirit of the Eameses, and what it was like to grow up with Charles and Ray. After the interview I was given a tour and began to think about the preservation issues facing the family: How do you keep a historic building authentic and alive? What is modern patina (the cracked leather on the Eames lounge chair)? And what needs replacing (the flaking white floor tiles)? I also focused on the living details, like the vase of freshly cut flowers arranged by the Eameses’ longtime housekeeper, Teresa. During my visit I met other members of the family, including two of Lucia’s children, Llisa and Eames Demetrios, as well as his kids. An artist, Lucia Eames studied sculpture and design, and currently lives in Petaluma, California. Her son, Eames, participated in the interview as well.

Paul Makovsky: What was the idea behind starting the foundation?

Lucia Eames: We felt we needed help to sustain all of this in the future. Our mission statement is to preserve and maintain the house and create educational experiences that draw from the work of Charles and Ray. But I really feel that the house is the keystone. If it can be secured, then I hope it will be like the center of the sun radiating out, enticing people who are interested in new ways of communicating. This can take different forms. We can sponsor a professorship and host teachers’ nights up here. We also hope to attract and build an endowment. That’s crucial.

PM: The preservation of the house and studio is clearly a huge issue, but what about moving the foundation forward in the future?

LE: It’s not enough to focus on the past. We have to make Charles and Ray’s work relevant to future generations. The house will always give a feel for their approach. It’s very tangible, almost primary source material. There’s a wonderful quote from Charles about making connections, where he talks about “the details, the details, the details.” Well, that’s true. But their work was also about the joy and rigor between work and play. That’s another primary source. An exhibition like Mathematica presents information not to make it beautiful but to make new connections that are so carefully researched that an expert would feel, “Mmm, yes, that’s right” and a young, bright child would think, “Ahh!”

Case study #8 was built in 1949 while daughter Lucia was a sophomore in college.

A 1955 photo of the downstairs studio where Charles and Ray staged most of their films.

Archival photos courtesy the Eames Office LLC

PM: There’s also a spirit to the house that goes beyond the objects in it.

LE: There was a wonderful freedom in growing up and knowing that a price tag did not establish the value of something. The price tag might mean you could only visit it in a museum or only enjoy it someplace else, but the same care was taken whether Ray and Charles sent someone a beautiful papier-mâché mask or Steuben glass. In either case they cherished each wrapping. So as you go through the house there’s a marvelous sense of liberation. We call it the climax vegetation state of the house. You start with a swamp and then things begin to grow up around the edges, the swamp begins to dry out, and then there’s forest. That’s the climax. Obviously the house is flexible, but this is a valid and important stage because it shows what they valued.

Textiles and crafts from around the world enclose the built-in sofa in the downstairs living space.

PM: Once the foundation is in place, will you make the house and studio more open to the public?

Eames Demetrios: It is not so much that it will be more available to the public. The brutally honest thing is that right now—with a relatively low profile—we get three thousand visitors here, and the building can’t take the traffic. So we’re trying to create different ways for people to experience the house. In the future we’ll charge admission, but student will be admitted for free. Maybe we’ll hold group meetings in the studio. So if you were a company and design was your business, you might want to have a creative team meet for a day in that studio and be surrounded by that light. Because it’s not just the room—the room is incredible—but it’s also the relationship to the outside. It will be inspiring for people to brainstorm there and really work stuff out. This goes back to Mom’s vision from the beginning, which has to do with the house as a primary source.

LE: On the fiftieth anniversary of the house we had seminars here, and it worked out well. It was no more than ten people, but it provided a different kind of experience. I also think it could serve as a benefit for someone willing to help with the foundation. I really hope that in the first ten years of the foundation, the companies and people we work with will tell success stories about how such and such a product line came out of time spent at the Eames studio. There’s something about this place that’s so much about the built environment and the natural world. It seems sustainability would be one of the issues people could work on here. Preservation is great, but if you’re not doing something that contributes to the future, if you’re only looking backward, then you’re not honoring the ideas behind the house. The items, the furniture, the films—those are all great—but even more marvelous was Charles and Ray’s approach, how they worked.

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