Q&A: At Home with Lucia Eames
Charles Eames's daughter talks about preserving the legacy, saving the house, the new foundation, and making it all relevant to future generations.
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.
The studio of Charles and Ray Eames as it looks today. The family plans to uphold its legacy by inviting designers to spend time in the space.
PM: When did the idea for the foundation come about?
LE: Well, when I realized that I might get hit by a truck at any time. I mean, we always had a sense within the family that we wanted to preserve the house, but then an additional reality factor kicked in. If I died unexpectantly my children would be put in a terrible position because they feel as I do about the house.
ED: It’s true. The IRS taxes you on the highest value of the property. You’ve probably spent enough time in Los Angeles to know that this property is conservatively worth about ten million dollars. It is three acres of land. We don’t have that kind of money. That’s not who we are. So we would have had to sell the house to pay for it.
PM: Did the family have long discussions about this?
LE: No. Preserving the house was always in our minds. We just sort of moved toward that decision instinctively. I was not challenged at any point. We all felt the same way.
ED: None of us ever thought, “Oh, it’s going to be a financial bonanza!” We weren’t brought up that way. We have our own lives and work, and the only way this could be a windfall is if the house was destroyed. Why? If we sold it for the amount of money that would create a windfall, a developer would bulldoze this place.
Artifacts collected over the years enrich the living space, unchanged since Ray’s death. Lucia holds the crow used in the Herman Miller ads.
PM: Does the family feel they’re making a big sacrifice?
LE: No. It’s very nice of you to say that. But I remember something Charles said after working in Mexico to support himself during the depression: “Wow, I’ve found how very little one needs to survive.” We also spoke about not putting a price tag on everything to indicate value. So being fortunate enough to have been brought up that way, this wasn’t a sacrifice.
ED: Obviously, someone could transform this house into economic value. But one the great things about having done this as a family is that I fell completely at ease, as chair of the foundation, about asking people to contribute. We never thought of not stepping up to the plate. But now that we’ve done it, I felt comfortable saying to somebody, “Can you make a contribution?” Because we have too.
LE: I think the destruction of Neutra’s Maslon House was such a wake-up call. At least I hope it woke people up.
ED: It would be great if architecture in America had better preservation laws. If Mom had wanted to drive a bulldozer through this before she created the foundation, we could have stopped her for six months. And this is with full landmark protection. Then we could stopped for another six months—because I’m sure we would have gotten an extension—but a year and a day after she decided to raze the house, it would have been gone. Now I don’t think that should be possible.
“This is a wonderful space.” says Lucia. “The ladder would allow them to move things here or there.”
PM: Is this building landmarked?
LE: It is a local landmark. It has met the fifty-year criterion for the national list. But the only official status it has at the moment is with the city of Los Angeles. It received a twenty-five-year award from AIA, which doesn’t confer any form of protection, but it is something. There are rumors that somebody’s trying to put together a historic preservation district around the case study program. This is another project the foundation could be involved with. We’d like to help the Modern preservation movement, have that be part of the foundation’s mandate.
PM: In looking around the house, I’ve noticed a lot of sustainable features: for example, natural ventilation instead of air-conditioning and the roof overhang, which cuts down on the sun’s glare. Are these certain things here that that still amaze you?
LE: I hadn’t thought of it that way. But there are great elements in it. When you take the spiral staircase up and look down, you notice that the living room is a pattern. In one part of the room is the alcove. There’s a nice pillow with pleating that Asha Sarabhi gave Ray, other things they’ve collected, the pull-down projection screen. The space opens itself up very well. The skylight provides ample light above the stairs, even on dark days, the house is built into a hill, which works as insulation any time of the year. The spiral staircase takes up minimal space. It is more of a challenge as one gets older, but it works. It’s a small space, but it’s safer than a lot of the open, palatial houses. The living-room planter is on wheels. You can hang thing from beams and ladders, and then go up and change them. which Charles and Ray did frequently.
PM: When you were growing up, did you travel with them? They were doing the Nehru exhibition, did you go with them to India?
LE: No. When the house was built I was already in college. It was designed for a professional couple with a kid at school. But I was here. And I had the fun of listening to them talk about it they knew certain parts would take forever because it was wartime. They actually moved in on Christmas Eve 1949. By then I was already a sophomore and about to get married.
Lucia frames a photo in the courtyard. She learned the principles of photography from her father and stepmother, she says.
PM: At one point you took a photography course with Charles. What did you learn from him?
LE: One of the important thing was to compose the picture in the frame, to minimize it. The other was when you’re developing a black-and-white image to have something to anchor the times in between. I took a lot of pictures in college and had a good time, developing and mounting them.
PM: Did Charles critique them?
LE: Oh yes, he would help guide. We would photograph together. There was this wonderful sort of sharing and guiding but letting you learn the lessons yourself. Recently I heard a young protégé of Itzhak Perlman say, “He guides you by letting you learn to teach yourself”—and it really rang a bell because essentially that’s what Charles would do. As I grew moving around and watching, then changing direction, and keeping them on course,. But with deepest respect.
PM: You also studied color and composition with Ray. What did you learn?
LE: To look at a scene—a still life or a selection of colors—then cut just one element out to get the feeling. And then not to expect to nail the idea right off the bat, but to come back and explore, redo. That was part of the rigor.
PM: The house was conceived and built in the 1940s yet it has a number of forward-thinking, almost futuristic features: natural ventilation, sensitive siting, prefab materials.
ED: This brings up a point that is critical to what we’re trying to do with the foundation. Charles and Ray had this blend of vision and pragmatism. I think the foundation represents the pragmatic part—it’s the physical object, the place where they created their visions. But they can’t be separated. So it it’s just this highfalutin philosophical exercise…well, the world doesn’t need another foundation like that. But the world perhaps could use another foundation that values both parts of the equation.
LE: I hope that major supporters will have the same view. Through films like Powers of Ten it would be wonderful to reach into schools and inspire future generations.