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Interview: Eames Demetrios

The grandson of famous designer couple Charles and Ray Eames on the colorful new update on their iconic shell chairs and his global art project

by Julie Wolfson in Design on 15 April 2014

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In the garden of the Case Study House, Eames Demetrios—grandson of Charles and Ray Eames—settled in a shell chair to share stories of his family heritage and legacy, architectural preservation and the world travels he undertook to create his epic global parallel universe installation project Kcymaerxthaere. A few weeks earlier, Demetrios had worked with Herman Miller to furnish the Carondelet House built in 1928 near downtown Los Angeles to display the way the entire Herman Miller collection works together. The colorful dining room set up, filled with Eames shell chairs, showed off the colors of their newly updated sustainable materials.

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Looking out toward the Pacific Ocean from the Case Study House, located in the Pacific Palisades on a mostly hidden street with the Entenza House, Neutra’s Bailey House and Walker’s West House, our conversation with Demetrios began with a discussion of the Eames furniture material innovations.

There is a photo of your mom sitting in one of the new shell chairs on the Herman Miller #shellspotting page. Why is that image significant?

The reason that was an important moment is that it was a little bit the changing of the guard. The other part of the story is that Herman Miller was waiting for that photo too. They understand what authenticity is about. It’s about people making the decisions that Charles and Ray asked them to make. These are solutions for everyday houses. People should buy these chairs because they are comfortable and they work for them.

To the extent you have a design style is the extent to which you have not solved the design problem. They just tried to solve each problem the best way possible.
Now the chairs are made with a more sustainable material. What was the process for updating the chairs?

Glues have gotten stronger and also more environmentally friendly. The new sustainable fiberglass addresses a lot of things that were wrong before. Charles and Ray were designing this house at the exact same time as they were designing this chair. To me it really proves the point that Charles would make; that to the extent you have a design style is the extent to which you have not solved the design problem. They just tried to solve each problem the best way possible.

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Why do you feel the shell chair design has remained vital though the years and still looks timeless?

They said the first time they encountered plastic reinforced with fiberglass was when they made the screens for the Eames House. That led to speculation and conversations, and research they did eventually led them to make the chair out of it. The point is you would look at this chair and this house and say they are very different, but in Charles and Ray’s minds, they had a lot more in common. They both have an honest use of materials that they were so good at. They had this idea that making this seat and back together would be a way to make it an affordable high quality chair. They discovered this plastic material. Plastic itself was not strong enough at that point to support the body so it was reinforced in fiberglass. They were constantly improving it. The design process continued after they went into production.

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Why update the materials now?

Over time, at the end of Ray’s life, she became concerned about the environmental aspects. There were toxins in the resin and there was a way that the fibers could get into the air. She asked Merman Miller to discontinue it in the early '90s. The last shell chair sold was in 1992 or '93. We reissued them in polypropylene in about 2000. The new eco-friendly fiberglass has that fingerprint, snowflake thing. They look basically the same, but when you look closely the grain is a little bit different.

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How did you find the new material and process for making the chairs?

The folks at Herman Miller found out about a monomer-free resin that was mostly used for the interiors of cars. The research we then had to do was how to keep a uniform experience color consistency in this non-toxic material because in general the toxins make things easier. It’s so exasperating. It’s like dessert; it always tastes good. The other aspect of the fiberglass is the fibers itself and the way they go onto the mold. It’s now dry-spun. So it is a slightly thicker fiber, but it does not get out into their air nearly as easily. The way it is attached is that it is heated in such a way that it bonds with itself and is not so dependent on the resin to literally hold it together. It solves our goals. These chairs went into production for the market in early February. The event we had at Carondelet House was the first time people on the West Coast had seen them.

What drew you to committing time to the family business?

I did a film called 901 about closing the Eames office in Venice. When Ray died, I realized that the place needed to be documented. It was in the process of doing that documentation that I learned this work matters to me in a way I did not quite expect. What always interested me the most about Charles and Ray’s work, even as a kid, was the ideas and the thinking behind it.

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For me, the Eames work isn’t about me, but I’m good at making sure it is done right.
How do you personally balance your work with the family legacy and foundation with all of your other projects?

It’s good to have things in your life where it is about you and other things that are not about you. So for me, the Eames work isn’t about me, but I’m good at making sure it is done right. My own work is about doing the things that I have to contribute. Right now, it’s very much about Kcymaerxthaere.

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You describe Kcymaerxthaere as a parallel universe and a global project of collaborative installations. What are your current goals with Kcymaerxthaere?

For me, Kcymaerxthaere has been a really great way to tell stories and give people a visceral experience, but one that is not so dependent on a specific ecosystem. When I create a story in Kcymaerxthaere, there is a real direct drive moment. The challenge is that I still feel like I am not at the critical mass. When I started I thought it was going to be 125 to 150 sites, now we have 99 in 22 countries. The project will be complete when most of the world’s population is within a day's drive from a site. I want it to be a physical analog experience that is accessible to most people. It turns out to be about 900 or so.

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Why are we going to save the world if it is just in the way?
Why such a global project?

We have gotten to a place where most of us would teleport if we could. That just means that the world is in the way. Why are we going to save the world if it is just in the way? For me, it has been an incredibly rewarding project to do, to see how people react and for myself to be able to share stories in a public way that is different than a book; but it has some of the magic of reading, in that you conjure it up for yourself. Right now we are doing a pretty elaborate one, an underwater labyrinth in Indonesia. It’s going to be at a depth where a snorkeler will be able to have a good experience and a diver will get another experience. It is going to have a story that you can decode under water.

The Eames Case Study House continues to stand the test of time with the dedication of the Eames family and foundation. The past, present, and future seem to be filled with inspiration and possibility. The newest incarnation of the Eames Shell Chair as well as other timeless Eames designs are available from Herman Miller and Design Within Reach. Follow Eames Demetrios on his epic Kcymaerxthaere journey by visiting its website.

Carondelet House images courtesy of David Lauridsen, portrait and Kcymaerxthaere images courtesy of Eames Demetrios, images of Case Study House © 2014 Eames Office LLC courtesy of Timothy Street-Porter

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