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June 17th 2017 commemorates the 110th anniversary of Charles Eames' birth. To celebrate the renowned architect and designer, we explore the iconic Eames' House. Considered the jewel of the Case Study Homes, the Eames’ House is an iconic feat of post-war architecture. Designed by Charles and his wife Ray for Arts & Architecture, the property is known for its ingenious use of industrial materials as well as its elegant construction. With its prime location on a promontory 150 feet above the sea and resident architects, The Eames’ House endures as one of the most famous homes in the Pacific Palisades.
A Peek Inside Charles and Ray Eamses’ Post-War Masterpiece
As an influential design couple of the 20th century, Charles and Ray Eames made massive contributions to mid-century architecture, interior design, graphic design, photography, film, and more. Although the couple is most famous for their lounge chair, their Case Study House #8 is easily their second most iconic creation. Designed for and by the Eameses’, the home is a paragon of post-war architecture.
“Design for Postwar Living”: Historical Background
During the late 1940’s, the state of residential architecture was bleak. World War II had just ended, and architects were tasked with finding affordable, cost-efficient housing solutions for the large influx of American soldiers coming home. The problem was that the homes designed for returning G.I.s varied little in form (think Levittown Project in N.Y.), and the era’s avant-garde architecture was perceived as austere and cold.
Arts & Architecture editor, John Entenza, was aware of this tension between utility and design facing residential housing. Entenza wanted to play more of an active role in the post-war architectural movement and decided to found the Case Study Homes Program. The project commissioned eight offices to build eight houses using the movement’s “guns to plowshares” credo, which called for wartime technology to be utilized for peaceful civilian applications. Entenza purchased a 5-acre parcel in the Pacific Palisades for four case study homes, including Case Study #8 for the Eamses and Case Study #9 for himself.*
Architecture as Theatre: Conceptualizing The Eames’ House
The Eames’ House can easily be conceptualized as a “kind of theatre” in which its resident architects performed and documented “the daily rituals of work [and] play,” according to Frederic Schwarz and Adam Jaspar. More specifically, they characterize the house as a type of Renaissance theatre that allows the audience to view the performers and host simultaneously. In Renaissance theatres, there were essentially two stages: one for the actors, and “the other being the box seat of the patron [or host].”
The layout of the Eames’ House is similar in its dichotomy of work and play. The studio can be read as the performer’s stage since this is where the Eameses performed and created their art. The residence, by contrast, is viewed as the host’s stage where the Eameses entertained guests. Charles Eames, was especially aware of the architect’s role as a host, as he explained that “the role of the architect, or the designer, is that of a very good host, all of whose energies go into trying to anticipate the needs of his guests.”
The performativity of the home comes into play when considering how the two buildings in the Eames’ House actually mirror one another. Both structures encourage the host/artist to “perform” for the guests’ consumption, whether that means cooking for a dinner party or developing a new film in their studio. “In the Eames house, the living space mirrors the studio, [while] the kitchen act[s] as a doppelgänger of the darkroom. Both are spaces of living as a performative kind of work, where experiences are prepared [so they may be] remembered and recorded, consumed and shared, treasured and distributed, private and public.”
A Home “Re-Orientor and Shock Absorber:” The Eames’ House Exterior
Upon first glance, the brightly painted rectangles of the home’s exterior immediately recall Mondrian’s paintings. Constructed out of entirely “off-the-shelf” parts from steel fabricators, the façade is composed of black painted grids made of glass inserts, grey cemestos panels, stucco, aluminum, and specially treated panels. Despite the house’s diverse use of materials, the effect is harmonious as the wood, metal, glass and other materials blend seamlessly into one fully integrated structure. *
Another remarkable aspect of the exterior is its relationship to the surrounding landscape. The home’s brief in Arts & Architecture reveals how Charles and Ray saw the building’s relationship to nature: “This house–in its free relation to the ground, the trees, and the sea–with constant proximity to the whole vast order of nature acts as a re-orientor and shock absorber and should provide the needed relaxations from the daily complications arising within problems.”*
From the brief, we can see that the home is meant to complement its natural surroundings rather than compete with them. For example, the home’s original plans called for the eucalyptus grove to be cleared for construction. However, after spending many afternoons picnicking on the empty lot, Charles and Ray became attached to the grove and instead chose to build the home into the hillside to keep the eucalyptus grove intact.
“A Wonderful Victorian Clutter:” The Interior of The Bridge House
The Eames’ House has two interiors since the home is divided into two buildings. The residence, or “The Bridge House” is a rectangular steel structure elevated by two steel columns. A sliding door from the courtyard leads into the kitchen and dining area, which feeds directly into the living room. The living room is replete with floor-to-ceiling windows that fill the room with plenty of light as they look out onto the eucalyptus grove and surrounding gardens. The living room’s numerous windows are a prime example of the “inside yet outside” aesthetic so characteristic of Californian architecture.
The home’s prefabricated, spiral staircase leads to the upper floor’s master bedroom and two bathrooms. In the master bedroom, a sliding door (inspired by the functionality of the De Stijl movement) allows the room to be divided into two sleeping areas for guests staying overnight. Windows from the upstairs overlook onto the surrounding eucalyptus grove and landscape.
The most remarkable aspect of the Bridge House’s interior, however, is not the architecture, but rather the décor. In addition to being an entertainment space, the space was also used to create, display, and constantly rearrange the Eamses’ artistic creations. Filled with books, fabrics, folk art, prisms, shells, rocks, and straw baskets, the decor of the Eames’ House has been described as “a wonderful Victorian clutter.” The Eameses utilized the space so thoroughly that they hung paintings from the ceiling as well as a commemorative piece of tumbleweed from their honeymoon. Nevertheless, the clutter has intention as it helps visitors to better understand the Eamses since the items are all grouped together and based on each component’s curation and meticulous selection.
The Eamses’ studio is structured similarly to the Bridge House. Also two-storied, the studio was designed as a space where the Eamses could focus on films, photographs, models, and their other artistic projects. The first floor’s darkroom, Pullman kitchen, bathroom, and sitting and dining place allowed the Eamses the ideal combination of utility and comfort needed to for their unique lifestyle. The studio’s straight staircase leads to the second floor which includes a sleeping and storage area.
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* From Gloria Koenig’s Eames