Eames Anthology by Daniel Ostroff Holds Lessons for Designers and Hollywood Storytellers

Written by

An Eames Anthology, edited by Daniel Ostroff, is the first-ever anthology of Charles and Ray Eames’ writings.

1 EA YUP Book Cover
Cover, An Eames Anthology (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Daniel Ostroff is a film producer and design scholar who got his first taste of Eames’ design as a child visiting the Eames IBM Pavilion at the 1964 New York World’s Fair (his father was Deputy Commissioner of the fair for the U.S.).

But he had his Eureka moment on purchasing a vintage Eames desk (ESU) in 1987, and went on to become a scholar and collector of Eames’ design and philosophy, now owning 20 chairs, “more or less, at any given time.”  

He is also passionate about collecting the didactic material they created for each of their exhibitions and has just  published An Eames Anthology, a book of more than 120 articles, film scripts, interviews, letters, notes and speeches by Charles and Ray Eames.

The documents — fascinating and wide-ranging — are owned by Eames Office, the organization run by the five children of Charles Eames’ daughter Lucia.

Daniel will talk about the book at the LA Modernism fair this Saturday. So we caught up with him to learn more about the book and why its lessons, both technological and ethical are as relevant to Hollywood storytellers as they are to designers.

Film notes
Script notes (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

DnA: Why have you so long been interested in Charles and Ray’s ideas?

Daniel Ostroff: I was a Hollywood agent for many years. I represented writers, directors and books to film companies, and when I opened my office I had rented furniture.

A friend said I couldn’t have rented furniture and he said you should buy furniture that doesn’t depreciate in value. That lead me to my first purchase with a vintage Eames desk made by Herman Miller and pretty soon I was not decorating my office, I was curating a furniture collection.

And in doing that I started reading what Charles and Ray had to say and that was really transformative.

I found myself going over and over again back to what they said. I fell in love with their ideas and I found that I could apply them to problems in my own life — in the sense of problem-solving creatively, in terms of my day job which was telling stories and working with story tellers.

I pretty soon gave every client what I call the Eames talk.

DnA: When you say Eames talk are you referring to a specific piece of writing or their theories in general?

DO: Well, at that point it was a “design process diagram” that Charles and Ray created for an exhibition at the Louvre in 1969. I would share this design process diagram with the writers and directors that I represented to show them a way to look at their careers in Hollywood.

Since Charles and Ray wanted to get the best for the most through the least, it wasn’t too big a jump for me to see that the guidelines that they gave for achieving the result that they achieved– you know their their furniture went everywhere, their house was tremendously influential, their exhibitions are still running in some venues today — had value for Hollywood filmmakers — applied to a movie and choice of story — about how to tell the story in the same way that it applied to designing a chair.

1984 drawing by Ray Eames of the Eames Hang-it-All — sent to Rolf Fehlbaum as a guide for manufacturing the product (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

DnA: The documents in the book are really fascinating but there seem to be more from Charles than from Ray, would that be fair to say?

DO:  I came to look at them as equal contributors to everything including the texts that formally are attributed to Charles where the first draft I found in Ray’s handwriting. And this book also I think definitively answers the question as to their co-equal status. They were absolutely co-equals.

Any time Charles would speak in public the first thing he’d say is Ray, is equally responsible for everything that comes out of our office and he articulated that and on two occasions and they’re both in the book and he said and if you think Ray’s contributions are about color and texture you’re wrong, it’s much more than that.

She’s equally responsible for everything that comes out of the office but then he adds — and this is the real crucial discovery — that she prefers to work under the brand name, Charles Eames

DnA: Even though generally the documents represent a kind of a shared wisdom there are nonetheless some things that pop out of your book that do seem to be directly from one or the other and I was really charmed actually by some of the letters that Charles Eames wrote, for example a letter to Sam Maloof about how to charge for his furniture designs?

DO: Isn’t that great!

Charles and Ray Eames in their living room, seated on the lounge chair and ottoman, 1959; © Vitra AG Photo

DnA: It’s those kind of things that to me are the real surprises. Also, the exchange he has with George Howe at Yale apologizing twice for having sent him some early iterations of the chairs, and he’s worried that they might not be perfect.

DO:  I have in mind a lot of audiences for this book because I wanted the book to be for the most number of people and in addition to the charm of the George Howe exchange, that’s red meat for collectors because that’s the only place where we learn what the finish was on the rods of the Dowel-Legs chair which was zinc with black stain added to it and and why they specified that. So all sorts of fascinating technical details emerge in this process.

1975 photograph for Herman Miller exhibition
1975 photograph for Herman Miller exhibition (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

DnA: And then one goes from that level of detail which is fascinating to an almost moral education that seems to run through a lot of their thinking. I was particularly interested in actually one of Charles Eames’ answers when he was asked in an interview about arts education: “do you feel more compulsory arts educations in secondary schools would help eliminate juvenile delinquency?” His answer is, “of course it would have some effect. About the same as would compulsory religious education.” He seems to be saying religious education is a good idea which suggests that he believes in some kind of ethical education and the fact that he put that together with arts education was really interesting.

DO: I agree and I thought long and hard about that one too.

Charles and Ray absolutely did not think of themselves as modernists; they had a great sense of appreciation for the value of traditions to society. And one possible interpretation of this is that what Charles was keying into is that religions, two thousand year-old religions had the accumulated wisdom of the ages, and they could probably bring something to child rearing because they had hands on experience doing it year after year after year.

They really saw the value of tradition and there’s there’s a big provocative idea of this book which is the fairly constant refrain from Charles and Ray — which in the wrong context may seem very controversial — and that is that “man is not equipped to make choices.”

We never have been and now it’s even more the case with 3D and the ability to make genetic changes in the fetus. We have so much technology at our hands we’re still no better equipped to make choices.

The Eames’ observation was that up until the Industrial Revolution there were no choices. Now we have lots and lots of choices and mankind hasn’t had enough time to develop traditions to deal with them, because traditions provided that kind of guidelines in the past.

Alcoa AluminumDnA: It was also said in another way in another document you’ve included, a twenty five year appraisal that he did for Interior Design magazine and he writes “affluence turns the design field into a field of cultural boobytraps unparalleled in the history of man.”

DO: Yes, and in this rare Eames film I saw, for the narration of the film Charles and Ray wrote: “the problem of designing anything is in a sense the problem of designing a tool, and as in designing a tool it is usually wise to have a pretty clear idea of what you want the thing to do. The need it is to fill its particular objective.”

That kind of sums it up for me.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Ostroff has several book signings in the next several weeks. Check for more information on his website.