The date was August 21.
To Bill and me, it was just the third Wednesday of the month. When we sat down with sculptor Llisa Demetrios that morning at her home and studio in Sonoma County for an interview about her grandparents, iconic husband-and-wife designers Charles and Ray Eames, we learned it was so much more.
Llisa started off by saying, “Today’s a bittersweet day for our family. Charles died on August 21, 1978. Ray died 10 years later to the day in 1988.”
Oh. My. Gosh. That unexpected, almost mystical overlay began two amazing hours.
Charles and Ray Eames were leaders in the revolutionary design aesthetic known as mid-century modern, developed in the post-World War II years and lasting to around 1970. Mid-century modern homes are clean and pared down, featuring horizontal lines, open floor plans, and an integration of outdoors and indoors with lots of windows and glass doors. The couple’s combined media included furniture and industrial design, architecture, films, exhibitions, photography, textiles, and even toys. According to Herman Miller, one of two companies licensed to produce their furniture designs (Vitra is the other), the “Eames look” is “Lean and modern. Playful and functional. Sleek, sophisticated, and beautifully simple.”
We had arrived at Llisa’s with an already strong appreciation for Eames furniture. My parents’ decorating sensibility was mid-century modern, and our Eames pieces were a seminal part of my childhood history. Bill and I are devotees as well. We can’t imagine living without our Eames Lounge chair and ottoman (considered their masterpiece), wire base low table, and molded plywood lounge chair. My twin sister, Linda, has an early Eames electric orange molded fiberglass chair on casters.
Llisa is the archivist for the Eames Office, which communicates, preserves, and extends the work of her grandparents. She arranges loans from the untold thousands of pieces of their original works to museums and galleries worldwide.
Lucia Eames, Llisa’s mother and Charles’ only child (Ray was his second wife) established the non-profit Charles and Ray Eames House Preservation Foundation, Inc. Its mission is to preserve and protect the Eames House in Palisades Park, CA – it’s a National Historic Landmark – and to provide educational experiences that celebrate the creative legacy of her parents. Llisa and her four siblings, along with their mother, constitute the boards of both the Eames Office and the foundation.
For Llisa and Lucia, this is in addition to sharing a studio, aka The Barn, as Demetrios & Eames. Lucia is a designer, and Llisa is a sculptor who fashions works in bronze for contemplative retreats set in homes, private gardens, and corporate spaces.
The Eames design approach
We were transported as Llisa toured us around the property. The multi-winged home she shares with her husband, children, and mother is burgeoning with Eames artifacts. Llisa spoke to us with the insight and passion regarding her grandparents that only a loving family member can do, aided, perhaps, by the personal poignancy of the day. A gifted storyteller, she brought Charles and Ray to life. She shared vivid accounts of their prolific output, relentless pursuit of perfection, conscientious work ethic, experimentation with materials, innovative ideas, understanding of constraints, sense of play, and their forward-looking concern about the impact of their designs, materials, and processes on the Earth.
A facet of their work that particularly stood out was how a product was a continuous process of study, refinement, and improvement. They made literally hundreds of prototypes, not just for the overall object, but also for each individual part. They would produce a hundred iterations of something, like the shock mount, or hinge, that secures the back of the Eames Lounge chair. Then they would select the one they wanted to research further, and make a hundred iterations of that piece. They truly exemplified their premise that good design can improve the quality of life.
Lessons learned and carried forward
Llisa’s earliest memory of Charles and Ray is having dined with them in Los Angeles when she was about seven. They ate borscht.
“Charles asked what I thought, I said I didn’t like it, and he asked how I would do it differently,” she recalled. “I learned if I were going to complain about something I needed a better solution. That brought up what were the constraints the chef had faced. We made up a story that the chef went to the market and saw beets and maybe they reminded him of his Russian childhood, or maybe the market only had beets.”
Both by their own example as well as involving their grandchildren in their projects, Charles and Ray taught many lessons from their studio in Venice, CA, and Llisa incorporates them into her own art:
- Cultivate the guest-host relationship. When hired, your job is to anticipate problems before your clients think of them because it’s your expertise. Llisa’s first question to her clients is “What is the need for the space?” Often a client will take a piece she sculpts for inside the home and later relocate it outside, so she factors in possible changes in patina.
- The importance of scale. Charles and Ray made scale models to demonstrate how the final product would look to ensure that everyone was on the same page. Like her grandparents, Llisa takes photos and makes short films of her wood maquettes. Her Lunar Asparagus Series and the Titan Series, for example, range in scale from 12 inches to 10 feet tall in both indoor and outdoor settings, and are often made in pairs or trios. The negative space between them is like an additional sculpture – a conversation between them.
- Look for the overlapping interest. Work on projects that consider, or overlap, the interests of the artist, client, and city because then it’s a win-win-win situation for everyone.
- Use every tool as well or better than the person you hire. Otherwise, you won’t know if they’ve done a good job.
- Pick one material and know it really well. Llisa chose bronze, then silicon bronze, then sheets of silicon bronze as her specialty.
As the presenter of the Eames Office Powers of Ten workshop, Llisa helps to further her grandparents’ prodigious and ever-relevant legacy of ideas. The title comes from their influential film of the same name. The content of the workshop is all about conveying an understanding of scale – the relative size of something, not just how big or small it is. The program helps to foster an interrelationship between art and science.
“With computer screens, it’s too easy for people to think that everything is the same size,” she said. “That can negatively impact their perception of the world, and ability to make decisions and solve problems.”
The sheer creativity and the generation and adaptation of ideas that continue to emanate from the Eames family as it moves its rich legacy forward is astounding. Llisa opens up her home and studio only a few times a year for special groups, primarily those in the design field. Bill and I were beyond honored and grateful that she so generously graced us with a look inside their world.