Felix Burrichter on the fascination of modernism

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Ray & Charles EAMES: life’s a classic!

The American designers Ray and Charles Eames created modern design classics by combining functionality and style. The PRIAM pushchair from the CYBEX PLATINUM range is an homage to the innovative power of their life´s work.

Perhaps it is no coincidence that it was two Americans who enhanced classic modern architecture and design in two significant ways, by infusing it with sound judgement and with humour. In contrast, European-led Bauhaus design was always closely linked with ideology. To be cynical, you could say that the Bauhaus movement followed the principle of “form follows religion”. But Ray and Charles Eames worked according to a different principle: they took the world as it is – and improved it. The dream duo met during the Second World War – he was an architect, she was an artist – and started out designing leg braces, stretchers and aircraft parts for the US Army. What they came away with from this time was a strong curiosity for what could be achieved with limited means and how you could coax new characteristics and qualities out of simple materials. During the following decades, the couple would completely shake up people’s understanding of what was attractive and useful and their influence can still be felt today. There is hardly a flat in London Shoreditch, Berlin Mitte or Williamsburg that does not contain at least one of their designs, lovingly unearthed at a flea market or bought new. Because unlike many other classic pieces of furniture, the chairs of Ray and Charles Eames have always remained true to their original concept. Even new, they are relatively affordable, and they look good whatever their age. Although the word “age” should be used with care – they are absolute classics.

»The DETAILS are not the details.

Charles Eames

But what is a classic? We need look no further than some of Ray and Charles Eames’ biggest hits. The “Eames Plastic Side Chair” is actually just a piece of plastic that was organically moulded into a seat and backrest perfectly aligned with the human anatomy, and then screwed to a wire frame. The simple design innovatively combined two materials: plastic was liberated from its reputation of being cheap, while the metal construction was a stylish reference to the hard-core functionalism of the machine age. What’s more, the “Eames Plastic Side Chair” allows countless different configurations, with a variety of legs, a rocking function, and a wide range of colours. For Ray and Charles Eames, design had to be functional – and fun.

The “Lounge Chair” was the result of tenacious research. Since the 1930s, the Eames’ had experimented with the technique of bending plywood to form three-dimensional curves. With this design (developed in 1956), the designers succeeded in finding a solution that still sets standards today. Inspired by the ingenious simplicity, functionality and beauty of Ray and Charles Eames designs, we asked ourselves “How would Ray and Charles Eames create a pushchairs if they were alive today?” The aim was to translate the aesthetic and functional standards into a modern pushchair. This led to the development of the PRIAM - an extremely robust and versatile pushchair, yet still possessing a from that is incomparably light and timeless. The PRIAM is a homage to Ray and Charles Eames. Their motto "The details are not the details. They make the design" was the motto running through the entire development of this premium pushchair.


Felix Burrichter on the fascination of modernism

The architect FELIX BURRICHTER is editor-in-chief and creative director at the New York architecture magazine PIN-UP. Besides conducting interviews with influential contemporary architects, the magazine explores cultural phenomena and tracks down the latest design concepts, all paired with pioneering photography. Felix Burrichter spoke to Eva Munz about the enduring appeal of California modernism.

Mr Burrichter, where did the aesthetic of California Modernism, which is still popular to this day, originate?

What is nowadays referred to as California Modernism – or sometimes L.A Modernism – is a direct result of the two World Wars. The Californian version of modernist architecture began its triumphant march with the Case Study Houses. In 1945 the magazine Arts & Architecture launched a competition to design new housing for young families. Millions of people were returning from the war and needed a home. At the time, the suburban structures that are today emblematic of America did not yet exist. There were suburban villa neighbourhoods, but the dream of a normal family of four having their own detached house with a garden had not yet been realised. The idea of the magazine was to carry out a kind of case study of modern living. Eight architects including Summer Spaulding, Eero Saarinen, Richard Neutra, Pierre Koenig and Ray and Charles Eames were invited to take part.

Why are we still so fascinated by this era and why did the movement start in California in particular?

It was a simpler time, more optimistic. The American Dream still seemed to be within reach of every American. Los Angeles in the Forties was sparsely populated, there was space, land was cheap and you could afford to design on a bigger scale. The city was far removed from the urban jungle that we know today. Between downtown LA and Hollywood there was still lots of undeveloped land, the Hollywood Hills were untouched in parts, and there were only a few houses scattered throughout the hills along Mulholland Drive. When so much land is available you obviously don’t build a high-rise à la Le Corbusier’s Cité Radieuse.

Presumably the climate also played a role.

That made the whole thing easier. For example, Charles and Ray Eames’ famous house is in Santa Monica. To build a house like this on the East coast would have been difficult, not least in terms of insulation. The architects of the Case Study Houses, which included the Eames’, were set the challenge of using new materials. Many of these materials only began to be mass produced during the war and were therefore being used in architecture for the first time. But it was important that the materials were not too rare or expensive, because the top priority was that the houses were relatively inexpensive to build and therefore suitable for mass production.

»Every strong AESTHETIC
reflects a PERSONALITY

Felix Burrichter

There is an incredible lightness to the Case Study Houses in comparison to comparable architectural currents like the Bauhaus movement.

There are several reasons for this. Glass creates transparency and lightness. A house with walls of windows on every side always comes across as very open. And of course the location plays an important role: the stunning landscape, the Pacific Ocean, the pleasant climate. Not to mention the proximity to Hollywood. Hollywood radiated glamour on its surroundings. The proximity to an industry devoted to entertainment of course had an effect on the Californian lifestyle. But probably the most important point that led to the success of the Case Study Architecture competition was the way in which the houses were portrayed by the photographer Julius Shulman. His carefully choreographed photos were an important reason why the houses became so famous worldwide, and were often cited and copied.

Which photo do you think was the catalyst?

Probably the most famous one is a black-and-white photo that Schulman took in 1960 of the Case Study House #22. It shows a house with big windows at night, and is taken at an angle that makes it look as if the house is floating over LA. Two women in elegant evening dresses are sipping cocktails. Since this photo, countless fashion and advertising features have been shot here. The house is actually not particularly big – two bedrooms, the living room is not that spacious, and the pool looks bigger on the photo than it really is. But it still has an incredible appeal. It was similar with Richard Neutra’s Desert House in Palm Springs from 1946, which Shulman brilliantly immortalised: the Kaufmanns sunbathing by a pool. The house was auctioned at Christie’s in 2007 for a spectacular sum of 19.1 million dollars – an appreciation in value that is surely also thanks to Shulman’s brilliant photo.

Later trends often seem to feel outdated and obsolete far quicker. Why is this?

Shulman’s photos made many of the houses appear timeless – but we mustn’t forget that by the 1980s, many of the Case Study Houses did seem old-fashioned and no longer met the requirements of the typical modern American family, for whom they had originally been designed. But their simplicity and the almost minimalist clarity of the design made it easy to rediscover them again as status symbols in the 1990s.

Today the mid-century aesthetic is associated more with a stylish single person’s flat than with family housing.

Perhaps it is not associated only with singles, but certainly with a higher, more elite and exclusive aesthetic. Which is the exact opposite of what it originally stood for: well-made, good design, simple, durable but also affordable. Most of these houses are worth a fortune nowadays.

Was Eames furniture actually affordable at the time?

Eames furniture was never cheap, mainly because new production methods were being used. But at the time people still expected to be able to sit in a chair for the next 30 years. What we would today call sustainability was important. The strategy of furniture producers nowadays to produce cheaply, with the expectation that the furniture will break so that they can sell new pieces, was not widespread at the time. But for Eames, their strategy of sustainability did work: the models are true classics.

How would you describe your own style? How is your flat decorated?

Personally I also prefer a classic aesthetic, almost clinically simple, as you would imagine from an architect. The colour palette in my house doesn’t go much beyond black and white. I love colour, but mostly only in the form of flowers, which you can throw away with a good conscience after a few days when you’ve had enough of looking at them.

Was that always the case? What did your room look like when you were a teenager growing up with your family in Germany?

My room was wall-to-wall Interlübke, with a square Herman Miller Eames table, my parents’ old dining table that served as my desk. The only faux pas I can think of is a collection of Madonna posters, with which I wallpapered one of the walls from top to bottom. That must have been around 1991/92 when Madonna’s SEX book was published and I was entering puberty. My mother was horrified. I was only allowed to keep the posters on the condition that she didn’t have to look at them. So I hung them on the wall behind my bath, because that way my mother could pull the shower curtain shut. As a result I always had to shower in my sister’s bathroom so that my Madonna altar wouldn’t get wet!

In your magazine PIN-UP, you take a playful approach to design. The subtitle of the magazine is “for Architectural Entertainment”.

From the very first issue we often included things that would generally be considered tasteless. Although I don’t really like this kind of compartmentalising. I don’t think really bad taste exists … apart from in human behaviour. There is a lot of what I would describe as bad form. But in terms of design, furnishing and aesthetics I don’t think it really exists. At most there is no taste. In PIN-UP we often show things that have been made with so much effort, love and care that they deserve a closer look. Admittedly with different effects. Every strong aesthetic reflects a personality. And that interests me.

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