February 19, 2013

California Museum exhibit to celebrate Sacramento native Ray Eames

Daydreaming about fashion, the future matriarch of modern design spent her Sacramento youth sketching clothes and making paper dolls.

Daydreaming about fashion, the future matriarch of modern design spent her Sacramento youth sketching clothes and making paper dolls.

Bernice "Ray" Kaiser saw herself as an artist. She married an architect. Together, they changed the world of furniture – plus a lot more.

And 100 years after her birth, Ray Eames will be celebrated in her hometown.

"Ray Eames: A Century of Modern Design" will open Saturday at the California Museum for a one-year run. On March 20, Ray and husband Charles Eames will be inducted into the California Hall of Fame.

"Why is it nobody knows she's from Sacramento?" asked project manager Brenna Hamilton, part of the team that put together the museum's exhibit. "Ray was one of the most influential designers of the 20th century. She broke ground for women in the arts. Yet, her hometown has yet to embrace her."

That will change with this 3,300-square-foot exhibit and other events planned around the centennial of her birth. Ray Eames (rhymes with "dreams") will be the first native Sacramento woman inducted into the museum's Hall of Fame.

Eames, who died in 1988 at age 75, was not into self promotion. "I'd rather do something than talk about it," she once told a Smithsonian interviewer.

Partners in life, Charles and Ray Eames worked as a perfect team. Their Los Angeles-based Eames Office created innovations for modern architecture, furniture, films, toys, photography, textiles, exhibition design and more.

Growing up with heavy wooden furniture, they created lightweight Space Age designs that blended form with function. Their lounge chair and bucket-like seats remain their best-known designs but they also filmed the acclaimed documentary "Powers of Ten" (about the relative size of things in our universe), and created the ever- popular children's House of Cards building set.

But often people assumed that Ray was Charles' brother, not his wife.

Said Charles before his death in 1977, "Anything I can do, she can do better."

"This brings attention to another Sacramento hidden gem," said Gretchen Steinberg, co-founder of the nonprofit SacMod. "People don't even realize Ray is female. She was so exquisitely placed in the middle of the modernist movement. Sacramento should be proud of her."

Ray Eames' centennial celebration also brought together her family, who have worked countless hours to preserve and catalog the Eames legacy. Lucia Eames, Charles' daughter from his first marriage, and her five children contributed.

"We all find it amusing and delightful to be involved," said Denver's Carla Hartman, the eldest.

In trying to fit together their grandparents' diverse body of work, they spent years "sifting through thousands of pieces of paper," Hartman said. "Clearly, they were passionate about what they did. All five grandchildren carry that passion."

While growing up, the grandkids experienced firsthand Ray Eames' constant zest for life.

"Work and play were seamless," Hartman said. "She had that sparkle, vivaciousness, infectious laugh. At the same time, she was so detailed. She could teach a lesson as quick as a thunderbolt."

Grandson Eames Demetrios, who works with Eames Office in Santa Monica, helps keep their designs alive. Many chairs are still available from furniture maker Herman Miller.

"What's really amazing about Charles and Ray is that almost all of the pieces are still in production," he said. "There are more than a hundred chairs and other furnishings. A lot of Eames chairs people don't even realize are Eames chairs. That's a real test of time.

"Basically, they had a very holistic approach to design," he said. "What's striking about Charles and Ray is they made world-class contributions to so many different media – not just furniture, but films, toys, architecture, you name it."

More than any other modern designers, Charles and Ray Eames still influence the way we live. For example, their innovative bucket bench seating – winner of a design competition – is still in use at most airports around the world.

"There isn't a person in America who hasn't sat in an Eames chair," Hamilton said.

In addition to furniture and other projects, this exhibit focuses more on Ray Eames' early years.

"For us as a family, it was very exciting, putting all this together," said granddaughter Llisa Demetrios, who lives in Petaluma. "She was a real force of nature, a strong woman that could get things done. What makes this exhibit so exciting is it's about her early days in Sacramento. You can see what she was doing before she met Charles, then how that relationship evolved."

Ray's father, Alex Kaiser, was a vaudevillian who managed the Empress Theater (now the Crest) and later owned a downtown insurance office.

After one semester at Sacramento City College, Ray Kaiser left her hometown for art school in New York. She studied abstract expressionist painting with Hans Hofmann and was a founder of the American Abstract Artists group.

Her life changed when she met Charles in 1940 at Michigan's Cranbrook Academy of Art during a furniture design competition. They married the next year and moved to Los Angeles.

Seeking ways to make good design affordable for all, they pioneered furniture making using molded plywood, fiberglass, plastic resin and wire mesh. But they were interested in all aspects of daily life.

"It's almost incomprehensible how much she produced in her lifetime," Hamilton said. "She had a 60-year career. As a child, she started with paper dolls and never stopped. She never lost that childlike wonder of creativity and experimenting."

With the help of the Eames family, curator Amanda Meeker has spent months sifting through items to display. In addition to scale models and finished works, Ray Eames kept copious notes, often scribbled on the back of cigarette packaging or other random paper. Barely 4-foot-11, she designed her own wardrobe.

"I feel like I've gotten to know her much better," Meeker said. "She had this sense of whimsy. She brought so much creativity with an eye for detail to ordinary things."

Said Hartman, "Ray taught us that we can all have something we're passionate about. You don't have to settle for something; you can transform your environment. You can create your own magic."


Where: California Museum, 1020 O St., Sacramento

When: Opens Saturday. Continues through Feb. 23, 2014.

Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, noon-5 p.m. Sundays. Closed Mondays.

Admission: $8.50 general; college students and seniors ages 65 and up, $7; youths ages 6-17, $6; children ages 5 and younger admitted free.

Details:, (916) 653-0650

Also: The museum will be closed March 20 for the California Hall of Fame inductions. Ray Eames and husband Charles Eames will be among the inductees.

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