A home design that considers first the user

A celebration of Charles Eames' birth visits his 1949 home, a modern style far from minimal.

Charles Eames' only child, Lucia, cradles the certificate, granted this year, declaring the Pacific Palisades home a National Historic Landmark. Eames' grandson, Eames Demetrios, shows off the two-story, bookcase-lined atrium.

Hear the name Eames, and you likely picture bent-plywood "potato chip" chairs or mid-century tables resting on "paper clip" legs - some of the distinctive home-furnishing styles that shaped the legacy of their designers.

Less celebrated, though greatly influential, are Charles and Ray Eames' 1949 home and studio in Los Angeles' Pacific Palisades neighborhood. The glass-and-steel structures - like monolithic Mondrian canvases springing from the ground - were not merely residence and work space. They were incubators for a new way of living.

With the centennial of Charles' birth and a yearlong schedule of events honoring the Eameses' oeuvre, the house remains an enduring symbol of post-World War II design and the indoor-outdoor lifestyle.

About 200 devotees gathered at the house last month for brunch, cookies and cocktails. Hosted by three generations of Eames descendants, the picnic celebrated Charles' birthday and marked the formal dedication of the house as a national historic landmark.

"The Eames House eschewed traditional materials like bricks and sticks and used glass and steel in fresh ways, to create a new understanding of how people can live," said Bill Stern, founder of the California Museum of Design.

Anybody who's thinking of building a house should "come here and take notes," added film producer and Eames scholar Daniel Ostroff.

"There's a horrible trend in architecture today where the last person that everybody thinks about is the user," Ostroff said. "In its concerns for practicality, use, beauty, durability and cost, the Eames House is the most important innovation in home design since the tepee."

Arguably the father of American mid-century modernism, Charles Eames was a design polyglot, fluent in architecture, industrial engineering, photography, graphic arts, and filmmaking. Ray Eames, his wife/design partner, was a painter who had studied with famed abstract expressionist Hans Hofmann.

As designers, the couple exuded an optimism about new materials and technology. As newcomers to Los Angeles, they embraced the expansive physical and psychological landscape.

The Eames House referenced Bauhaus design but was a major departure from the austerity of that movement. Composed of dual two-story rectangular boxes bathed in California sunshine, the form followed its intended function: to provide shelter from the elements while living among them.

The western end has a wide overhang to cut down glare and heat, and its southern face, rising on a bank above the long meadow, is a grid of steel, glass doors, windows, brightly colored panels, and X-braces.

The interiors echo Frank Lloyd Wright's vision of confined entrances that lead to voluminous areas. The Eames House also takes the concept of open floor plans to new heights with a two-story atrium, a design element de rigueur in today's contemporary homes.

A spiral staircase leads to second-floor bedrooms, and in the living room a ladder reaches toward the corrugated-steel ceiling. From the top rungs, Charles would rearrange hanging light fixtures and string paintings face down, parallel to the floor.

The house was the direct result of the Eameses' friendship and collaboration with John Entenza, editor of Arts & Architecture magazine. In 1945, the magazine inaugurated the Case Study program to design cost-effective housing for a postwar nation.

Entenza purchased three acres on a bluff and commissioned Charles Eames and his friend and colleague, Eero Saarinen, to create two houses - one for Entenza and the other for the Eameses.

As originally conceived by Eames and Saarinen, Case Study No. 8 was a cantilevered structure made from off-the-shelf parts.

"During the war, America had figured out how to build fast," said Eames Demetrios, Charles' grandson. "The idea that my grandfather and Saarinen had was to put prefabricated pieces from industrial catalogs into a new, affordable configuration."

Though it has been suggested that Charles was responsible for the hard, masculine edges and Ray did the soft interiors, Demetrios said it wasn't that simple.

"Charles was trained as an architect, Ray as a painter, but they had a holistic collaboration, where each was the other's most important sounding board," he said. "Their collaboration was always blurring the line between technology and art, and their designs flowed from an understanding of the materials and the needs of the user."

During the celebration, Charles Eames' only child, Lucia, led visitors young and old through the house, which remains exactly as Ray left it when she died in 1988.

It's clear that "modern" did not mean "minimal" to the Eameses. Colorful textiles are draped on prototypes of the couple's classics. Tabletops and a towering bookcase in the living room are crammed with windup toys, wooden tops, hand-carved jungle beasts, kachina dolls, and American Indian baskets - vivid reminders of a lifetime of globe-trotting.

"It's been said that Charles and Ray introduced the idea of decorating with everything," Demetrios said. "They had a comfort level with all kinds of artifacts and understood the human need to collect things."