'A kettle doesn't have to look like a kettle to boil water.' So runs the ethos behind an exhibition celebrating the work of legendary Fifties designers Ray and Charles Eames. Corinne Julius paid a visit
Ask a pupil to draw a modern chair and the likelihood is that they would come up with a curved plastic shell on four metal legs. Like many of the objects that define the visual world at the end of the 20th century, the original was designed nearly half a century ago by the pioneering husband and wife team Charles and Ray Eames.
Examining the wire chairs during their visit to the Eames Exhibition at London's Design museum, girls from Haberdashers' Aske's School in Hertfordshire thought they were produced in the 1980s. They were astounded to discover that the chairs were designed in 1951.
Ray and Charles Eames are probably now best known for their furniture. As early as 1952 their glass fibre chair was used in a Dick Tracey cartoon as the icon for all things modern, and their plywood and leather lounge chair remains the must-have for today's style buffs.
Their own home, designed as a model of low-cost, do-it-yourself housing, used standardised construction elements taken from trade catalogues and became the model for high-tech architecture in the late Sixties. They developed the style, now much in favour, of mixing the extremely modern with the "organised clutter" of craft and ethnic items. They also produced films and multi-media presentations to teach one culture about another.
Challenging assumptions was at the core of the Eames design philosophy. According to Jane Snelling, the Design Museum's secondary education officer, their refusal to go by the obvious route is a perfect example for today's students. "We try to get students to use their imagination and develop new ways of seeing. A kettle doesn't have to look like a kettle to boil water," she says.
To prove her point she runs workshops for schools before their visit to the exhibition. On the table, among other items, are a long green plastic potted cactus, a large green and yellow cylinder that unfolds to resemble an owl in flight, a pale blue plastic fez, a mini silver alien spacecraft, and a green cone.
These items in the museum's handling collection are not recognisably the artefacts normally identified with a particular function, and Year 8 pupils from Haberdashers' Aske's engaged in heated debate about what they could possibly be.
Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, the spacecraft is a teapot, the cactus a toilet brush, the fez a radio, and the owl a can crusher. The green cone is a puzzler. Suggestions include a lemon squeezer, a pot pourri holder, a salad dryer and an egg cracker. Jane Snelling encourages the girls to analyse what each object does and how well and safely it does it. They must identify the target market (who would like it and who might buy it) and the price. To the group's astonishment, the green cone is a wasp trap.
Having learned the basics of product analysis, the girls, armed with worksheets, examine the chairs in the Eames exhibition. Helen Waller is particularly impressed with the wire chair. "It's brilliant, especially the back which, despite being wire, is comfortable. It's clever how the seatpad is economical, only covering the part your body would rest against. But it might be expensive to produce until you had the right kind of machine to make it."
Claudia Berlin and Charlotte Cura are much taken with the aluminium and plastic cinema seating. "Usually your bum falls out," says Claudia, "but these are great. The material is stretchy and moulds to your body, making them really comfortable. You are in a perfect position." Charlotte appreciates the size. "Because the seats are large you can move around so that you can see around the person in front. But they might be expensive to make."
The overall favourite is La Chaise, a white glass fibre amoeba-like reclining chair straight from a space odyssey, although designed in 1948. The girls offer quite sophisticated design and manufacturing ideas to overcome their concern about sliding off.
Sharon McCarthy, head of design technology at Haberdashers', is delighted. "The girls have learned about product analysis and the beginnings of ergonomics, areas which they will explore in detail later. Most importantly they have learned to look at radical ideas and to think outside what they already know."
Jean Sampson, design technology teacher at Brookfield school near Southampton, feels her first-term GCSE pupils achieved a similar breakthrough. "Youngsters complain that adults have closed minds, but pupils are really very conventional," she says. "Their experience and resources are limited. Their design experiments can be restricted to redrawing the objects they see in the Argos catalogue, but this gives them something very different."
Ray and Charles Eames exploited new materials and techniques, applying them in previously unused ways. Their pioneering work during the war in developing plywood leg splints for injured airmen led to the use of plywood in a series of radically different chairs.
These, plus models and moulds for their wire and glass fibre chairs, are on display. A series of wire prototypes and the form on which the chairs were bent hang next to a glass fibre shell balanced on a dustbin, providing students with an unrivalled opportunity to study the evolution of a design.
Jean Sampson says: "It's difficult to show students design method, but it's even harder to show them factory and manufacturing processes, which are an important component of their GCSE course. It is difficult to arrange factory visits, and here we have it all in one exhibition."
The use of materials also inspired A-level students from Chesham High in Buckinghamshire, but head of technology Leslie o'Neill was particularly pleased with the way that the Eames exhibition dealt with cultural influences in design. "It's a major part of the A-level course. A good example was the mock-up of the side of the house elevation and the display about the designers' preoccupation with creating low cost housing and furniture for a generation home from the war. There was a lot to analyse on the historical and socio-economic influences on design."
Ray and Charles Eames were also keen observers of cultural differences. Their collection of slides, now held by the Library of Congress in Washington, and some of which are on display at the Design Museum, numbers more than 350, 000. Their images of Asian, Native American and Mexican artefacts was a core reference for their designs and offered Leslie o'Neill's students clear cultural references to examine in their work. "I'm always encouraging students to sketch and build up their own library of pictures, and here they can see the world's leading designers doing just that."
Ray and Charles Eames created a way of living in the early 1950s, combining work and home, that is still deemed the good life of the Nineties.
They lived and worked in a house and studio they designed themselves. It was a carefully arranged mixture of modern design with diverse ethnic artefacts and images. The contrast between old and new, rich and humble, foreign and familiar, mass-produced and hand-crafted, became the Eameses' aesthetic signature.
But they were about much more than Sunday supplement looking good. They wanted to change the nature of 20th century life. Designers with a social conscience moulded by the Depression and the Second World War, they struggled to solve what they saw as basic human needs for shelter, comfort and knowledge, by posing questions such as: how to produce low-cost, well-designed space for living and working? how to produce economical, high-quality furniture? how to help people observe the beauty in the everyday? how to make scientific principles accessible to lay people, particularly children? how to help Americans and other cultures understand each other? "Recognising the need, " according to Charles Eames, "is the primary condition for the practice of design."
Today they are best known for their pioneering furniture in what were then untried materials such as moulded plywood, glass, reinforced plastic, bent and moulded wire mesh and cast aluminium. They were innovators in the then new science of ergonomics. But perhaps their most interesting role was as pioneers in using films and multi-screen techniques to present everyday things in new ways.
They were fascinated by how cultures perceived each other. Although their show "Glimpses of America", produced for the American National Exhibition in Moscow in 1959 (reconstructed at the Design Museum), now seems an apology for the American Dream, "Powers of Ten", one of their films popularising science, conveys their ability to make the subject exciting.
Ray and Charles Eames' single most important contribution is that they humanised and personalised modernism and in so doing popularised it, producing many of the visual icons of the 20th century.
The Work of Charles and Ray Eames, Design Museum, 28 Shad Thames, London SE1, until January 4 1999. Opening times 11.30am-6pm daily. Information: 0171 378 6055