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The Eames House has long been a mecca for enthusiasts of midcentury modernism. Many of its design features are ubiquitous but were revolutionary 70 years ago. Using mass-produced, post-World War II materials, husband and wife team Charles and Ray Eames designed their home in Pacific Palisades, Calif. Now their heirs are working to preserve the house for generations to come. NPR's Mandalit del Barco has this report.
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MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: Charles Eames was an architect, his wife, Ray, a painter. Together, they designed iconic office and lounge chairs. They devised toys and made innovative films about math and computers.
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DEL BARCO: On a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean, the Eames' built their house and studio with off-the-shelf, prefabricated materials. Steel beams painted black frame the glass walls and doors. Panels composed like a Mondrian painting - a block of cobalt blue here, a bright red-orange insert there.
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CHARLES EAMES: Ray and I worked on it. We designed it together.
DEL BARCO: That's Charles Eames in 1956. On the TV show "Home," he described their home to host Arlene Francis.
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EAMES: It's composed of standard factory units.
ARLENE FRANCIS: Standard factory units that don't look very standard or very factory in those pictures. That's what your beautification has done for them, you and Ray.
DEL BARCO: It was known as Case Study House No. 8 for a program challenging architects to design modern, inexpensive residences in post-war Southern California. It's now a national historic landmark. The Getty Conservation Institute, or GCI, has been helping plan for its future. Having preserved tombs in Egypt and ancient ruins in China and Latin America, the institute's turned to conserving modern architecture. Susan MacDonald is the GCI's head of buildings and sites.
SUSAN MACDONALD: Can we treat modern buildings the same way that we can buildings from the ancient world? And our thesis was, we can.
DEL BARCO: So far, that's meant repairing the flat roof, and replacing the asbestos floor tiles and installing a device to measure air particulates.
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DEL BARCO: Meanwhile, the house remains open to visitors, who must enter without shoes.
JENNIFER POLITO: Welcome. First of all, thank you so much for coming. We love this house.
DEL BARCO: Eames House docent Jennifer Polito starts us in the kitchen.
POLITO: Everything you see in here came out of a catalog, and it was affordable.
DEL BARCO: The Eames' added their flair, painting an exposed pipe red, installing sliding glass doors and creating artful assemblages.
POLITO: So you'll see very common things, like shells and little tiny objects. But together, they're beautiful. The candlesticks were important. They had breakfast by candlelight.
DEL BARCO: A spiral staircase leads upstairs to two bedrooms with movable walls. The 17-foot-tall living room is light and airy.
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DEL BARCO: Glass doors open to a meadow connecting indoors and outdoors. The space is accented by exposed trusses, as well as layered rugs and cozy, low-slung couches. And everywhere - fabrics, toys, folk art, books and souvenirs from their travels.
CAROLINA MIRANDA: This is not your sterile, minimalist, unhappy hipsters' home. This is a home that is lived in by two people who've been all over the world and are sharing some of, you know, what they've harvested in those adventures in their home.
DEL BARCO: Carolina Miranda writes about art and architecture for the LA Times. She's here, too, admiring the 1,500-square-foot house nestled into the hillside. It stands in stark contrast to the neighborhood.
MIRANDA: It's so thoughtful and considered in terms of its design and its placement on the land, and then we walk up the hill, and we're looking at McMansion construction, essentially, which is very unsympathetic. All they want are big bathrooms, and a giant rumpus room and the ocean view.
DEL BARCO: You can glimpse the Pacific from inside the Eames House, too. But unlike its supersized neighbors, it sits far back from the cliff's edge in a meadow dotted with eucalyptus trees.
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LUCIA DEWEY ATWOOD: The sound of the birds, the rustling of the leaves. And on a quiet night, you can even hear the ocean waves crashing.
DEL BARCO: Lucia Dewey Atwood grew up visiting her grandparents, Charles and Ray Eames. She says they lived in harmony with nature and were always creative, wondrous hosts.
DEWEY ATWOOD: One time I arrived, and Charles handed me a camera. And we spent the entire morning out in the meadow shooting images of daffodils.
DEL BARCO: Dewey Atwood is on the board of the Eames Foundation, whose goal, she says, is to show the way in which Charles and Ray lived.
DEWEY ATWOOD: And that does mean opening doors and windows. It means pulling curtains. It means having fresh bouquets in the house and having even a living tree in the house.
DEL BARCO: Dewey Atwood admits this poses conservation challenges, but her family doesn't want the house to be a hermetically sealed up museum. She says the 250 Year plan she's directing takes into account the lifespan of the eucalyptus trees, and it incorporates her grandparents' modernist values.
DEWEY ATWOOD: You know, take your pleasures seriously. It's so amazing if you're working on an important project if you sort of make it be fun. The ideas are just so much more fantastic. I mean, Charles and Ray really had this wonderful ability to invite you into the fun.
DEL BARCO: And that was the point, according to the Eames' - to make life better by design.
Mandalit del Barco, NPR News.
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