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‘Powers’ celebrates universal design

by Keith Barber

On the 10th day of the 10th month, 10 times four people gathered at Krankies Werehouse in downtown Winston-Salem for the annual celebration of “The Powers of 10.” The work of industrial designers Charles and Ray Eames, “The Powers of 10” is a nine-minute short film shot some 30 years ago that reveals the design of the universe at the farthest reaches of outer space, or 10 meters to the 24 th power from the earth, and how it matches precisely the sub-atomic universe, or the world at 10 to the negative-13 th power.

Using cutting edge special effects and animation for a film that predates the digital revolution, the movie begins with a shot of a couple enjoying a picnic in a Chicago park. The camera is exactly one meter above the couple before the frame widens, and widens and widens, multiplying the area including in the frame by a factor of 10 every 10 seconds until the viewer eventually reaches the edge of the universe. Then we are transported on a round trip, traveling back to earth and then taken to the sub-atomic level of all living matter—the electron field surrounding a proton of a carbon atom — or 10 to the negative-13 th power. “This film shows humans are in denial about their relationship to the universe,” said Peter Marsh, vice president of Workplace Strategies in Winston-Salem. “The Powers of 10” certainly places mankind’s significance in perspective. And the annual celebration of the Eames’ work, held every Oct. 10, also puts into context the impact of these two visionary designers on our everyday lives. If you’ve ever worked in an office, you’ve most likely sat in a chair based on an Eames design. “There are extremely few modern designers that have had the range of impact that Charles and Ray Eames have had,” Marsh said. During World War II, Charles Eames was commissioned by the US Navy to design a lightweight leg splint to treat soldiers on the battlefield. Eames perfected the process of steambending plywood for office furniture and industrial products that are still widely used today. “They truly are one of the only industrial design firms that has had work in continuous production for the length of time that its been in production,” Marsh said. “They’ve had pieces that have been in production for fifty years that are still widely specified. They had one of the mass impacts of a true design studio.” Ross Rhodes of Alfred Williams & Company of Greensboro brought office chairs to Friday’s event, chairs are based on Eames’ designs. Rhodes pointed out that Charles and Ray Eames, in addition to being cutting-edge industrial designers, were also pioneers of the sustainability movement. The Eames’ home, made entirely from prefabricated industrial parts, was one of the first sustainable homes ever built. “They had a lot of influence on a lot of disciplines — graphic design, industrial design, exhibit design — and a way to articulate ideas in a way a lot of people could get,” Marsh said. “The concept of sustainable design, which they really got before it was fashionable, was all about the fact that everything you do influences everything around you and there’s a moral responsibility associated with that. They really practiced that in their lives.” Charles Eames passed away in 1978, and his wife, Ray, followed a decade later. The second short film exhibited during Friday’s event chronicled the deconstruction of the Eames “901” design studio in Venice, Calif., following Ray’s passing. It gives the viewer a sense of what the Eames dedicated their lives to — the joy of exploring ideas and exploring designs. In her will, Ray requested that a significant contingent of the items be donated to the Smithsonian Museum, while others were sold to museums and design studios around the world. The camera documents the amazing collection of photographs, films, industrial presentation materials and gadgets invented by the Eameses just before they were packed up and shipped off. The lasting impression on the viewer is a profound sense of the genius of the Eames’ work, and how it still resonates today. If design is defined as “a conversation with materials,” then Charles and Ray Eames elevated that dialogue to a new level. “You can see their work in virtually any office building in the US,” Marsh said. “They were one of the first design firms to use a timeline to organize and express ideas…. Their influence is still strongly felt in exhibit design — how ideas are expressed in museums and cultural milieus.” The Eames were commissioned by the US government to build a traveling exhibit about the Founding Fathers for the Bicentennial celebration in 1976. “The Powers of 10” proves to be the perfect Eames film for screening at the annual event, as it “generates dialogue around the idea of looking at things from different perspectives, different magnitudes, and understanding the relationship between the smallest level and the largest level,” Marsh said. In addition to providing the general audience with a sense of how design impacts their daily lives, “The Powers of 10” has particular significance for designers. Charles and Ray Eames believed design turns in on itself, that the smallest component of what you design resonates and reflects through the larger design. That concept is reflected in the work of countless designers to this very day, Marsh said. Momentum is building for the “Powers of 10” celebration in two years, on 10-10-2010, which should prove to be a worldwide phenomenon. “It brings people together, it stimulates dialogue, you revisit their ideas and the audience continues to grow,” said Marsh.

To comment on this story, e-mail Keith T. Barber at keith@ yesweekly.com.

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