Eames for the Sky

The Getty Conservation Institute charts a 100-year plan for the Eames House

The exterior of the Eames House's south court, covered by an extension of the residence roof, in 2017. (Joshua White, © Eames Office)

It’s not easy being a septuagenarian, especially when your bones are made of steel and your skin consists of little more than brittle sheets of single-pane glass.

Just ask the Eames House, an icon of midcentury industrial modernism designed as a personal residence by storied design duo Charles and Ray Eames in 1949. The conservation of the breezy home, filled with the eclectic knick-knacks and thoughtful design objects that define the couple’s colorful and practical oeuvre, is the subject of a new plan crafted by the Getty Conservation Institute (GCI), the Eames Foundation, and project architects Escher GuneWardena Architecture that aims to preserve the residence for posterity.

Described as an “outstanding international exemplar of postwar modern residential design” by GCI, the house, a national historic landmark, sits on a scrubby, eucalyptus-filled bluff outside Los Angeles overlooking the Pacific Ocean. It was originally developed as part of the influential Case Study House Program initiated by Arts and Architecture magazine editor John Entenza. Organized as a pair of spartan volumes set on a landscaped terrace, the home pioneered a new approach to residential design that married soaring, interlocking interiors with industrial construction materials—steel trusses, plywood paneling, and expanses of early curtain wall glass—to “humanize” the fruits of mass production while also providing effervescent but economical accommodations.

A woman leaning against a modernist door frame while comparing color swatches

Emily MacDonald-Korth (former GCI Associate Project Specialist) excavating exterior paint layers at the Eames House in 2013. (Scott Warren, © J. Paul Getty Trust)

But in the decades since, those then-experimental approaches have shown their wear, despite the Eames Foundation’s laudable stewardship. GCI’s plan, like the inventive spirit that went into designing the house, will work as a global case study in its own right by piloting conservation and research approaches for stabilizing and maintaining modernist-era structures. Detailed conditions assessments, an inventory of existing elements, and long-term site stabilization strategies are being developed in conjunction with the plan in an effort to create an approach that better resembles a cohesive preservation ethos rather than a detailed to-do list for the home.

As a result, the effort is focused on problem-solving tasks like replacing asbestos tiles with nontoxic finishes, adding moisture barriers to prevent indoor condensation, and examining microscopic layers of paint around the premises to develop a detailed color-coded timeline for the complex.

Describing the plan, Tim Whalen, the John E. and Louise Bryson Director of the Getty Conservation Institute, said, “While the GCI undertakes initiatives all over the world, it is critical to recognize the important organizations that we engage locally, like our work at the Eames House,” adding, “We are pleased that the completion of the Conservation Management Plan will now guide future conservation efforts.”

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