Democratising Knowledge – Charles and Ray Eames


Reflections on Charles and Ray Eames Exhibition at the Barbican Centre, London

Charles and Ray Eames encouraged a way of thinking that shifted the focus from economic gain to creative and intellectual gain. They wanted to encourage a pooling and sharing of knowledge and envisaged a more open world where people weren’t possessive of ideas and would readily try their hand at anything. By seeing everything is a creative influence, then they prompt us to question what we would consider ‘wasted time’. All of these are lessons that remain relatively sidelined today at a time when more than ever, we could really do with taking them on board.20160410_160053

In January, I went to see this exhibition at the Barbican Centre in London, having never really heard of Charles and Ray Eames and was fascinated. It was brilliantly curated over two levels with visual links in between and their original films. Here follow some of the thoughts prompted by the exhibition and subsequently reading of The Films of Charles and Ray Eames by Eric Schuldenfrei.

In 1958, the Eameses were commissioned by the Indian Government to prepare a report on the state of design in India, they spent three months there investigating. As a result of their report, the government set up the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad. In their report, they quoted from Bhagavad Gita:

“You have the right to work, but for the work’s sake only, you have no right to the fruits of work. Desire for the fruits of work must never be your motive in working.”

eames-01The Eameses prioritised creative and intellectual gain over financial gain and hoped to redirect the motivation for work. In this way, they were advocating something in direct competition to the ‘American dream’.

They wanted to democratise knowledge by giving everybody easy access to a shared network of information. So they focused on education which they held would provide a long-term pay-off for the nation.

–> This is an idea particularly worth debating now, when politicians use the argument of securing a long-term future for the country as the logic for austerity. The rhetoric of politics seems to focus on a long-term but, as access to free higher education is being eliminated, their actions do not. Investment in education and encouraging the best access for all to a network of knowledge is surely the most certain route to securing a peoples’ long-term growth in contentment and prosperity.

Applying the Eameses philosophy to today launches another assault, that is against the insular compartmentalising of academic thought. There exists a fear among professionals and academics of non-professionals being able to challenge them on something within their niche. This paranoia leads to them building islands of incomprehensible jargon to protect themselves against the opinion of the bloke in the street, who has now been locked out of their debate by their purposeful use of a different language. This fear that the unprofessional might have something to say on their subject seems to expose a lack of confidence in their own personal intelligence, training, or achievements. If they are confident in their views then they should be open to challenges by anybody, if they are not, then they should be more keen on searching for the ‘better view’ through open discussion than protecting their pride from injury.

“If the fruits of your work really are so great… let everybody see them”

This argument also applies to the physical fruits of work. If the fruits your work really are so great, then don’t hang onto them desperately, let everybody see them and understand them and find out what they can do with them too. And in learning to let go of the idea and watch it spread, you’ll most likely be able to think up something new without continual worried glances over your back, searching for potential plagiarists.

“The Eameses told allegories on the topic of instilling respect for ‘things that hold no immediate payoff’ – for example, ‘The mother stopping her work to arrange a pattern in stones or dust’… Expanding the purview of design, the Eameses hoped that participation would become natural for people outside the professional field of designers. By purposefully showing an incomplete project, a sketch of an idea, they prompt others to take it further.” – Eric Schuldenfrei in ‘The Films of Charles and Ray Eames’


Charles Eames and the ‘House of Cards’ Game

–> By encouraging people to turn their hands to anything, contrary to only getting a whole load of creative mediocrity (although you will also get this), people are able to use the ideas and skills encountered to feed into the discipline that is where their strength lies. We are moving towards, in the UK, a ‘creative economy’ and, in this particularly, it is important that people are encouraged to try out all sorts of expression to help with collaboration.

The Eameses themselves explored many different unfamiliar disciplines so as to apply insights across these, using apparently unrelated information to generate new connections. This approach is evident in their ‘House of Cards’ game which consisted of interlocking cards with pictures of nature and patterns to act as inspiration.

This way of working is particularly fruitful for architecture, being inherently multidisciplinary, and something that I have been trying to do; I often find myself ‘arranging a pattern in stone or dust’ and frequently use this argument to justify why I’m on top of Arthur’s Seat watching the sunset and not on Autocad.

The Exhibition website can be found here

The book The Films of Charles and Ray Eames by Eric Schuldenfrei can be seen here

I’m always interested to hear other people’s thoughts on any subject so please email me at