Amid the headline-making art shows in New York this summer--Dada at MoMA (a match made in name-development heaven!), AngloMania at the Met, the Klimts at the Neue Gallerie, the Whitney Museum's "Full House"--is a modest little exhibit at the Museum of Arts & Design (formerly the American Craft Museum) that I'm very glad I stumbled upon. "The Eames Lounge Chair: An Icon of Modern Design" is a 50th-anniversary tribute to the most famous creation of Charles and Ray Eames, the husband-and-wife design team whose Santa Monica studio was the epicenter of "serious fun" in the middle of the 20th century. The show is also an object lesson--and I mean that literally--in how to design (or write, or do any other creative endeavor) with integrity and joy.
At MAD, one can sit in an actual Eames lounge chair, prop one's feet on the matching ottoman, and watch a delightful film about the chair's history and its present-day manufacture at Herman Miller, Inc., in Zeeland, Michigan, where it's been in continuous production throughout its remarkable history. ("Manufacture" here is true to the original meaning of the word, "making by hand": each Eames chair involves a prodigious amount of hand labor.)
Unlike many other "art chairs," the Eames Chair is a pleasure to inhabit. That's a direct result of the Eameses' belief that design was an expression of "the guest/host relationship," in which the designer was the host, the customer was the guest, and it was "the responsibility of the host to make sure the guest had as rich an experience as possible." (See Powers of 10--named after the couple's mind-expanding 1977 film about scale--for more about this.) Charles famously described the lounge chair as having "the warm, receptive look of a well-worn first baseman's mitt."
Neither Charles nor Ray lived into the Internet era: he died in 1978; she died exactly ten years later, to the day. But I found myself wondering what they would have to say about design now, and especially Web design. How often do you feel like an honored guest when you visit a Web site? How often do you feel instead as though you're being ignored while the host talks to everyone in the room but you? Or given the once-over and snubbed because your outfit or your haircut isn't cool enough?
Now look at it from another perspective. If you're a designer or a writer, do you--can you--approach your work as if you're the host of a wonderful party? Or do you get the distinct feeling (as I have, on occasion) that you've been hired just to arrange the flowers or fold the napkins?
Part of the confusion stems from the relationship between the client and the creative team, in which the whole guest/host business gets muddied and trampled and the real "guest"--the visitor, the customer--is left alone in a corner. In a recent post, "How to Live Happily with a Great Designer," Seth Godin addresses this problem by addressing a hypothetical client and telling him or her, in essence, to shut up, trust the designer, and stop trying to run the show. Seth is pretty cynical about this; he assumes that the client's an ignorant micromanager and that good design always "offends someone." But his underlying message is actually something Charles and Ray Eames would recognize and endorse: Sit back and enjoy being a guest at the party. Don't worry: when things work out well, the thank-you notes will all be addressed to you.