Airbnb’s Joe Gebbia supports the new Eames Institute

When Llisa Demetrios was 12, she told her grandfather that she wanted to be a sculptor. He didn’t push her back, urging her to pursue a safer, more stable career. Instead, she recalls, he gave her memorable advice: “You have to be able to use every tool in your studio as well as you can, if not better than the person you’re hiring — or you won’t know.” if they do Well done.”

[Photo: courtesy Eames Institute]

It turned out to be auspicious advice. Demetrios became a bronze sculptor for 20 years, as well as an archivist at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and then museums around the world. Now she is chief curator at a new institute partly devoted to spreading her grandfather’s wisdom. Her grandfather is Charles Eames, husband and lifelong collaborator of Ray Eames. Together, Charles and Ray were the ultimate mid-century design power couple, creating some of the most iconic pieces of furniture in American history—including the Fiberglass shell chair and the Molded wood lounge with ottoman.

[Photo: courtesy Eames Institute]

The newly formed Eames Institute focuses on taking objects and methods from Eames practice and sharing that knowledge with the world in the hope that it will inspire solutions to thorny problems. The Eames has already achieved cult status among design lovers, including Airbnb co-founder Joe Gebbia, who supports the initiative. The Eames Institute wants to expand their influence.

Joe Gebbia and Lisa Demetrios [Photo: courtesy Eames Institute]

The institute begins with a website that contains an online magazine called Kasam! along with a collection of Eames objects to be explored in detail. In the future, it could host events and possibly build a physical museum space. “For me, the design is lowercase Dno capital D‘ says Demetrius. “My goal is to make this very accessible and to offer these lessons to everyone.”

Gebbia knew he wanted to fund the nonprofit after meeting Demetrios and doing a few retreats with the Airbnb design team on the Airbnb Eames ranch, a 27-acre estate in Petaluma, California. Gebbia credits the Eameses’ design with outlining the course of his life and prolific business long before he met her youngest granddaughter.

“I fell in love with their values, their ethos: creating the best design for the most people at the lowest price. Democratize design for the masses,” says Gebbia. “You really left a gift for us, for the world. And the essence of creating the Eames Institute was to share that gift with everyone.”

[Photo: courtesy Eames Institute]

process over products

Many people already know the Eames objects, as Demetrios explains; What they may not understand is the Eames’ process. Charles and Ray worked together in an office that was also their laboratory; Both developed products and tested them over the long term to understand how they could be improved. If a chair cushion wore out in one spot – even over the years – then they knew that future iterations of the chair would need a reinforced cushion.

“They were always exploring those ideas, taking them further and seeing what could be fixed or improved. . . [trying] to make it better,” says Demetrios. “They always pushed the envelope with these ideas and never stopped learning.”

Their meticulous creative process also required Charles and Ray to develop their own technological tools. It used to be said that if the only tool in your toolbox is a hammer, then you will try to solve every problem with a hammer. Some of their most iconic furniture is made from molded plywood. But when the duo tried to figure out how to shape thin sheets of plywood into ergonomic furniture, there was no machine to do the job; and frankly, no one really knew that wood could be bent into such intricate 3D shapes.

So to make their molded furniture, they first had to design the tool: that tool was that Kasam! (which inspired the aforementioned online magazine of the same name). This heated form required sandwiches of wood and plaster of paris, and drew so much electricity that the two had to run a new line themselves directly from a power pole to their office. (And yes, You can read all about Kazam! up, um Kasam!) It’s exactly the kind of process that the Eames Institute wants to share with the world.

[Photo: courtesy Eames Institute]

Archiving the collection

As a curator, Demetrios intends to teach many more of these still-relevant design lessons through artifacts, and she has an amazing amount of artifacts to explore. She already manages a collection of Eames pieces that are regularly loaned to museums around the world, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg of what the couple left behind.

[Photo: courtesy Eames Institute]

For decades, thousands of objects from their practice — from notes to prototypes to products they would collect to inspire their own work — have been stored at multiple Bay Area facilities. Demetrios and her team are now putting together these boxes, many of which haven’t been opened in 30 or 40 years, and archiving the surprises that await inside. Seemingly random objects were also important to the Eames’ work. For example, the couple shot a stop-motion film a toy trainthe same toy train imprinted on their house of cards (an easy to build toy card kit) and the same toy train used in the Herman Miller (now MillerKnoll) showroom in the past. Miller marketed many Eames designs.

“In archiving, we see how some things have been used multiple times and some things once or twice,” says Demetrios. When this archival work is completed – a task that will surely take years – Demetrios estimates that the collection will exceed “at least” 20,000 objects.

[Photo: courtesy Eames Institute]

The future of the institute

For the time being, the institute is a digital entity. But all these objects have to live somewhere. Demetrios and her team are currently working privately Eames ranch in Petaloma. In the future there could be a physical space with exhibitions and workshops.

What’s next for the institute is a topic dear to Gebbia, who has given the organization unrestricted funding.

[Photo: courtesy Eames Institute]

As a new student at the Rhode Island School of Design, Gebbia wanted to be a visual artist. But after being on campus, he learned about industrial design. He still remembers opening an orange book of the 100 best designs of the 20th century. Once he saw the LCW chair – the Eames iconic molded plywood chair– his jaw dropped.

“I thought, I need to know who did it, where it came from. And that opened the door for these two brothers, Ray and Charles,” says Gebbia, laughing. “Obviously at some point I realized that they were husband and wife.”

That moment set his life in motion, reorienting his path from art school to design and, as such, is directly responsible for the accessible home-sharing platform he built at Airbnb (and the billions of dollars in personal fortune that he as a result). The financial support of the Eames Institute is paying off for Gebbia. It’s his way of putting an anonymous orange book in the hands of the designers of tomorrow, hoping they too can adopt some of the Eames’ key methods for building a better world. Gebbia says he intends to continue funding the institute for the foreseeable future.

“Let’s just say Ray and Charles were a part of my life and will continue to be a part of my life,” he says. “I will do whatever I can to help others discover their lessons. I’m there for the long term.” Airbnb’s Joe Gebbia supports the new Eames Institute


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