Painting the Palette: How the Eames House got its Color

Ray, a former student of esteemed painter Hans Hofmann and founding member of the American Abstract Artists in New York City, claimed “I never gave up painting, I just changed my palette.” Arguably, the Eames House can be viewed as the largest palette the Eameses collaborated on — and we say collaborate because Charles “blamed entropy” for allowing the couple’s ideas to become entwined and for the nature of who-did-what to become refreshingly unclear. In the process of painting the house that became the duo’s home for the remainder of their lives (Charles’ for 29 years and Ray’s for 39 years), both Charles and Ray were intentional in finding a palette that harmonized the structure’s industrial materials with the surrounding meadowscape.

When one catches a glimpse at the facade, the vibrant cobalt hue above the entry door typically makes itself prominent first. In a 1983 interview with architecture and decorative arts historian Pat Kirkham, Ray describes the unfolding of the color decisions, particularly the blue panel:

“We felt very free about painting the house. We felt that we could experiment — we could try a color and see its relationship to others, then, if we didn’t like it, we could simply change it. But, in fact, we haven’t changed it. For instance, when we painted the blue panel, we weren’t exactly sure how it would look. Some people said the very vivid color would fade (we had bought the paint from Sears), but it didn’t fade. It’s still there. It needs re-painting now and I’m thinking of doing it this year.”

Contrasting the cool tone of the blue are the neighboring warm orange and gold-foiled panels. The Eameses referenced a “warm grey web” of the structure countless times, describing the color of the steel beams and steel window fittings that encased the painted and bare Cemesto rectangles. Oftentimes, Charles and Ray would take a photograph of the section of the house they were intending to alter, allowing them to manipulate the structure on a smaller scale without the fear of permanence. When deciding whether or not to paste a photograph to one of the panels of the home, the Eameses glued a to-scale black-and-white photograph of wood pylons from the Venice pier to a photograph of the house in order to visualize how it would look in reality. As seen in the photographs below, the Eameses took this method of collaging further to help formulate the placement of various colors and materials on the house’s facade.

Charles and Ray made color a strategic tool for modernist living; the austere, factory-like nature of the steel framing was transformed into a warm frame for both viewing inward at their beloved collections and viewing outward at the undisturbed eucalyptus-adorned landscape.

Published by: Kelsey Rose Williams