In the cognitive psychological vanguard: Charles and Ray Eames

Few man-made objects reach the iconic status of the Eames chair, the dining version of which is pictured below.


You’ve probably seen (and sat in!) chairs such as these and know of Charles and Ray Eames, the husband and wife team who invigorated modern design from the 1940s through the 1970s. Recently I’ve been reading descriptions of Charles and Ray’s multimedia and multiscreen film and exhibition work. Beatriz Colomina presents some assumptions about perceptual processing as expressed by media scholars throughout the period and by Charles and Ray, considerations that informed and shaped the Eames films interactively over time. Her discussion, Enclosed by Images: The Eameses’ Multimedia Architecture, gives you a sense of the excitement of the times and is a really pleasureable read.

Colomina writes in her introduction

We are surrounded today, everywhere, all the time, by arrays of multiple simultaneous images. In the streets, airports, shopping centers and gyms, but also on our computers and television sets. The idea of a single image commanding our attention has faded away.

We sit in front of our computers on our ergnomically perfected chairs, staring with a fixed gaze at many simultaneously “open” windows though which different kinds of information stream towards us. We hardly even notice it. In seems natural, as if we were simply breathing in the information.

and she makes it clear that

Designers, architects and artists were involved from the beginning, playing a crucial role in the evolution of the multiscreen and multimedia techniques of presentation of information.

According to Colomina, artists and designers contributed to developments in domains ranging from experimental cinema to the establishment of military war rooms.

I suggest that the Eames’s creative filmmaking output emerged in parallel with developing ideas about the capacity limits of the mind, as seen in cognitive psychological research of the 1950s and 60s. Charles and Ray Eames were perfectly positioned to be ambassadors of the emerging field of cognitive psychology because they were at the center of an extraordinary group of artists and scientists. By their nature and the company they kept, they were uniquely suited to synthesizing and presenting new ways of communicating the relationship between science and human affairs.

Many people know the names of Charles and Ray Eames by virtue of their most famous documentary film, Powers of Ten (1977), in which the camera zooms from a mundane picnic scene by a lake


to the impossibly large and then to the infinitesimally small, all the while reflecting the order of magnitude differences along the edge of the film frame. Powers of Ten has been shown thousands of times to high school students in the years since its release, and was selected for preservation by the National Film Registry in 1998. The film (and other interactive activities) can be viewed online here.

Not many folks outside of academic design circles realize, perhaps, the enduring film legacy of Charles and Ray Eames. I was personally completely unaware of their work until spurred by the American Masters series on Warhol to look up more on the Exploding Plastic Inevitable’s multimedia shows. This search led me to the fantastic MIT Press journal Grey Room and to Dr. Colomina’s work.

Charles and Ray began a lifelong fascination with photography in the 1940s, essentially upon their move from the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan to California. Describing their interest as an obession, Pat Kirkham writes that the Library of Congress contains 750,000 photographic images attributable to the Eameses! In Los Angeles, Charles and Ray were friends with important experimental filmmakers of the day, including Oskar Fischinger and Kenneth Anger. Their first steps towards psychologically-inspired film came in their fourth effort, 1953’s A Communications Primer (viewable here). Substantive background about the film is presented elsewhere, but essentially the Eameses were invested in presenting complex subjects in as simple and positive a light as possible. In this case, the subject matter was Claude Shannon’s information theory, developed through the 1940s when he was at Bell Labs, and which was vitally important in and after the war years for understanding and controlling the effect of noise within signals and other pesky bedevilings of the new communications age. Shannon’s work is of foundational importance in cognitive psychology.

The Eames’s friend and fellow designer George Nelson was instrumental in bringing Charles and Ray’s work into formal educational settings, even if briefly. In 1953, Charles and Ray designed the very first multimedia presentation in the United States (as far as anyone can tell) with their Rough Sketch for a Sample Lesson for a Hypothetical Course, presented for the Art department of Nelson’s teaching home, the University of Georgia, and later that year at UCLA.

The aim, according to Kirkham,

was to replace the conventional lecture with new teaching techniques, including three concurrent slide images, film, a narrator, a large board of printed visual information, sound, and complementary smells piped through the ventilation system.

Charles Eames suggested in a later interview that

We used a lot of sound, sometimes carried to a very high volume, so you would actually feel the vibrations…We did it because we wanted to heighten awareness…The smells were quite effective. They did two things: they came on cue, and they heightened the illusion. It was quite interesting because in some scenes that didn’t have smell cues, but only smell suggestions in the script, a few people felt they had smelled things – for example, oil in the machinery.

Considering all that had been suspected since Proust about the role of odor in memory, what we now know about the effectiveness of multimodal cueing procedures, state dependency for odor and odor memory more generally (see Schab), Charles, Ray and George Nelson were really firing on all cylinders. They were remarkably prescient about what cognitive psychology would be telling us about memory.

In a second post, I’ll relate Colomina’s discussion of the Eames’s Glimpses of the USA film to investgations of sensory and working memory capacity in the mid-50s. Along the way there will be consideration of the interactive effects on their work of Charles and Ray’s associations with a mathematician, physicist, astronomer, several famous futuristic architects and one awesome Hollywood director!

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