In the middle of Calvin Tomkins’s recent New Yorker profile of Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson, there was this:
After finishing high school, in 1996, Kjartansson astonished his friends by enrolling in the Home Economics School of Reykjavík, known to everyone as the Housewife School. "I was the first man to take the course," he explained. "And I felt, wow, now I’ve actually done something with my life. I’ll hit the history books!" He learned how to cook, clean, iron, sew, make beds, and set the table, and enjoyed every minute of it. His father worried, apparently for the first time, that Ragnar might be gay, but his mother was not concerned. "I was becoming used to these things," she told me.
I was immediately overcome by the desire to find an editor with the money to send me to Housewife School (preferably for the spring term, culminating in Easter preparations), despite my dislike of both ironing and stunt journalism.
For an artist whose work often involves repetition, and houses, Kjartansson’s embrace of housewifery seemed almost too on the nose. The other side of my brain grumbled that he found it to be a stepping stone on the way to art school, an option unavailable to many in the previous generations of all-female graduates. A first male graduate of any kind from trade school in 1996 seems shockingly retrograde.
And yet I think—I hope—Kjartansson’s enthusiasm stemmed not from his own successful performance at weaving, knitting, cooking, and cleaning, but from an understanding that housewifery could be just that: a performance. For the artistically inclined woman, the keeping of the home and garden has long been an avenue of aesthetic exploration, whether or not other paths were denied. It is the ongoing genius of Martha Stewart to make an empire from these very skills, turning them not into art but into the extreme version of our everyday chores.
Ray Eames also understood housewifery as part, though far from all, of her and Charles’s design practice, as historian Pat Kirkham argues in an essay in a new book on the famous design couple. "Ray enjoyed nurturing through hospitality, and her ‘at home’ performances blurred the boundaries between her roles as wife, friend, and artist, designer and filmmaker with Charles," Kirkham writes in The World of Charles and Ray Eames (Rizzoli), a catalog which accompanies a recent retrospective at the Barbican in London. Other essays in the lushly illustrated tome cover their films, their dress, their multi-media exhibitions, and, in architect Sam Jacob’s contribution, their "California-ness."
Ray was luckier than many working women of her day, in that she could call upon her workplace for help. "Before the arrival of friends for an ‘informal’ evening at home, Ray, like a stage manager, art director, or production designer, would oversee a small Eames Office team assigned to preparing the house for the coming performance of hospitality."
She would orchestrate the arrangement of objects, the plumping of pillows, and the burning of candles to specific lengths. Food was generally simply prepared but of high quality, with a focus on arrangement of fruit, cheese, breads, and chocolate on dishes selected by Ray.
"Composition, colour, and colour coordination were central to Ray’s table-laying, and she drew on her large collection of crockery, from finely made Japanese pottery in plain bright colours to Royal Copenhagen’s prettily patterned tableware in blue and white." Woven baskets added texture; tablecloths, napkins, flowers and candelabra more colors. Staff had to be out of sight before the guests arrived, however, so as not to dispel the illusion.
In the documentary The Architect and the Painter, architect Kevin Roche tells the story of being served three bowls of flowers after a meal at their house. Ray called it a "visual dessert"—he reports later going to Dairy Queen.
On occasion, Ray even did themes, as when, in 1951, she planned a tea ceremony to welcome sculptor Isamu Noguchi and his movie-star wife Yoshiko (Shirley) Yamaguchi. Photos show tatami mats on the floor of the Eames House living area, with one of their wire-base tables in front of each guest. The room is uncharacteristically uncluttered, with plants in the corner and a Toy, with its multi-colored plastic-coated triangles, on the wall as a piece of abstract art.
Charlie Chaplin was also a guest, and later posed for photos with a Japanese fan. Could these elaborate events have served as inspiration for a sequence in the Eameses’ multi-screen show at the 1964 World’s Fair, "Think," in which a dinner party seating chart is used to explain problem-solving techniques to the masses?
In a 2006 essay for the Journal of Design History, I suggested the Eameses were not alone in performing modern marriage for publicity; the Girards, the Knolls, and the Saarinens also blurred the line between life and work, appearing in photographs in homes barely distinguishable from showrooms, and vice versa.
The Los Angeles Herman Miller showroom the Eameses designed predates their Pacific Palisades house, but was set up the same way, with seed packets keeping company with Giacometti, Japanese kites, and tumbleweeds. Eventually the Eameses would turn the decoration of their house into a third piece, the film House—After Five Years of Living (1955). The performance rolled on.
Acknowledging Ray’s hospitality as part of the Eames Office—as labor, as well as a design project—causes me to reflect differently on the occupations of previous generations. My mother and her parents were trained designers, and I had a great-grandmother who was an art teacher.
But a talent for composition, color, detail and arrangement can be handed down through the generations without a curriculum, if you think of it as a set of affinities. Brilliantly composed quilts and intricate afghans, balanced flower arrangements and gridded gardens use some of the same skills, and show the same daily devotion, as design practice. More housewives than Kjartansson have made homes performance art.
I think of the mother of my artist uncle, who was president of her state garden club, or the father of my architect husband, a businessman, who spent his spare time building a hedge maze. They were also designing—as Ray knew all too well, and as Kirkham has thankfully now explained.
The design world wasn’t the only place where table settings had a professional role to play, either. When I was growing up the dinner party was still, in academia, part of a winning promotion package, and it was rarely the male assistant professor doing the cooking and arranging.
Ray’s dessert flowers remind me of an elaborate dish my grandmother made at Easter, one that would be a worthy final project for Housewife School: paskha, an Eastern European egg custard molded into a dome and then decorated with fresh fruit in symmetrical floral patterns. It is a definitely a performance, and one that combines cooking, knife skills, composition, and color sense. (It is also, to my palate, better admired than consumed—sorry, Grandma!).
It seems Eames-esque: a folk tradition based on handwork and patterns, a food arranged rather than cooked. Shot from above, a paskha would fit right in with the photographs of rainbow grids of spools, crayons, and buttons that adorn the Eameses’ House of Cards. In a 1973 article in Progressive Architecture, critic Esther McCoy, a friend of Ray’s, wrote, "They were the first to fill in the spartan framework so acceptable to modern architecture with a varied and rich content." Later, she ended a remembrance of Ray with a vision of "her wide craftsman’s hands placing the bouquets on the table, moving them an inch this way or that."