Archive for April, 2007

The Islands of California

  Date Friday, April 27th, 2007

In his 1510 novel, Spanish author Garcia Ordonez de Montalvo described an island so bountiful that little effort was needed to collect its harvest, where gold was plentiful and whose only inhabitants were beautiful women draped in strings of pearls. He called it “California.?

Nearly a decade later, Spanish explorer Hernan Cortés thought he had discovered Montalvo’s fabled isle when he saw Baja California across the Gulf of California. Five centuries later, what Cortés imagined he’d discovered truly exists in this gilded land called California. Its women are beautiful, the land is so productive labor seems hardly necessary, and California’s cities and scenic sights drape the state as did pearls across Queen Califia’s breasts. But, what of the island of California?

Certainly, California’s isolation is island-like. It is bordered by mountains, deserts and oceans that have allowed it to develop its own plant and animal life and even, some would say, a wholly distinctive culture. But there are more than metaphorical islands here. California has hundreds of isles along its coast, in its bays, upon its lakes and surrounded by its rivers. Though California is not the island nation Montalvo envisioned, it is a nation of islands deserving of his words.

Coronado

The southernmost of California’s islands isn’t really an island at all. It just seems like one. Isolated on the seaward side of San Diego Bay, Coronado Island is the northern tip of a peninsula that is connected to the mainland by a spit of white sand beaches called the Silver Strand. Despite Coronado’s proximity to the North Island Naval Air Station, the town’s gracious homes, shops and hotels – built in the late 1800s to serve summer vacationers — are still more influenced by the passage of tourists than by the arrival of warships. The grandest of Coronado’s Victorian edifices is the Hotel Del Coronado, a glistening white palace under whose red conical roof celebrities, royalty and presidents have vacationed since 1888.

Balboa

Like Coronado, Balboa Island (along the Orange County coast between San Diego and Los Angeles) got its start as a summer escape for city dwellers. Movie makers from Los Angeles and orange growers from Riverside bought lots and constructed summer rental homes. Those humble cottages have now evolved from temporary to tremendous. Many retain their original humility, though others shout ostentatiously or soar in modern forms. The result is a society of residences as familial as the society that inhabit them.

Balboa islanders live as if they are always on holiday. They reunite along tony Marine Avenue at sidewalk restaurants, coffee shops and boutiques, sharing stories in the fashion of returning vacationers. They stroll the Avenue in January, licking dripping ice cream from Balboa Bars a local delicacy made from vanilla slabs dipped in chocolate and coated with toppings. Why even getting to the island has a sense of holiday adventure. Take a ferry from the Peninsula or drive across a bridge from Jamboree Road. After a while you think, “There’s something wrong with them. Don’t they know summer ended four months ago?? But for the residents of Balboa Island, it hasn’t and never will.

Tom Sawyer

One of California’s smallest islands is also its most visited. It’s estimated that one hundred million people have visited Tom Sawyer Island since it was created at Disneyland a year after the Anaheim park opened in 1955. Tom Sawyer Island is reputed to be the only attraction in the “Magic Kingdom? that Walt Disney entirely designed by himself. Disney spokesman John McClintock says the story of Tom Sawyer, written by Mark Twain about a carefree boy who lived near the Mississippi River “Was very important to Walt Disney who grew up in Tom Sawyer country and wanted to have a Tom Sawyer attraction at Disneyland, even though he never made a Tom Sawyer movie.?

The result is every child’s fantasy play island with a tree house, frontier fort and caves to explore, rocks to climb, rope bridges to cross and lot’s of outdoor adventure to spur the imagination. “People think of theme parks in terms of controlled experiences,? says McClintock, “where you get on a ride and the show is presented to you, but Tom Sawyer Island is a completely unstructured experience right in the middle of the Park.?

Disney recently freshened up the attraction, building upon Walt Disney’s vision while retaining its original spontaneity. On Tom Sawyer Island it’s still your mind that animates imagined raids as you defend the island’s many redoubts. McClintock says, “Anyone who has read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer has fond memories of the carefree boy and his fantastic adventures. Taking a raft over to Tom Sawyer Island brings all that to life.?

Fanette

Another island upon which a fantasy structure was created is Fanette Island in the middle of Lake Tahoe’s Emerald Bay. Upon this tiny rock outcropping in 1928 Mrs. Lora Josephine Knight constructed a stone tea house to complement her Scandinavian-inspired retreat, Vikingsholm, ashore.

Now part of Emerald Bay State Park, Vikingsholm and the Fanette Island Tea House continue to inspire fantasies and dreams, as lovers pledge undying love to one another within the stone shell of the tea house.

Catalina

Saying “romance? once wasn’t enough for the Four Preps when they sang, “Twenty-six miles across the sea. Santa Catalina is awaitin’ for me. Santa Catalina, the island of romance, romance, romance, romance.? Even saying “romance? four times probably understated the Catalina experience. Everything about Catalina exudes romance from picture-perfect Avalon perched on hillsides overlooking a protected bay that’s cluttered with moored yachts, to luxuriously appointed inns and resorts, to picnics in secluded coves.

While the Four Preps got the mood right in their 1958 song, they had the distance wrong. It’s actually 21.8 miles (or one to two hours by ferry) from San Pedro south of Los Angeles to Catalina (15 minutes by helicopter). Once you arrive, you’re transported to a seaside village where cars have nearly been banished (to bring one onto the island, you have to remove two), where glass-bottomed tour boats take island visitors to view the iridescently orange garibaldi (California’s official marine fish) that decorate the cobalt waters of Avalon Bay or speed out to travel with dolphins, whales and flying fish, and where the landmark casino at one end of crescent Avalon Bay, isn’t a casino and never was, but is a carefully maintained entertainment complex with theater, art gallery, museum and a grand ballroom large enough for 6,200 dancers to have danced upon it at the height of the big band era.

Channel

None of the comforts of Catalina Island are found on Channel Islands National Park, but then wilderness, not civilization, is what the Channel Islands are all about. Made up of five in a chain of eight Southern California islands west of Ventura, Channel Islands National Park has over 2,000 species of plants and animals, but only four native mammals. One hundred and forty-five of the species found on the island are found nowhere else on Earth. Marine life ranges is size from microscopic plankton to the largest animal on the planet, the endangered blue whale.

The Park contains 249,354 acres (100, 909 hectares), half of which are under the ocean, and include the islands of San Miguel, Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz, Anacapa, and Santa Barbara. Even though the islands seem tantalizingly close to the densely populated, southern California coast, their isolation has left them relatively undeveloped, making them an exciting place for visitors to explore.

Alcatraz

With views of San Francisco as grand as those on Alcatraz, you’d think the U.S. government wouldn’t have had to force people to live there, but most everyone who lived on Alcatraz (with the exception of Indians) was sent there by the U.S. government, whether for governmental service or because they were terribly bad.

Alcatraz, in the middle of San Francisco Bay, is one of Golden Gate National Recreation Area’s most popular destinations, offering a close-up look at its historic and infamous federal prison long off-limits to the public. This is where Midwest gangsters Al Capone, Alvin Karpis and George “Machine Gun? Kelly were incarcerated and where Robert Franklin Stroud, the Birdman of Alcatraz, spent part of his confinement.

Audio headsets provide personalized narration in numerous languages. The voices of historians, former prisoners and prison guards bring the stories of this notorious place to life, as you hear about the main prison block, the Indian occupation of 1969 – 1971, early military fortifications (the first U.S. fort on the coast), and the West Coast’s first (and oldest operating) lighthouse. The Island is reached by Blue and Gold ferry from Pier 41 at on Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco.

Angel

San Francisco Bay’s most notorious island may be Alcatraz, but its largest and most history-filled is Angel Island. This angelic hilly place, forested with native oaks, non-native eucalyptus and carpeted with wildflowers and grasses, is a popular destination for cycling, ocean kayaking and hiking. Angel Island offers spectacular views of San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge from picnic spots along its trails and beaches, the best of which is Perles Beach a short walk from Battery Ledyard on the island’s secluded south shore.

Known as the “Ellis Island of the West? the Angel Island Immigration Station processed admission of more than 175,000 Chinese and other Pacific Rim immigrants to the United States between 1910 and 1940 and a quarantine station at Ayala Cove was a stopping point for fumigation of ships from foreign ports.

Angel island also was an important U.S. Army coastal defense installation during every U.S. war from the 1860s to the 1960s, including the American Civil War, Indian Wars, Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II and Cold War. Among its most notable installations are Camp Reynolds (the largest remaining original Civil War era wooden Army garrison), Fort McDowell (embarkation point for troops departing to battle in World Wars I and II) and several batteries that once held coastal defense cannon and Nike missiles. All are described on one-hour tram tours that circle the island.

The Delta

The California Delta is the point in California’s Central Valley where the Sacramento, Cosumnes, Mokelumne and San Joaquin Rivers merge before filling San Francisco Bay. The meandering rivers create 1,000 miles of waterways, covering five counties and creating 55 islands.

“Laid Back,? is how Patti Gulick, manager of the California Delta Chamber and Visitor Bureau describes life there. “Flip-flops, shorts and t-shirts? are preferred attire in this water-focused place where boats are as common as cars. “You can rent anything from a jet ski to a 65-foot houseboat anytime of the year… summer or winter… with some of the largest houseboats having fireplaces on them,? says Ms. Gulick.

For most of the year, the Delta is lightly visited. People camp on houseboats or on land, but from the end of May through August, it’s madness as houseboats and speed boats disembark suntanned passengers at riverside restaurants and bars like the River Boat II in Isleton. There, chilled, colorful “Walkin’ The Planks? made from rum, blue Curaçao, lemon-lime soda and orange juice are served to thirsty “river rats? on hot summer days. But, bring along an appetite as this food-rich agricultural region (asparagus, tomatoes, pears, wine) is known for large portions. The Hotel Del Rio in Isleton challenges the notion of moderation with prime rib dinners that are big enough for two meals. The “Regular? cut weighs 18 to 20 ounces and the “Ranchhand? measures 30 ounces. Of course, if you’re a light eater, you can always order a “Petite? cut at a mere 14 to 16 ounces!

Paoha and Negit

Of course, how much boaters consume in the Delta pales in comparison to the appetites of the many Wilson’s and Red-necked Phalaropes that visit Negit and Paoha Islands in the middle of Mono Lake on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada. These shore birds (related to sandpipers) double their body weight from 1 oz to 2 oz in the six weeks they visit Mono Lake, gorging themselves on brine flies and brine shrimp.

Paoha and Negit are the remnants of ancient volcanoes and their isolation combined with the trillions of brine fish living in the lake provide an ideal stopping place for millions of migratory and nesting birds. The birds are best seen by kayaks which can be rented in Mammoth Lakes or on naturalist-guided canoe trips offered from Navy Beach on weekends.

Slaughter and Ski

A different species of water bird lands at Slaughter and Ski Islands in Shasta Lake, north of Redding. They’re the variety that rides water skis, wakeboards and water towables (oversized inner tubes towed by speed boats) on the lake.

Both Ski and Slaughter Islands were created by rising waters from the Sacramento and McCloud Rivers after Shasta Dam was completed. Ski got its name from the water skiers who stop there to picnic or rest, while Slaughter was the location of a slaughterhouse before Shasta Dam was built.

Again, houseboats are a popular way to explore and camp upon Shasta Lake. Shasta Lake has some of the most luxurious houseboats in California, including the Renaissance, a yacht with four private staterooms with baths, a six-person hot tub and satellite dish that automatically tracks the satellite as you cruise!

With that kind of luxury at hand, who’d want to disembark to visit an island? Of course, these are California islands, so any one of them might be populated with nature’s bounty, gold and beautiful women. At least, according to Spanish legend.

An Online Guide to California’s Islands

Alcatraz Island – www.nps.gov/alcatraz
Angel Island – www.angelisland.com
Balboa Island – www.balboa-island.com
Catalina Island Chambe & Visitors Bureau – www.catalina.com
Channel Islands National Park – www.nps.gov/chis/homepage.htm
Coronado Visitors Bureau – www.coronadovisitors.com
The Delta – www.californiadelta.org
Emerald Bay State Park – http://www.parks.ca.gov/default.asp?page_id=506
Mono County – www.monocounty.org
Mono Lake Committee – www.monolake.org
Newport Beach Conference and Visitors Bureau – www.visitnewportbeach.com
Shasta Lake/Redding – www.visitredding.org


Vinotherapie at the Kenwood Inn & Spa

  Date Wednesday, April 25th, 2007

The buttery, Italian, Bergo-styled compound of the Kenwood Inn & Spa in Sonoma County’s Valley of the Moon, disguises an opulence hidden within its arched entrance, but then much about this indulgent retreat is never revealed.

The inn’s finely appointed, spacious and yet understated Mediterranean guest rooms, decorated with imported fabrics and original oil paintings, are often hidden behind draped patios within its cloistered courtyard. Because of its intimacy, the Kenwood Inn has become a little-talked-about getaway for California’s glitterati, though well it should be.

Reopened after a $9 million expansion, the Kenwood Inn & Spa is one of those places with so much to keep one occupied that many guests never leave the privacy of its lushly landscaped grounds. This isn’t, however, a place to stay connected with the world, but to leave behind. Televisions and radios are purposefully not in the guest rooms, though a choice of soothing continental music is.

Central to the Inn is Caudalie, a spa that specializes in “vinotherapie, ? a new approach to anti-aging dermo-cosmetic skincare developed in Bordeaux that employs the seeds discarded at the end of the grape harvest. The seeds are said to contain polyphenols which are believed to trap free radicals, providing cosmetic benefits.

The mild exfoliating effect of the “barrel bath? at Caudalie results from the use of grape and red wine extracts and organic oils. A red vine bath, honey and wine bath, merlot wrap, energy wrap, crushed Cabernet scrup and sauvignon massage are among several other treatments provided at Caudalie.

Whether or not it works – and there’s a body of clinical studies to say it does – just spending a day at the spa is enough to make you feel and look better. The three and a half house you spend being scrubbed, bathed and wrapped or massaged as part of the Terrace Treatment take you, for $325, to another world. But then, the six and a half hour Vinotherapie Vacation, at $650, takes you to another galaxy. There’s so much to be done in a Vinotherapie Vacation that Caudalie can’t do it all in a day, it takes two. But, that’s a small price for a new you.

Of course, if you’d rather have the wine inside you than be inside it, the Kenwood Inn is in the center of the Sonoma Valley AVA (American Viticultural Appellation). Within minutes of the Kenwood Inn are some of America’s finest wineries including Adler Fels, Arrowood, Benziger, Buena Vista, Chateau St. Jean, Cline, B.R. Cohn, Gundlach Bundschu, Hanzell, Kenwood, Matanzas Creek, Landmark, Laurel Glen, Ravenswood, St Francis, Sebastiani and Viansa.
True to its passion for exception services, the Inn has joined with Schaefer Sonoma Vineyards to offer a remarkable Winemaker’s Package in which guests, with the assistance of the winery’s winemaker, blend their own barrel of Cabernet Sauvignon. Then, each year for three years, participants return to monitor the wine’s progress as it ages, is bottled and labeled. For $13,150, package guests get 24 cases of the personalized wine and six nights accommodations at the Kenwood Inn and Spa.

Imagine returning to the Inn after checking on the progress of your barrel, to luxuriate in an oversized saline pool in a setting that seems centuries old. You might retire to a mineral Jacuzzi pool in a fountain court or a saline spa inside a rustic mill house to consider whether you should introduce more mocha or earth flavors to your blend.

Then again, at breakfast the next morning, you might prefer just to ask for a mocha and accept that you got the wine right, as a three-course gourmet breakfast is included in the $375 to $700 charged for a room at the inn. Also included is a nightly manager’s reception featuring local wines and cheeses. Guests may also purchase lunch and dinner at the inn’s café, though the restaurants in nearby Glen Ellen and Sonoma are superb.

Clearly, the Kenwood Inn & Spa takes you to an extraordinary place where temporal troubles are removed physically and spiritually, but then perhaps we’re revealing too much.


Win a Stay at The Ahwahnee

  Date Tuesday, April 24th, 2007

To reserve a room at The Ahwahnee hotel in Yosemite Valley requires planning. There are only 125 rooms at the 4-star hotel and over three million people visit the national park, so knowledgeable guests often call on the day the hotel opens reservations, a year and a day in advance, in order to reserve one of its prized rooms. Now, there’s a rare opporunity to win a stay at The Ahwahnee. A sweepstakes created by the Yosemite / Mariposa Tourism Bureau includes a five-night stay, plus activities and dinner at the national historic landmark hotel. Weekly prizes include two-night stays at some of the region’s best lodging properties: Yosemite Lodge at the Falls, Yosemite View Lodge, Tenaya Lodge at Yosemite and Yosemite Bug Rustic Mountain Resort. Find more at www.yosemitemariposa.com


Vintage Golf

  Date Wednesday, April 18th, 2007

What goes best with wine? Ask Californians and they’re likely to say, “golf.?

Just about anywhere you travel here, you’ll find two things in common… golf and wine, as California’s sun-kissed climate has made “The Golden State? the ideal place to experience grapes and “birdies.? For every golf course in the state, there’s a commercial winery – about 800 of each – and all are worth tasting.

North of San Francisco lie the famous wine growing regions of Sonoma and Napa Counties. Rodney Strong, Jordan, Ferrari-Carano, Mondavi, Cakebread and Heitz are among the names of viticultural baronies found along Sonoma and Napa county roads. Their wineries, aging cellars and tasting rooms are impressive grand chateaus, aerie lookouts and surrealistic structures that that overlook a landscape scribed with rows of vineyards and lined with fairways.

Start your California golf and wine sojourn by visiting the California Welcome Center in Rohnert Park. The connection between California wine and golf is immediately evident adjacent to the Center at the 36-hole Mountain Shadows Golf Course and nearby Matanzas Creek winery, with its impressive gardens. One of the oldest wineries in California, Gundlach-Bundschu, is a 3-wood drive from Sonoma Golf Club, once declared “near perfect? by golf legend Bobby Jones. And for a true California twist, sip California sparkling wine at the Korbel Champagne Cellars, then tee off through towering redwood trees at Northwood, an executive course designed by Alistair Mackenzie of Augusta National fame.

Four major “wine courses,? are found in the Napa Valley. Chardonnay Golf Club, across from the newly completed Kirkland Ranch winery, has the highest rated 36 holes in the region. Vineyards actually encroach upon Chardonnay’s greens. Or is it the other way around? Further up the Valley in the Atlas Peak wine-growing district is Napa’s preeminent golf resort, Silverado, with 36 holes that host the Senior PGA Transamerica Tournament, each October. Chimney Rock, off the Silverado Trail, is the only Napa Valley golf course actually on the property of a winery. If golf, wine and fine dining are appealing, drive over to the new Yountville Golf Club, then dine in one of Yountville’s exceptional restaurants.

Most San Francisco visitors think the wine country exists only to the north, but there’s actually much larger appellations east and south of San Francisco. Beyond the east hills is the vast Central Valley where most of California’s grapes are cultivated. The Lodi-Woodbridge region is its premiere appellation. Cool evening breezes off the Sacramento River Delta and hot days create a microclimate here that’s ideal for growing grapes and apparently for golf, too, as San Francisco Chronicle readers once rated the Dry Creek Ranch Golf Course in nearby Galt as the best public golf course in Northern California.

California’s Gold Country along the foothills of the Sierra Nevada gained fame for the gold rush of 1849, but today the region is gaining new reputation for its red wines and ports. In Murphy’s close to where Mark Twain wrote the Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, Ironstone Vineyards is winning awards for its library of best-selling wines, though its impressive seven-story winery and entertainment complex modeled after a 19th-century gold stamp mill is equally impressive with 10,000 square feet of caves, spectacular gardens that bloom with tens of thousands of brightly colored daffodils in springtime, a gold rush museum, and the world’s largest goldleaf nugget, a 44-pound crystalline beauty that’s housed in a special vault.

Minutes away in Angel’s Camp is Greenhorn Creek, a Robert Trent Jones Jr. “lay of the land? course that meanders through foothills and is decorated with historical artifacts from the gold rush era. Five historic gold mines are on the property, though most golfers strike it rich on the course’s signature sixth hole, a 210-yard par 3 to a peninsula green surrounded by water on three sides. But don’t let your gold country golf tour stop here, additional courses and wineries are located in Mariposa, Sonora, Amador and El Dorado Counties. Favorites are the challenging Pine Mountain Lake Golf Club near Groveland on Hwy 120 and the Wawona Golf Course in Yosemite National Park.

Southeast of Oakland in the Livermore Valley is the stunning, Greg Norman-designed, 18-hole Wente Golf Club that winds through working vineyards and beautiful foothill canyons. And, San José, at the southern end of San Francisco Bay though better-known today as the capital of Silicon Valley, features 18 fine wineries, including J. Lohr, Mirassou and Byington.

Several resort and public courses, including Jack Nicklaus’ 36-hole Coyote Creek Golf Club in Morgan Hill make one wonder what keeps those Silicon Valley tycoons in their offices and not out on a fairway. It’s even more perplexing when one realizes that Francis Duane and Arnold Palmer’s Link Course and Arthur Hills’ Ocean Course on the edge of the Pacific at Half Moon Bay are just minutes away, both among the most highly rated public courses in the U.S.

However, the granddaddy of all California public courses is, of course, the Pebble Beach Golf Links on the Monterey Peninsula. At $4755 per round, plus a cart at $25 per person, Pebble Beach may be public, but playing this great course, home to the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, comes at a price. Less expensive alternatives to experiencing a Monterey Peninsula ocean course vary from the Links at Spanish Bay (at $250 + $25 cart) to the very affordable Pacific Grove Municipal Golf Links which is only $35 midweek and $40 on weekends. This gem of a municipal course has sweeping views of the Pacific from several of its holes. Two challenging courses, Bayonnet and Black Horse, recently opened to the public on the former Fort Ord military post, priced from $57 to $128.

Of course, with 18 great golf courses on the Monterey Peninsula and in the Carmel Valley (not all are open to the public), you may not have time to taste the area’s great wines and that would be worse than a double bogey, as with 30 wineries covering 40,000 acres, Monterey County has as much wine growing country as Napa, Burgundy and Bordeaux combined! That’s a lot of wine tasting possibilities, so you might want to begin in the Carmel Valley where six boutique wineries are within a short drive of the Rancho Canada, Quail Lodge and Carmel Valley Ranch golf courses.

California’s Central Coast has two other great wine-growing regions. San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara Counties comprise California’s “Cote d’Azur? which produces some of the most buttery and classic of California Chardonnays from the Paso Robles, Edna Valley, Santa Maria and Santa Ynez appellations. Classic golf is found at Black Hills and Avila Beach in SLO County, while Santa Barbara boasts Robert Trent Jones, Jr.’s Rancho San Marcos Golf Course and the secluded River Course at The Alisal in Solvang.

Southern California also has its wine country. Temecula in the Inland Empire, to the southeast of Los Angeles, is Southern California’s most prominent wine-growing district, with the Ted Robinson and Dick Rossen-designed Temecula Creek Inn Golf Resort and Ron Fream’s Redhawk Golf Club among the area’s most prominent courses. Thirteen wineries flourish here in a perfect balance of geography, microclimate and well-drained soil. Just like Southern California’s famous golf courses, its wines are surprisingly complex, influenced by respected winemakers. There’s even a Callaway in Temecula’s bag of wineries.

Speaking of Callaway, the famous golf club manufacturer is located nearby in northern San Diego County not far from the prestigious Four Seasons Aviara, La Costa and Rancho Bernardo golf resorts and not far from several great wineries including Orfila Vineyards, known for its Merlots. With 25% of the world’s golf manufacturers based here, San Diego County has the largest concentration of golf manufacturers in the world. Could the 90 diverse courses to be played in San Diego County be the reason they’ve located here? Perhaps its San Diego’s legendary weather with average daily temperatures at 70.5 F/ 21.4 C, or its seemingly endless sunny days.

No, it must be California wines that have attracted them, as nothing seems to go better with golf in California, than wine.


Eames

  Date Wednesday, April 18th, 2007

Creativity is the business and culture of California. Motion pictures, high technology, aerospace, wine, fashion, industrial design… these leading areas of enterprise within California depend upon creativity. And so, it’s not surprising that California’s most famous figures were first recognized for their creativity… Walt Disney… Steve Jobs… Howard Hughes… Robert Mondavi… Levi Strauss… Charles and Ray Eames.

Charles and Ray Eames? Though you may not recognize them, countless monuments to their achievements are found in schools, homes, airports and office buildings across America; they are the many stacks of multi-colored molded plastic chairs, luxurious lounge chairs, tandem airport sling seats and polished aluminum office chairs designed by this creatively prolific Southern California couple.

While the Eameses are remembered principally for the many chairs they designed, they also made groundbreaking contributions in architecture, industrial design, manufacturing and the photographic arts. Scores of their most-influential creations can be seen, sat upon, learned about and purchased at the “Eames Office? a gallery and store in Santa Monica. For appreciators of fine design, the Eames Office is more than a furniture store. Though nearly all of the most important Eames chairs and sofas (including several rare examples) are displayed and sold there, the store is more fundamentally a tribute to the remarkable lives of two American originals.

Ray and Charles Eames met in 1940 at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan, where Charles was experimenting with molded plywood, as head of the industrial design department, and Ray was a design student. The next year, they married and moved to California where they believed, that in anonymity, they would have time to explore how to mass produce molded plywood into compound curves. Those experiments were put to practical use in World War II when the Eameses produced 150,000 molded plywood leg splints for the U.S. Navy, as well as stretchers and experimental aircraft parts. Each was as much an artistic statement as it was functional.

Their marriage of form and function continued following the War when the Eameses applied war-born technologies and materials to peaceful uses. Among the first was a form-fitting, minimalist, molded plywood chair designated unpretentiously as the LCW chair, for “Lounge Chair Wood.? Influential architectural critic Esther McCoy called the LCW “the chair of the century? while Time magazine dubbed it the “design of the century.? Despite now being more than 60 years old, this slung-back, form-fitting assembly of curved plywood is still produced in the U.S. by Herman Miller, Inc. and in Europe by Vitra International.

Innovative use of materials was an Eames hallmark. The early LCW chair evolved into their 1956 masterpiece, the Eames lounge chair and ottoman, a comfortable combination of curves, cushions and a variety of molded woods, including rosewood, cherry and walnut. This year, commemorating the lounge chair’s 50th anniversary, museum exhibits will appear across America, a 200-page coffee table book will be published, and a special numbered edition of the chair, made of black Edelman leather and sustain-ably harvested Santos Palisander rosewood, will be issued. This commemorative edition is being offered as a gift for joining the Eames Foundation at a level of $6,500 and will help sustain the creative legacy of the Eameses and preserve their home, also known as “Case Study House #8.?

The name of this home is as direct as its design. In January, 1945, Arts & Architecture magazine called for the design of eight prototypical houses to be built as practical demonstrations of ways to respond to then-anticipated postwar housing demands. Each home was to fit a particular living situation or “case.? The Eameses proposed a residence, according to the Eames Foundation, that was “for a married couple who were basically apartment dwellers working in design and graphic arts, and who wanted a home that would make no demands for itself, but would instead serve as a background for, as Charles would say, ‘life in work’ with nature as a ‘shock absorber’.? The home would incorporate modernist ideals and utilize off-the-shelf materials originally created for the war effort. They were the home’s intended and only residents.

Five Case Study houses, including the Eames house, were constructed on a bluff in Pacific Palisades, a coastal neighborhood in the City of Los Angeles. All of them have been maintained though none are open regularly for public tours and the Eames house is the only one of them that appears as it did when inhabited. Case Study House #8 is located at the terminus of Corona Del Mar off Chautauqua Blvd. and can be viewed from its exterior by appointment with The Eames Foundation, 1-310-459-9663. Many architects and designers consider visiting it to be a required pilgrimage to one of the most important modernist residences of the postwar period.

What makes the Eames home so important is its simplicity, use of space, minimalist design elegance and environmental concern for the site. The house and separate office and studio are two, simple, steel-beam boxes embellished only with geometric orange, blue, white and clear glass panels that remind many of the work of the Dutch modernist artist, Piet Mondrian. Eames Demetrios, grandson of Charles and Ray who continues the Eameses creative tradition as author, artist and head of the Eames Office, says his grandmother, Ray, was annoyed by that suggestion, responding that the pattern had nothing to do with Mondrian’s work but was the natural result of being made from steel beams and metal and glass panels.

“Design, for them, was an iterative process,? said Mr. Demetrios. The use of pre-fabricated materials led to the geometric form which resulted in the home’s design. The colored panels were a logical evolution, adding soul to its simple shape. For the Eameses, design was not the destination, but the journey. “They made very few drawings, preferring to develop models or full-scale iterations of their designs. They would begin by trying to understand the material and every aspect of its production.?

Prior to the Eameses, modernist furniture designers – such as Marcel Breuer – made chairs individually, whereas the Eameses mastered mass production, allowing their designs to proliferate across the U.S. However, despite their being mass produced, Eames chairs were never pedestrian. Instead, they are displayed inside the Smithsonian Museum and New York’s Museum of Modern Art among America’s finest creations.

Mr. Demetrios credits Charles and Ray Eames’ attention to how people would use their creations for the tenure of them. “As designers, they appreciated human concerns. The design wasn’t as important, as its use in answering society’s needs,? explained Mr. Demetrios. Anyone who has sat comfortably in an Eames plastic chair, through an interminably endless ceremony, understands that bottom line. Despite the many advances in ergonomic design, the Eames plastic side chair, plastic armchair and plastic rocker remain among the most comfortable chairs ever made.

The Eameses’ concern for serving society also resulted in a remarkable approach to doing business. Mr. Demetrios wrote in his biography, An Eames Primer (Universe Publishing), that “one of the most powerful forces in the Eameses’ work… is the guest/host relationship.? That is, the responsibility of a host to consider the needs of his guest before his own. “The Guest/Host relationship exists in every culture,? said Mr. Demetrios, “A nomad sees it as his obligation and responsibility to welcome others into his tent. Charles felt that it was also part of how one designed an exhibition or a chair or a building.?

The Eameses lived this philosophy not only in their design, but in the gracious and unanticipated manner in which they welcomed all clients and visitors to the Eames Office, a converted garage at 901 West Washington Boulevard in Venice, Calif. (now Abbott Kinney Blvd.). Job applicants were treated like honored guests; entertaining presentations were always at the ready for the unexpected visitor. Inside this converted garage was the design equivalent of Lockheed’s famous Skunk Works. A montage of colorful elements used in past or ongoing design projects hung from its walls: circus posters, photographs and objects d’art. “Collage culture meets California’s garage culture,? Mr. Demetrios said in describing the Eameses’ eclectic interiors where familiar objects from the past gained residence, until used anew.

New use for 901 (shorthand to describe the location of the original Eames Office) will begin this year with the development of a hotel on the site (see The Ambrose, p. ). Décor within the hotel will recall the 1950s and ‘60s when the Eames Office conceived groundbreaking exhibits and films on mathematics, form and communications. Considering its Southern California location, it was natural that films would be made at 901. The Eameses produced over 125 short films in 28 years. All of them, in one way or another were essays about design.

“Blacktop,? made in 1952 was their first completed film. It was conceived when Charles noticed soap bubbles on a nearby school yard; he and Ray made a thing of cinematic beauty from the swirling suds. Director Paul Schrader, paraphrasing Jorge Luis Borges, characterized the Eames films as “a cinema of ideas.? Each film, according to Charles Eames, was either a logical extension of some immediate problem they were working on, or something they had wanted to do for a long time and couldn’t put off any longer.

In “The Powers of Ten,? Mr. Demetrios wrote, the Eameses encapsulated their life’s work, process and philosophy by demonstrating observations of scale. This nine-minute film begins looking down on a couple picnicking on a Chicago lawn, the camera then moves away at a constant rate of acceleration, in that every 10 seconds the camera moves 10 times farther away, yet the camera always remains centered on the picnicker’s spot. At ten seconds, the camera is 10 meters away from the picnickers, at 30 seconds it is a kilometer away (10+3 meters), and at 140 seconds it is 10+14 meters distance, encompassing the entire solar system, before continuing beyond the Milky Way galaxy. The film then reverses its journey, traveling inward toward the picnic scene, but upon arrival at the picnickers it moves closer toward the man’s hand, past cells, into DNA and finally fading to black at 10-16, one-tenth the size of a proton.

What inspired this exploration of scale? Mr. Demetrios believes Ray and Charles inquisitiveness about it was influenced by their mentor Eliel Saarinen who had often spoken of looking at things from their next-smallest and next-largest frame of reference. Many of Charles Eames early photographs demonstrated this interest, but finally, The Powers of Ten was a demonstration of the Eameses stepping back to gain perspective. The film began as a technical test and ended up as a film that is still shown in schools to stimulate thought about the relationships of space and time.

Such monuments may seem ephemeral, though the Eameses’ vast body of design work survives for new generations to live, experience and enjoy. For these two great California designers, life was a series of experiments, observations, realizations and triumphs. In the end, the Eames legacy is a name that stands alone among California’s creative captains.

Linking Eames
Eames Foundation – www.eamesfoundation.org
The Eames Office – www.eamesoffice.com
Herman Miller – www.hermanmiller.com