The Eames House, built in 1949 by the American designers Charles and Ray Eames, is a masterpiece of midcentury modernism. It was designed under the Case Study House Program, and was an experiment in the use of pre-fabricated materials to rapidly construct a residential structure. Charles and Ray lived in the house and studio until Charles’s death in 1978 and Ray’s death in 1988.
Based on the results of an intense paint investigation carried out by the Getty Conservation Institute, the color history of the Eames House has been established: the exterior of the house is currently black but it was originally a warm gray and went through a series of grays and blacks over its lifetime before reaching the current black paint color and like the exterior, the interior metalwork has a complicated history of gray paint layers.
Ray Eames was an artist and colorist and her influence on the selection of paint colors at the house was confirmed in the results of this study; early accounts mention a dark warm or neutral gray color for the metalwork; these colors were revealed in the earliest paint layers at the house. The paint study aimed to identify the history of the painting campaigns at three significant dates: 1949, when the house was completed; 1978, the year Charles Eames died; 1988, the year Ray Eames died.
Fifteen samples were taken from the house for optical microscopy and chemical analysis with particular focus on stratigraphy and pigment composition, and six in-situ paint excavations were carried out at selected areas of metalwork on the House and the Studio.
Additionally, samples were obtained from seven painted reference plates and a series of old paint cans retained at the house and some of these plates had dates written on them, this wealth of reference material appeared to be an advantage but this group of reference material proved to be not entirely helpful; we only found one sample to match a can of paint and none of the painted plates matched our samples from the metalwork.
Two fragments of putty, reportedly detached in the 1994 Northridge earthquake, offered a valuable chronological reference point, because we knew these fragments did not include any layers after 1994.
Paint samples were prepared as polished cross-sections; examined and photographed by optical microscopy; and analyzed by ESEM-EDS. Selected samples were analyzed for organic binder identification by Py-GCMS and FTIR.
Further analysis was carried out using in-situ paint excavation exposure windows, and complementary cross-sectional optical microscopy, on the exterior steel beams of the Eames House and Studio in an effort to correlate, in the field, the results of laboratory analysis, and to compare the historic paint strata between the home and studio structures at different elevations.
The in-situ paint excavations aimed to reveal all layers of paint from the uppermost current paint layer to the steel beam substrate, on a sufficient scale to gauge the hue with the naked eye and take color measurements where necessary. Excavation exposure windows were made using a steel scalpel blade and magnification, and gently cleaving and scraping away upper layers of paint to reveal each layer beneath.
Samples were taken from the edge of each excavation exposure window to compare the stratigraphy in cross-section to what was visible after excavating, to better understand the exposure windows and confirm which layers were revealed. The building is a large structure that has had several painting interventions that added material or, possibly, took material away; this could have made made the history of paint layers at one location very different from another.
Therefore, the limited number of samples may not give a perfectly complete and representative picture of the global event history; and we were cautious with our extrapolation. Also the small nature of the paint excavation windows leaves more room for misinterpretation because of the limited surface area that is revealed. This is why we exposed windows on multiple elevations - to get as much information as possible, without compromising the aesthetics of the building.
Cross-sectional optical microscopy and in-situ paint excavation exposure windows are valuable complementary techniques: cross-sectional optical microscopy is necessary when performing paint excavations to compare the layers revealed in the exposure window to the layers visible in the cross-sectional sample; often more layers are visible in cross-section.
It is possible to see very subtle structural differences using optical microscopy, identify differences between layers using ultraviolet light, and see temporal change indicators like dirt layers.
There is a tangible value in viewing historic colors in macro or human-scale; cross-sectional representations of colors often cannot represent hues accurately (though relative color differences can be compared between strata) and for communication between the project partners, people who may not be used to looking at images of cross-sections for example, an exposure window made through paint excavation techniques can be extremely valuable.
Before going into detail about our results, let me tell you a bit about what we knew before analysis, and what we didn’t know, while looking at the timeline. From this point on, this timeline that you see will be on the screen and I will add to it throughout the presentation. What we see here are the three significant dates I mentioned previously: 1949, 1978, and 1988.
Five painting campaigns were documented in historical records and serve as temporal reference points for which to compare revealed strata. From these records, we know that there was a painting campaign in 2003, a repair and repainting intervention after the Northridge earthquake of 1994, a painting campaign in 1989 just after Ray’s death, and a repair campaign in 1978, the year of Charles’s death; and of course we know the house was completed in 1949.
What we didn’t know is when the campaigns occurred from 1949 to 1989… This study yielded a great deal of information about the coatings but the date of each generation could not be definitively identified. However, well-informed approximations were made based on available resources, such as physical evidence from analyses compared to historical documentation about the history of the house…Based on what we know we worked backward…
The samples from both the interior and exterior metalwork trim showed evidence for repeated campaigns of puttying, priming, and painting. The House and Studio show almost exactly the same exterior painting history, while the interior and exterior metalwork of the House have quite different histories of painting campaigns.
The same pattern of two adjacent paint layers, dense black over dark gray, where found at the uppermost level in all exposure windows and samples from the exterior metalwork of the building and suggests that these two uppermost layers – 12 and 13 - derive from a recent re-painting intervention or, possibly, two separate interventions.
The upper black paint layer can be connected with the known painting campaign in 2003; but whether the underlying dark gray layer immediately beneath derives from that campaign or from an earlier repair campaign cannot be understood from the evidence within the samples. The gray paint is made up of black pigment and silicates, rather than black and titanium white, so the gray is a lower quality paint and this suggests it was an underlayer for the upper black rather than a final surface coating.
Samples of paint from fragments of putty that were detached in the 1994 Northridge earthquake were examined and correspond to the paint samples taken from the building. These putty fragments served as a temporal reference point and by comparing the layers on the putty fragments, which were certainly 1994 and prior, to exposure windows and samples taken from the structure, a definite dating of the post-1994 layers was identified.
The uppermost two layers in the putty fragment samples, black paint over red primer, layers 9 and 10, correspond to layers found in exposure windows and samples from the exterior metalwork of the building; these strata represent the most recent coatings prior to the 1994 earthquake.
Accordingly, on grounds of their position in the stratigraphy and their composition, these black and red layers can be securely linked to the first repainting campaign commissioned by the Eames Foundation in 1989; these paints were identified analytically as Ameritone Alkyd Enamel Satin black over Dunn-Edwards Bloc-Rust, these materials were also documented in house records. In 1989, therefore, the metal framework of the house was black in color.
Immediately beneath the paint and primer layers applied in 1989 lies a dark brown, chlorine-rich, tough coating, the status and dating of which are relatively uncertain, but surely pre-1989; this layer may be a protective, water-repellent sealant.
In each of these samples, lying directly beneath the dark brown sealant layer is a sequence of black paint layers that appear to represent multiple painting campaigns; this series of blacks, layers 5-7, have a very similar composition. The dates of these black painting campaigns cannot be deduced with any certainty from the evidence.
However, because the materials applied in 1989 are known, the orange and black layers, and the uppermost black paint, number 7, lies beneath the 1989 coatings then it is logical to conclude that the exterior metalwork was painted black at the time of Ray Eames’s death in 1988.
And, if the uppermost layer – number 7- of this early black sequence is tentatively linked to the 1978 repair campaign, then the lower black paint layers – 5 and 6 - which must be earlier, could pre-date Charles Eames’s death; this hypothesis then suggests that the exterior metalwork was painted black during Charles’s lifetime.
Beneath the series of black paints are two grays, a very dark gray over a lighter warm gray – layers 3 and 4. The dark gray paint is comprised of black, white, and colored particles; similarly the warm gray is comprised of white, black, green, red, and yellow particles. Both gray paints are made by subtractive color mixing.
Documentary evidence on the original painting of the structure indicated the use of a rubber-based paint made by A.C. Horn; consistently the binder of these lowest two strata was identified as synthetic styrene/butadiene rubber using Py-GCMS. It is extremely likely that this pair of paint layers - very dark gray over a lighter, warm gray – represent the first two applications of paint to the exterior metalwork.
The lower layer, warm gray, is almost certainly the first coat of paint applied to the exterior metalwork in 1949. However, the temporal relationship of the upper dark gray to the lower warm gray is uncertain: they could be contemporaneous representing an intentional darkening of the color scheme at the initial painting stage or separated by a number of years.
Beneath the warm gray paint are 1-3 layers of primers (black, yellow-green, and/or orange) followed by a pale gray corrosion inhibitor that features powdered metallic zinc particles. This light gray zinc-based primer may equate with the A.C. Horn product Galvanide that was reportedly used originally to prime the metalwork.
While the two grays are quite different in color, they have compositional similarities: distinctively, they are tinted with red iron oxide, chrome green (made from Prussian blue + chrome yellow), and chrome yellow alone in addition to white and, probably, carbon black. The lower, lighter warm gray paint is more abundant in these colored pigments, especially the red iron oxide.
The subsequent paint layers, several blacks and another gray, do not exhibit subtractive color mixing; they are instead made of exclusively black or black and white pigments. Because the two lowest gray paints are made by a unique and painterly method of subtractive color mixing, and similar materials in different quantities, it suggests both the dark gray and warm gray paints were made and applied during the time Charles and Ray Eames lived in the house.
Early accounts of the house mention a “dark, warm gray” or “dark neutral gray” color for the metalwork, and because the first and second grays appear to match the historical accounts, it seems reasonable to associate these painting campaigns with the direct influence of the Eameses, even if the exact dates of application are uncertain.
The lower warm gray has a dual significance: it was the original surface coating for the house, and it was a specific and unique gray made using a careful color mixing method that suggests a great care and interest in achieving a very specific gray; this may contribute to the historical value of the exterior paint surface.
The samples of paint from the interior metalwork all have complex stratigraphies that illustrate repeated cycles of priming and painting. The stratigraphies are somewhat variable however, some commonalities do occur within the sample group. The diversity in the stratigraphies across the group suggests the interior surfaces were not always the same color at the same time.
There are few, if any, temporal reference points that allow reliable dating of any of the layers, except the uppermost layer.
Apart from occurrences of red primer and two isolated instances of black paint, all the paint and primer layers in the samples are gray.
Two different gray primers occur that are based on metallic zinc: a lower pale gray primer that may be original, and an upper, dark gray primer that must have been applied during a later re-painting intervention.
There is a considerable degree of compositional overlap between the different layers: the general similarity of the composition of the various paint layers might point to a common formulation concept. The basis for the dark gray interior paints is essentially titanium white (TiO2) and carbon black plus colorless extenders of different types, and minor, variable amounts of colored pigments.
All the interior samples share a common uppermost paint layer. A distinctive feature of this layer was the super-abundance of chlorine, associated with the presence, probably, of a chlorinated rubber paint binder. It is reasonable to connect this paint layer to most recent painting campaign in 2003 because it is at the top. As already noted, the upper, dark gray zinc-based primer can be confidently identified as non-original, therefore, so can the paint layers lying above it.
The paints lying beneath the dark gray zinc-based primer are then more significant in terms of the early history of the interior paint scheme. Most of the interior metalwork samples have the lowest two paint layers, that lie directly above the lower zinc-based primer, in common.
These gray paints are both made in the subtractive coloring method like the two earliest paint layers found on the exterior of the house, these earliest interior grays are comprised of black, white, and colored particles. And like the exterior early grays, the upper gray is cooler than the lower; and the lower is more abundant in red iron oxide particles.
The lower, warm gray paint, is the earliest surviving paint on the interior metalwork and may relate to the historical textual mention of “dark, warm gray”. Through this investigation, the GCI revealed the complex painting history of the Eames House and we discovered a first-generation paint layer - on the interior and exterior - of a medium tone, opaque, warm gray.
Through this investigation, the GCI revealed the complex painting history of the Eames House and we discovered a first-generation paint layer - on the interior and exterior - of a medium tone, opaque, warm gray. The earliest paints were distinctively mixed with colored pigments, a finding that tends to confirm the original warm gray color of the metal work described in early accounts of the house.
Through this paint study we have begun to understand the significant moments in the dynamic evolution of the House through the complexity of the coating history; and understanding the paint stratigraphy will assist in making decisions about repainting the metalwork, both now and in the future. Thank you.