The Lived-in Look

L.A. Expanded: Notes from the West Coast
A weekly column by Catherine Wagley

2009 Atlanta Christmas House

The 2009 Christmas House in Atlanta.

Over Thanksgivings, which my sister and I spent with our aunt and grandmother in Atlanta, all of us used to go to the Atlanta Christmas House. It’s always a big, newly renovated or newly built Victorian-style mansion in which everything is up-to-date and in its place. A local designer has decorated and furnished each room, and this means rooms don’t necessarily make sense together—you could cross a hallway and go from Ikea-style modernism to shabby chic.

My sister, then a Harvard student who joked about being in college for her Mrs. degree (“when I marry into money”), loved the house. She never meant it about the Mrs. thing, but there was something perfectly appealing to her about this big, sleekly assembled house. She liked it’s newness and scale; it connoted comfort and freedom from want (she’s in Thailand now, braving the floods—a far cry from Atlanta posh). I remember we couldn’t find her once, and saw her wandering outside, toward the gazebo as if in a daze.

Because she loved it so much, I tried not to say how much I hated the Christmas House. It was impossible for me to imagine living in those pre-made rooms that had never been lived in—even the artbooks on the table were the wrong kind; lots of Taschen and oversized Phaidon, the type you can find at most any urban Barnes and Nobles.

Charles and Ray Eames' living room, looking slightly tidier than it does at LACMA

These days, I don’t even like the historical tours of turn-of-the-19th-century mansions, owned by former moguls or just well-to-do families. As a kid, I’d go through them and fantasize about living in that time, sleeping in those canopied beds, changing behind one of those decorative screens. But now? Most of those houses, like the Campbell mansion in Spokane or the Swan House in Atlanta, feel like they’ve been left with just enough character to evoke “how-they-lived-then,” and stripped of most idiosyncrasy.

Not so with the living room of designers Charles and Ray Eames that’s been painstakingly moved piece by piece, from the Eames house in the Pacific Palisades to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Despite the husband-wife team’s obsession with efficiency and championing of minimalism, the room is quirky and almost overstuffed (rugs overlap one another, and there are books galore). It’s the home of a couple that had too many interests and while, yes, the objects are expensive, I imagine the Eames living room would have looked somehow similar even if rugs had been out of there price range.

The highlight of LACMA’s current show, California Design, 1930-1965: Living in a Modern Way, the living room has apparently been kept up by the same housekeeper who worked for the Eames when they still lived (he died August 21, 1978, her August 21, 1988). It’s where they entertained for thirty years, since building the house—#8 in their series of Case Studies, houses meant to meet the needs of inhabitants and jive with the environment— and moving in on Christmas Eve 1949.  The house had to “function as an integral part of the living patter of the occupants and will therefore be completely ‘used’ in a real and full sense,” read a 1945 brief in Arts and Architecture. “’House’ in these cases means center of productivity.”

Image from "Crying over Spilled Milk," 2011. Courtesy of Paul Pescador.

I wrote last week about “Situation Rooms,” places that set the stage or open up room for the unexpected to happen. I suspect the Eames house is one of them. You couldn’t walk into that room without having curiosity peaked about something. Billy Wilder used to visit—would his mood change when he walked through those glass doors?

There will be a different kind of situation room in Lincoln Heights tomorrow. At the small alt arts venue, workspace, artist Paul Pescador will perform along with four other artists (Karen Adelman, John Burtle, Alexis Disselkoen, and Christa von Sydow)  in What Have I Done to Deserve This. It’s the fourth in a series called Situating, where artists get together, perform around a loose theme and then interact with each other and the space they’re in for a drawn-out period. When Pescador organized his previous Situating at Human Resource, one artist proposed an all-encompassing work that would commandeer the space for a period. Another artist responded by giving visitors pink coats to wear; that way, she could assert herself in the situation without necessarily interfering with the artists who had claimed center-stage. If you’re in L.A. and you can, stop by worskspace sometime between 2-6 p.m., October 22nd,  and check in on the atmosphere. The themes usually come first, even before Pescador has invited artists to collaborate with him, so What Have I Done to Deserve This promises some real intensity.