Material Investigation, Analysis, and Treatment

Eames House Conservation Project addresses a number of interrelated conservation issues that relate to the building envelope, as well as interior finishes and the house's contents. At the beginning of the project, a multidisciplinary team that included conservators, scientists, architects, and engineers identified a number of physical conditions that required investigation in order to determine possible conservation treatments.

Extensive condition surveys have been undertaken by the project team and Escher GuneWardena Architecture, the project architect for the initial phase of work, with assistance from GCI and Getty Museum conservators and associated consultants as needed.

As of late 2014, scientific investigations and conservation treatments have been carried out on several areas of the building.

Living Room Floor

The living room floor presented an interesting conservation challenge. In the early 1950s, the original bare concrete floor was covered in white, vinyl tiles, which after some sixty years had reached the end of their useful life span. They had grown brittle, cracked, and discolored, and had loosened as the adhesive began to fail.

Examination of the tile and adhesive materials revealed that both were laden with asbestos, necessitating careful removal and abatement. Following removal of the tiles, the source of moisture intrusion was investigated, confirming that it was seeping through the concrete slab. Working with Escher GuneWardena Architecture, the GCI evaluated liquid moisture barrier systems to insure compatibility with the new flooring.

A variety of possible replacement flooring materials were evaluated. Oddy testing was conducted to minimize the risk of off gassing, a potential hazard to the interior collections. Aesthetically, it was critical that the new tiles match the original, which were no longer available. Thorough consideration was given to the color and surface appearance of the replacement material, as well as such factors as durability and maintenance requirements. The Eames Foundation carefully weighed the decision between using an off-the shelf product, which would be very much in the spirit of the Case Study Program, and a custom-made product, which would closely replicate the appearance of the original.

Ultimately, the Foundation settled on a custom vinyl composite tile to achieve the best color match; tiles were custom cut to match the original 9" x 9" dimensions, which are no longer standard. Finally, floor tile acrylic sealers were evaluated to reduce the risk of damage to collections and to achieve the optimal final appearance.

Wood Wall Paneling

The rear wall of the living room is covered in a floor-to-ceiling vertical wood paneling, which extends through the glass end wall along the rear patio, visually integrating the room with the outdoors. While the warm golden wood paneling is an important aesthetic feature, scant information about its material characteristics, including the wood species, could be located. After years of exposure to daylight through large expanses of glass, wood finishes had degraded, and there was evidence of possible biodeterioration. Microscopic examination determined there was no insect damage, but fungal growth was evident. A DNA analysis identified the presence of two types of fungi, both of which were easily remediated in the treatment phase.

Prior to the development of a conservation treatment plan, it was necessary to determine what type of wood was used in the paneling. A small sample was extracted from behind one of the electrical power plates and cut into thin-section specimens. Through microscopic examination of the cellular structure of the wood, a Getty Museum conservator determined with certainty that it was a species of eucalyptus (Eucalyptus microcorys), commonly known as Australian tallowwood. Whether the choice of eucalyptus was a conscious design decision is not known, but interestingly, a magnificent row of eucalypts stands just outside the living room windows opposite the paneled wall.

In order to develop a treatment plan for the paneling, coating samples were collected and investigated. Once prior coatings were identified, conservators recommended a treatment plan that would preserve the original varnish treatments, including the patina, to the greatest degree possible. On the interior, treatment began with a gentle, overall cleaning. Before application, several re-saturating varnishes were evaluated for color and appearance to minimize the aesthetic impact to the wood. The exterior paneling required stripping and revarnishing.

Paint Analysis

The light, steel framework of the Eames House has been coated in a glossy black paint for many years, although Charles Eames originally described it as a “dark, neutral, and very satisfying gray" (Arts and Architecture, December 1949, pg. 33); it is not known when the color was changed from gray to black. Opaque infill panels are a variety of colors, some brightly painted and others a soft gray. Little information is available about the original choice of paints, but as an artist and a colorist, in all likelihood Ray Eames had a strong hand in their selection and placement.

In order to better understand and document the use of color at the house, the GCI carried out on-site paint excavations on selected areas of the interior and exterior metalwork, and on four of the painted, exterior panels.

In an effort to further understand the paint history of the building, the focus of the investigation was on paint stratigraphy and pigment composition. With the aid of on-site microscopy, conservators made small exposure windows, carefully excavating each layer to expose the layers beneath. When analyzed in the laboratory, samples from both the interior and exterior metalwork showed evidence of repeated puttying, priming, and painting campaigns over the life of the house and confirmed that the color of the metalwork had changed over time.

Through this examination, the GCI discovered a first-generation paint layer in a dark, opaque, warm gray color. The paint was distinctively mixed, perhaps hand tinted, using mineral pigments including red iron oxide, Prussian blue, and chrome yellow. The first generation interior paint, while similarly pigmented, was a somewhat lighter shade than the exterior. The understanding of the paint stratigraphy gained from this investigation, correlated with documentary evidence, will inform future choices about repainting the metalwork.

Repairs to windows, building envelope, and roofing

Water ingress is of considerable concern in flat roof, glass walled structures such as the Eames House. In the absence of sufficient drainage, water pools easily on the roof, then cascades down the building facade.

The GCI has advised the Eames Foundation and their consulting architect in matters related to repairs of windows and metal work to improve the performance of the building envelope while minimizing impacts on historic fabric.

In late 2014, the Eames Foundation undertook a reroofing campaign. Guided by the Foundation's consultants and with input from the GCI, roof details were minimally altered to reduce ponding and improve drainage.

Page updated: January 2015