Design: He's a dedicated follower of furniture

Like the shirt? This man is a fashion phenomenon, and he attributes his success to a pair of chair designers.

Gucci, the Italian fashion house whose name remains synonymous with sexy chic, is currently sponsoring a major exhibition of two of this century's most influential designers, Charles and Ray Eames. It is the first time Gucci has been involved as a patron of the arts in the UK.

At the private view on Monday, the celebrities and attendant paparazzi were out in force. Tom Ford, Gucci's much-vaunted creative director, was in London to promote the event.

"You know," explains the 36-year-old American, "there is a pair of Gucci loafers in the Museum of Modern Art in New York from the 1960s. Our heritage is based on the notion of modern Italian design and so, to sponsor an exhibition of mid-century modernists, such as the Eames, makes perfect sense."

The Eames's met at the Academy of Art, Detroit, in 1940 and were married a year later. In their management of interior space and design of furniture and architectural structures they captured many of the defining moments in America's immediate pre- and post-war evolution. Their work became a reflection of the economic prosperity and optimism America enjoyed throughout the 1950s and 1960s. As ordinary Americans acquired a car for the first time, the Eames's explored the use of new materials to create low-cost, high-quality furniture for the mass market.

"The Eames truly believed the world could be a better place," continues Ford. "I think this opportunity to appreciate their work is really timely. Look at what's happening with advances in Aids and cancer drugs. You can feel the energy and self-belief of youth on the streets here in London. This is much of what the Eames were about."

Ford himself started out as a student of architecture, although he abandoned it quickly for being "too serious", and admits freely that his work at Gucci is influenced by the world of art and design. He refers enthusiastically to the Californian architect Neutra (he recently bought a Neutra house), to his European counterpart Mies van der Rohe and, of course, to the Eames's.

Ford believes the intimate relationship between fashion, design and culture is both necessary and unavoidable. "I have never literally looked at an Eames chair and said, "how can I turn that into a pair of pants?" he states. "Nevertheless, fashion for me has to have something to do with what is happening in the world. For it to be `mass' it has also to refer to populist culture.

"In fashion terms, you have to know what came before you to have a chance of knowing what the next thing will be. Fashion is business and commerce, not art. You have to take what is in the air and turn it into something people want to buy."

Since joining the company in 1995, Ford has transformed Gucci from a failing business producing suitcases with a famous label into the $1 billion fashion emporium it is today. One assumes that he is quite adept at anticipating market trends and giving people what they want.

Ford, rather like Charles and Ray Eames before him, sees himself as a "modernist". He cares about practicality and functionalism. "I wonder, if they were alive today, if the Eames's would not be off on some tangent we haven't thought of. Maybe they would be into electronics and software. You know, in the near future, rather than buy a new painting, perhaps you'll purchase a software programme that will redecorate your house, boom, like that. Software developments will change design forever."

Ford has just signed a new five-year contract at Gucci and is on a mission to revamp the Gucci global network of stores - which boast their own range of home furnishings - and bring them all up to his meticulous standards at a staggering cost of some $80m.

It would be interesting to know what the Eames's would make of their posthumous association with Gucci but one suspects they would share many of Ford's artistic sensibilities. After all, before attending the opening on their behalf, Eames Demetrios, their grandson, was rushed to the nearest store and bedecked in Gucci clothes after an airline suspiciously lost his luggage.

`The Work of Charles and Ray Eames' is at the Design Museum, Shad Thames, London SE1 (0171 378 6055) until 4 January, daily 11.30-6.

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