Few designers have had an impact on the way the modern world functions in the same way that Ray and Charles Eames have. With a combination of stylish modernity and a keen eye on the bottom line, they made things – furniture, installations, movies – that were both functional and fun. And “Eames: The Architect and the Painter” is a similar contraption – deceptively cool and sometimes giddily fun but fairly rudimentary at its core.
Honestly, the movie, which features slightly off-kilter narration by James Franco, wouldn’t feel out of place on PBS or maybe as one of those documentaries HBO shows on Monday nights. There’s nothing particularly cutting edge about the approach to the material, or the way that things are presented. It’s a just-the-facts-ma’am-type documentary that still manages to be engaging because of the wide array of people that filmmakers Jason Cohn and Bill Jersey talk to, and the clear passion that the subjects brought to their work (and how it electrified all of those around them).
For those unfamiliar, Charles and Ray Eames were a married couple who also worked together in the Eames Office (sometimes called “The Eamery”), a loose, freewheeling space located in coastal California that feels equal parts Pixar and the Pentagon – a place of heady ideas, uninhibited by the stifling rigidity that usually accompanies an office environment. They were artists, painters, architects, and product designers – probably most noted for the Eames chair, made for the Herman Miller furniture company, an ingeniously conceived design, all swooping curves and spindly legs, that is still used today (and still hopelessly ripped off or imitated).
Their approach to their work was to incorporate all of the things they loved, with Charles taking a mathematic approach to a problem while Ray, with her wild sense of color and composition, would use painterly tools and place a chief importance on whimsy and the way things felt together. They also encouraged those who worked at the Eamery – animators, designers, artists – to challenge their own preconceived notions and methods of design. It was a place of endless experimentation and creativity. One former Eamery member recounts that the physical space of the office, a sprawling warehouse minutes from the beach, would change almost everyday – a prototype room would spring up in the middle of the space, then be gone the next day, with large spools of patterned material blanketing everything one moment, before disappearing the next.
But it wasn’t just furniture, sleek lines that helped define what the “modernism” (without the movement’s chilly detachment, thanks largely to Ray’s warmth) was that was produced at the Eamery. They also worked on a series of experimental, education short films, the most extraordinary, “Powers of Ten” (produced for frequent client/collaborator IBM), featured music by Elmer Bernstein and was a simple, mathematically accurate account of how things look by powers of ten, eventually pulling so far back that you see a cosmic version of the earth, before zooming back down to ground level. It’s amazing to watch now, especially since it predates similar, digitally augmented tricks that are common in movies today, by a handful of decades.
They also created exhibits, like one for IBM at the 1964 World’s Fair in Queens (this is the same World’s Fair where Walt Disney unveiled “it’s a small world” and the Carousel of Progress), which featured multiple screens that showcased the interconnectedness of life, in an attempt to make the computer seem less cold and impersonal. It wasn’t a runaway success, but it was a testament to the way that Charles Eames’ mind worked, in a series of hyperlinked, text-filled pages that only he could truly decipher. The failure of The World of Franklin and Jefferson, a mammoth installation that toured the country to commemorate the US Bicentennial, was a testament to how knotty and impenetrable some of his ideas became.
As a metaphor for their relationship, though, nothing quite beats the Eames House, originally called “The Bridge House” or “Case Study House No. 8,” it is an architectural marvel, with an all-glass façade looking towards the ocean (and partially obscured by large, Mondrian blocks of colored glass), this was the couple’s retreat and, like all of their works, could be interpreted for different moods. At one point, the open spaces could be read as symbolizing the openness of their marriage, their ability to fill any space with the hugeness of their personalities, but it could just as easily be interpreted as akin to the gulf that would come between them, filled largely by the other women that would waft into Charles’ life and cause Ray great pain.
Charles died ten years to the day that Ray passed away, and you wish that the documentary, which is handsomely produced, full of glorious archival footage, zippy montages, and compelling talking head pieces, would have zeroed in on Ray’s time without Charles. You get the impression that he held her back, in some ways, and after his death took over the Eames company with great relish, looking forward to turning it into something genuinely different than what it was before. Many of the interviewees make note of the fact that Ray was always standing behind Charles, both in the office and in photographs. In those ten years, she was able to stand front and center, and it would have been nice to see what those years were like for her. As it stands, though, ‘Eames,’ as conventionally straight forward as it is, is also a delight, illuminating a pair of true American geniuses, in a whimsical way totally befitting their product. Next time you sit down in an Eames chair, think of them. [A-]