Keeping Up with the Eameses

11/16/2011 4:00 AM |

Eames: The Architect & the Painter
Directed by Jason Cohn, Bill Jersey

The point of the title of Jason Cohn and Bill Jersey’s documentary about artist-designer couple Charles and Ray Eames is that the work of each required more than one label, and for the forty years that they worked alongside one another their combined polyvalence and practically telekinetic mutual understanding made them one of the most versatile creative forces of the 20th century. And, in that way, the title fits: architecture school dropout Charles was the more linear, practical and conventionally masculine thinker, while much is made of Ray’s intuitive grasp of color, preference for objects over ideas and tutelage under Abstract Expressionist Hans Hofmann. Their private dramas are only discussed near the film’s end, but it’s made abundantly clear throughout that for them the boundary between life and work was extremely porous.

The Eameses remain best known for the eponymous line of chairs they designed for Herman Miller—originals of which now fetch five-figure sums at auction—but their lucrative furniture designs were very much the cash cows that enabled personal projects and more experimental design pursuits. Their work for long-time client IBM—who helped fund this documentary—receives a great deal of attention, particularly as the firm sought to humanize the tech giant’s first generation of technophobia-provoking supercomputers. Their increasingly ambitious practice of the 60s and 70s, now more fully under Charles’ leadership, seems prescient in its emphasis on image-based information systems, clean lines and sparing use of text. A lineage of post-war American design would surely deem the Eameses and Stave Jobs closely related.

But while Charles became a proto-Jobsian technophile who sought to convey ideas with the utmost clarity, Ray’s hoarding of objects and notes became so extreme that her studio’s messiness was a running joke among the Eames office’s several dozen employees. Many of Eames‘s 84 minutes are spent airing the grievances of jilted members of the now-shuttered Los Angeles practice and estimating its charismatic leader’s debt to his self-effacing wife. At the time most of the credit for the firm’s collective output went to Charles, prescient champion of screens, computers and uncluttered futurism, while Ray collected the artisanal, handcrafted and handwritten. Their house, a pair of modernist glass and steel boxes filled with the strangest assortment of artifacts, was the Eames marriage translated into architecture and interior design. It also exemplified the notion of the curated life, and anticipated our current relationship to objects and information, an extreme pairing of sleek, seemingly history-less technology and vintage, handmade things. Eames conveys the couple’s gradually diverging professional and personal relationship through interviews with colleagues, friends and at least one of Charles’s mistresses. And though we only get a hazy sense of their temperaments, the powerful and lasting effects of the Eameses’ lives and work are made impressively clear.

Opens November 18