Charles and Ray Eames brought a quirky playfulness to the American heartland, creating efficient and affordable designs and convincing American corporations and consumers to adopt them. Today, even the rapper Ice Cube is a fan.
The Eames studio—part workshop, part circus—was a partnership of two free spirits: one, an architecture school dropout who never got his license; the other, a painter trained by Hans Hofmann who used objects or any other surface as her canvases. They shunned the term “artist” as pompous.
“Charles and Ray Eames wanted to bring the most magnificent experience that you could have with your eyes to the largest number of people,” said the art critic Jed Perl. “I don’t think there’s anything more important for an artist to want to do.”
In Eames: The Architect and the Painter, in which Perl and others weigh in, directors Jason Cohn and Bill Jersey aim at a similar goal, an overview of the Eames duo as creators and personalities. More affection than investigation, the film, narrated by James Franco, still avoids the spoon-fed pedagogy of PBS’s dutifully dull American Masters series (which aired it on December 19).
The upbeat documentary taps a near-infinite visual archive, as Eames observers refresh a much-examined history. This is Eames 101, but it draws from some of the best voices, from architect Kevin Roche to curator Donald Albrecht to filmmaker Paul Schrader.
Everyone called Charles Eames (1907–1978) a charismatic charmer. This documentary’s charm is its anatomy of a start-up, before the term existed, which took root in a Los Angeles apartment and relocated to a Venice, California, workshop packed with odd forms and imaginative people. The Eames lab was fun for decades and still enormously productive. How many people can say that about their lives?
The Eameses’ prodigious imaginations would eventually take flight in a surging postwar economy, although they failed in early attempts to produce a chair. World War II gave the office its first break. Struggling to design a chair with Eero Saarinen—and to make money—the Eameses devised leg splints for wounded soldiers in 1942, in which open holes enabled plywood to bend without splitting or splintering. Charles and Ray adapted the technique to molding plywood for chairs, which became the office’s identity. Variations and buyers multiplied.
“Eventually everything connects” was an Eames nostrum. So was “We wanted to make the best for the most for the least,” and “Take your pleasure seriously.” Not everyone got their inside jokes at the Eameses’ Case Study House 7 in Pacific Palisades (1949). A hungry Kevin Roche was miffed when the two aesthetes served him a “visual dessert” of pretty flowers. “I was really fucked-off with that,” Roche recalled (it’s bleeped out in the PBS version).
Business was serious at the studio, too, as a prosperous country emerging from depression and war created a huge consumer base that manufacturers like Herman Miller coveted.
The Eameses turned to information design, which evolved from their films that blended innocence and visual wonder. Paul Schrader, who wrote Taxi Driver, broke ranks with LA cinema snobs who scorned the Eames films, and visited the office. In the film he marvels at the refinement of little movies that he calls a mix of “self-expression and vanity”—and poetry, epitomized by the Eameses’ 1969 ode to the spinning top. Yet just what led Charles Eames to cinema is never discussed. Nor do we hear from young filmmakers on the Eames legacy. Is it because so few know about them?
The perspective of today’s designers on the Eames era is another gap in The Architect and the Painter, yet any designer will envy Charles Eames’s skill at wooing corporate clients, despite his famed verbal awkwardness.
We witness how the Eames charm worked on the U.S. State Department. Glimpses of the USA, a film that they made for the United States Information Agency–sponsored American National Exhibition in Moscow in 1959, was an assertion of superior American might, cloaked in a comradely “Family of Man” universalism.
A key Eames client was computer giant IBM, which harnessed the Eames approach in clever cartoons that, in the era of sinister sci-fi robots, made computers seem as unthreatening as a child’s top. Working for straitlaced IBM, the Eameses operated as if they were autonomous, and their whimsical films added warmth to the imposing IBM corporate brand, as did their IBM pavilion at the New York World’s Fair in 1964.
What looks like a sellout today, curator Donald Albrecht opines, really wasn’t, since the Eameses believed in what they were doing—and reaped the profits as corporate work begat other corporate work.
Geniuses can be propagandists, and geniuses can have bad days. The Eameses rode waves of praise until their mammoth 1976 bicentennial touring exhibition, The World of Franklin and Jefferson, which went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Charles layered galleries with American objects, documents, and explanatory text. It was an early prefiguration of internet hyperlinking, but it proved that dense stuffing of information as an idea—the embodiment of “eventually everything connects”—was more refined than the installation in physical space. Critics, led by Hilton Kramer of The New York Times, trashed it as unworthy of the Met. Charles Eames died two years later in 1978. Ray died to the day, ten years later.
The film also revisits poignant personal stories. At Cranbrook in 1940–41, when lovestruck Charles abandoned his bride and baby for the gifted Ray Kaiser, he smothered her in love letters that first drove her away and finally won her over. In the 1970s, when Charles fell for young Judith Wechsler at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, letters gushed out to her, evidence that the old partnership with Ray was fading.
The film declares that the Eames legacy lives on, but where, beyond the works that came out of the studio? The audience is left to ponder that proposition, which is a task that the Eameses would have liked. After all, one of Charles Eames’s other famous lines was, “If you can think and you can see, and you can prove that to me, then you can work here.”