Review: Eames: The Architect and the Painter

Eames: The Architect and the Painter, directed by Jason Cohn and Bill Jersey. Written by Jason Cohn. Narrated by James Franco. Released by First Run Features (2011). 84 minutes (unrated).


Eames: The Architect and the Painter, of the PBS American Masters series, presents a portrait of the husband and wife design team of Charles and Ray Eames. Charles, educated as an architect, and Ray, trained as a painter, met in 1940 at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. Although Charles was already married at the time, he fell madly in love with Ray, ended his marriage, and proposed to her. After marrying, they left the Midwest and moved to Los Angeles with the goal of bringing to fruition Charles’s vision for the molded plywood chair, which had already won a major award but needed further development. There they founded the Eames Office, which was by all accounts informal, playful, and circus-like, yet simultaneously focused and intense. “[L]ife was fun was work was fun was life” as former Eames Office designer Deborah Sussman describes it in the film.

The Eames Office became a launching pad that propelled design after successful, groundbreaking design onto the postwar American scene. Most commonly recognized today for its Herman Miller-produced plywood- and fiberglass-shell chairs, the Eames Office produced a wide range of furniture designs over the years, as well as an array of other products, including molded plywood military splints, toys, textiles, photography, graphic design, educational films, and elaborate exhibition designs. Told through film clips, stills, letters, interviews, and narration, this engaging documentary film manages to take their incredibly prolific working life of nearly forty years and compress it into eighty-four fascinating minutes.

Rather than proceeding in strictly chronological order, the film examines the Eames’ life and work by general subject matter: their chair designs and early life together; the design and construction of their home, Case Study House #8 (from the magazine Arts and Architecture’s “Case Study Houses” program); the first experimental and, later, educational films they made; Charles and Ray’s strained relationship in their later years, including Charles’s affair with art historian and filmmaker Judith Wechsler (which their collaborative work-life survived); their last projects together; and Ray’s final ten years (exactly, to the day) after Charles’s death in 1978.

This approach by the filmmakers weaves a broadly chronological and sufficiently coherent narrative arc, but may lead some viewers to miss the fact that many of these activities, described separately in the film, occurred simultaneously. For instance, furniture design didn’t cease when the Eameses began experimenting with short film production in the 1950s; it continued alongside film and other new activities as the office grew. This is worth bearing in mind while watching, because the productive output of the Eames Office is all the more astonishing when one realizes the degree to which a wide range of products were simultaneously developed there, an extraordinary percentage of which were highly successful or even groundbreaking masterpieces.

As the story of Charles and Ray (who often were and are assumed to be brothers) unfolds, we witness a vintage 1956 TV clip from The Arlene Francis Home Show in which Francis struggles to figure out what to make of Mrs. Eames’s appearance on the show as Charles’s business partner. The studio is filled with examples of then already well-known Eames furniture: different versions of the original plywood chair that started it all; examples of their brightly colored fiberglass shell chairs; the welded wire chair with its signature bikini cover; and others. As she interviews them for the debut unveiling of the now-classic Eames Lounge Chair and Ottoman, she tries her best to understand their unorthodox working relationship, both for herself and her viewers, but is clearly puzzled by it. The brief interview clip (also available on YouTube in its entirety) is as much a time capsule of postwar American culture in general (gender attitudes and all) as it is a document of Charles and Ray’s cultural ubiquity during that period. . . .

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