Eames: the Architect and the Painter

A film by Jason Cohn and Bill Jersey

January 31st, 2012

“Creative Genius” is a moniker that should be bestowed sparingly and reserved for people like Charles and Ray Eames. The husband-and-wife duo who worked with blue-chip clients like IBM, Boeing and Polaroid lead the pantheon of America’s most important and influential designers. Eames: the Architect and the Painter, documents the dazzling array of output from the Eames Office which included their iconic chairs and architecture, but also industrial, graphic and exhibition design, photography, games, toys, and films. Narrated by actor James Franco, the film also elegantly explores the personal dynamics and artistic process of the couple who practically defined what it is to be a designer today.

Charles, an architecture school dropout, and Ray, a painter who had studied with Hans Hofmann, established an office at 901 Washington Boulevard, Venice Beach, which was a creative hub for more than 40 years. Their office was a Renaissance-style studio, or a ‘circus’ as one interviewee dubbed it: every wall and table was covered with graphics, models, visual trees and photographs. The Eames’ story is told through insightful interviews with devoted soldiers of the Eames Office as well as family and friends. The film also unearths archival material including love letters, drawings, photographs and models presenting mesmerizing first-hand documentation of the happenings in the Eames headquarters and a revealing glimpse into the lives and work of a fascinating couple. When their office closed after 40 years, there were over 350,000 photographs and half a million documents on site.

Through these varied means, the filmmakers expertly capture the philosophy of the workplace which was focused on solving problems, learning by doing, and producing – in Charles’ words – “the best for the most for the least”, a motto that practically defines American consumerism. There was an intense devotion to the Eameses – junior designers describe working around the clock, willingly, embracing a spirit of play prevailing from the top down that allowed for much experimentation in the workplace. The film also touches on the murky issue of credit – although their work was largely publicly credited to Charles, testimony from those who worked in the office reveals Ray’s enormous influence on their designs and Charles’ dependence on her aesthetic, deferring to her particularly on matters of colour. In one television interview from the period, the female host blatantly dismisses the idea of Ray as Charles’ equal partner, assuming instead that she must be the ‘woman behind the man’.

Starting with the Eames’ early attempts to mould plywood to craft their life-changing chair, The Architect and the Painter describes the breadth of their wildly varied production and demonstrates their ability to seamlessly integrate beauty and function to create designs that are still revered and have a ubiquitous reach – as the film notes, there’s hardly an issue of Dwell magazine that doesn’t contain an Eames chair. The documentary is also interspersed with images from the Eames’ visually spectacular and immensely innovative films which are a particular revelation – these visual experiments show objects from everyday life elevated to something almost magical using quirky toy-like models and abstractions. Charles and Ray approached all their projects – from chairs to films – with the same spirit of innovative investigation, living Charles’ idea that “eventually, everything connects”.

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