Film Review: Eames: The Architect and the Painter

Fascinating documentary about the iconic American design team and their studio that, from the mid-’40s to the present, defined an enduring modernist look, inspired an entrepreneurial ethos, and gave birth to such digitally furthered notions as &#

No, Eames: The Architect and the Painter is not about one gifted polymath. As architects, designers, their devotees and any creative shopper know, the Eameses were architect-turned-designer Charles Eames and his wife Ray, an exhibited artist who studied with abstract impressionist Hans Hoffmann but gave up her painting career for love and partnership with Charles.

The Eameses, who met post-World War II in the East and went West to Los Angeles to build their landmark design business, struggled initially as they focused on Charles’ concept for the modern minimalist chair design that would become an American furniture icon. Their immense challenge was to fold the chair’s plywood in order to achieve its signature curve.

Mission accomplished: The chair, thanks to a partnership with major furniture manufacturer Herman Miller, became wildly popular and is still coveted today. With royalties rolling in, the Eameses expanded their renowned studio (“The Eamery”), situated in a cavernous warehouse on a funky Venice Beach.

At their Renaissance-style studio, operating 24/7 and staffed with outstanding and committed collaborators like Jeannine Oppewall and Gordon Ashby, among several interviewed here, the Eameses grew their furniture design business by using unusual materials like plastic resin and wires. They expanded from unique concepts and products to architecture (most notably, their landmark Newport Beach house which, like homes by Frank Lloyd Wright and Richard Neutra, defined the West Coast style) to mass-audience global installations and exhibitions, thanks to clients like IBM, Westinghouse, Polaroid and the U.S. government. Eames-produced exhibitions included the 1959 “Glimpses of the USA” multiple-screen assault in Moscow and the historic IBM-sponsored “Powers of Ten” project at the 1964 World Fair in Flushing, New York. Their sprawling bicentennial “The World of Franklin and Jefferson” installation foreshadowed the information assault that would culminate in this current digital age.

Not quite in such Eamesian overload, Jason Cohn and vet documentary filmmaker Bill Jersey build a rich portrait of two of the country’s most successful design pioneers and, perhaps not by design, provide clues to how Charles and Ray reached such a pinnacle. Evident throughout their career is the importance of risk-taking, unbounded creativity across several disciplines, passion for the tasks at hand, and hard work and focus to get the jobs done. Also apparently integral to the success equation are functionality and an understanding of users and viewers. And, as evidenced by the tremendous early popularity of the Eames chair, money too had something to do with it.

Their special collaboration was the foundation for the empire: Charles, the consummate craftsman and strategist, and the artistically gifted Ray, especially adept at color and visual flair, were a fortuitous yin and yang.

They come across more creatively than ego-driven, but were all too human. In addition to their professional collaboration, Charles and Ray were also a model of personal partnership—at least until Charles started fooling around. Still, the union held until Charles’ death in 1978. (Uncannily clinging to ties that bind, Ray died ten years later to the day.)

In addition to rarely seen interviews with Charles and Ray, the filmmakers (and therefore audiences) are blessed by a wealth of archival material: home movies, promo and “arty” films by the couple, news and public-TV footage, photos, love letters, sketches, artifacts, etc.

Cohn and Jersey also had access to some of the more renowned “Eamery” staffers and Charles’ daughter Lucia (from his first marriage) and grandson Eames Demetrios. Also weighing in are Eames fans and collectors like writer-director Paul Schrader, TED conference founder Richard Saul Wurman and noted architect Kevin Roche. Even luminaries like Buckminster Fuller and Billy Wilder pay tribute in archival clips.

This doc also benefits from the fact that so much of the four-decade output from the hyperactive studio was visually stunning. The Eames’ innovative ideas and energy brought aesthetic refinement to functionality that reached both designers and the masses. As Charles put it, “We don’t do art, we solve problems.” Maybe modesty too played a role in their success.