By Caitlyn Collins | February 15, 2012
Directors: Jason Cohn and Bill Jersey
Narrator: James Franco
The Eames name has been in and around Austin, Texas for the last six months or so. The Austin Museum of Art closed down its downtown location with the traveling exhibition, Good Design: Stories from Herman Miller. Down the road in San Antonio, the McNay Art Museum put on George Nelson: Architect, Writer, Designer, Teacher. While neither show focused on Ray and Charles Eames specifically, both designers were at the very least mentioned. Nelson was a contemporary of the Eames and a Herman Miller designer. Having seen both of these exhibitions and gotten to know the time period a bit more, it was with great enthusiasm that I sat down to watch Eames: The Architect & The Painter directed by Jason Cohn and Bill Jersey.
Many have mistaken Charles and Ray Eames for brothers; when, in fact, they were a powerhouse couple both personally and professionally. Their professional and personal partnership is the focus of the documentary. Charles is often described as handsome and charismatic by the various interviewees, including his daughter from his first marriage, Lucia Eames. Ray is painted as the creative brain of the Eames office, having a knack for color as well as design. She studied under Hans Hofmann, a German-born abstract expressionist. Their individual talents came together allowing few, if any, to rival their modern furniture designs.
Eames: The Architect & The Painter, narrated by James Franco, is a journey through the four decades that the Eames office was housed at 901 Washington Boulevard in Venice, California. According to designers such as Gordon Ashby and Tina Beebe, the office was like no other; more circus than traditional work environment, which makes sense given Charles’ fascination with the circus. The goal was to foster creativity and constantly produce ideas.
The office situation was not always cozy, however. Several designers, such as Deborah Sussman and Jeannine Oppewall, spoke of the tensions in the office over creative credit. Charles Eames seems to have reverted to the Renaissance notion of master and apprentice, an idea confirmed later in the documentary by art historian Judith Wechsler. The marriage between Charles and Ray was also not as rosy as they made it appear. Wechsler was actually a mistress of Charles’ at one point. Ray was not only not given enough credit as an essential part of a design team (something quite shocking to see I’m sure, given the time period), but she also had to deal with her husband’s infidelities.
No matter their personal issues, as designers, the Eames ushered in modernity in the post-World War II era. Initially, their designs were meant for comfort, design, and affordability. They perfected the technique for molding plywood, and thus the Eames chair was produced. The royalties from their various chair designs for Herman Miller, Inc. allowed them to focus on other creative projects such as painting, architecture, and films.
Eames: The Architect & The Painter is a well-balanced documentary considering the wealth of material to work from. Ray was known to keep every scrap piece of paper, note, scribble, etc. in case it was needed at a later date. As a result, their archive is immense. The interviewees are all able to give different perspectives on the Eames’ as their backgrounds differ — art critics, architectural historians, designers, family members. The Eames name is synonymous with 20th century design. This is a documentary not to be missed for anyone interested in their influence of modern history.