Innovators have always been figures of fascination for us mere mortals. From Henry Ford through to Steve Jobs, these agents of change have always been portrayed as singular, brilliant and male but in the 1940’s a married couple – Charles Eames (an architect) and Ray Eames (a painter) burst onto the scene and together changed the face of modern architecture and design. In Jason Cohn and Bill Jersey’s sparky new documentary Eames: The Architect & The Painter we gain an insight into this mysterious duo via interviewers with friends and ex-employee’s as well material from the Eames’ themselves who were obsessive chroniclers of their own creativity; keeping thousands of letters, notes of outlines of design ideas, worries, schedules, shopping lists and research films.
We really get a feel for Charles and Ray, who were initially mistaken for brothers because of their names, as being as important as Steve Jobs because of their innovative mix the practical and the aesthetic which made a massive impact which still reverberates through every aspect of contemporary life. What did they create, exactly? In furniture, the Eames’ pioneered technologies such as fiberglass and resin chairs, the Eames lounge chair, The DCW (Dining Chair Wood) and DCM (Dining Chair Metal with Plywood) – basically everything you see in every super villain’s home an the airport designs in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is pure Eames. One oddity that perfectly illustrates the peculiar ‘design for design’s sake’ motto was the ‘Do-Nothing’ Machine. It was an early solar energy experiment which was essentially a solar powered toy that did nothing. Charles Eames’ zen-like explaination for this was ‘It is not supposed to do. It is supposed to be.’
The Eames own home is a landmark of mid-twentieth century modern architecture. Designed in the De-Stijl style, the Eames House, or Case Study House #8, was the talk of the architectural world when it was bulit in the Pacific Palasades in 1949. It made them icons of a modern movement and the house which they actually lived in was included in the LA Times list of the Top 10 houses in Los Angeles. If all this talk of furniture and gadgets that do nothing has got you film fans heading for the exit, hold back, the Eames’ also made films. Cohn and Jersey turn to screenwriter & director Paul Schrader (writer of Taxi Driver & Raging Bull) who, as a film journalist, visited the Eames Office to see their films, to tell us how groundbreaking their films were. The Eames’ made experimental short films that discarded narrative and used the medium to try out visual ideas. The most notable of their films was Powers of Ten which was a short documentary film in which began in a suburban home then zoomed out to the edge of the universe which predated Google Earth by 40 years and was a trick that has been appropriated by filmmakers ever since.
As well as documenting the litany of the Eames’ many marvels, Cohn & Jersey do not steer away from the darker aspects of The Eames’ couple. Just like Apple or Disney, the house of ideas that was the Eames Office – a hotbed of the world’s most brilliant and hungry young designers – did not share credit. The many innovative designs of their employees went out in the Eames name instead of it’s true creator and many designers who found themselves on the wrong side of Charles’ quirky personality got the chop. Ray too, who was an equal collaborator and indispensable to the work was publicly pushed to the sidelines due to the pervasive sexism of the age. Eames: The Architect & The Painter is a treasure trove of inspiration for designers and a light primer on an intriguing couple and moment of American history but inquiring minds will find this documentary more of a pleasing entree into the world of the Eames’ and industrial design but anybody looking for something substantial will not find it here.