If you’ve ever wondered about the personal and professional partnership between the brilliant Charles and Ray Eames, there’s a documentary film currently playing in select theaters about the Eameses that might be for you–it certainly was for me. Recently, Herman Miller invited a large group of designers, architects, press, and friends to a special screening of “Eames: The Architect and the Painter” at New York’s IFC Center, and the audience, myself included, responded with enthusiastic applause at the end of the show.
Produced by Jason Cohn and Bill Jersey, the doc gives glimpses into the personal lives (and sometimes troubled marriage) of the couple, but mostly focuses on each of their idiosyncrasies and eye for things, and how those informed their work and collaboration. In short, the film is about a true partnership, where each individual brought something to the table that, when combined, often culminated in artistic genius. This wasn’t just about their molded plywood chair for Herman Miller, their landmarked house in California, or the playful patterns of Ray’s textiles. The film offers insight into their context and times, and their idealistic view that modern design could act as a catalyst for social change.
That ideal went beyond design: Charles and Ray delved into other creative disciplines such as photography and film. Notably, their “Glimpses of the USA,” characterized by information overload, was a powerful cinematic centerpiece at an exhibition in Moscow in 1959. Shown on seven screens, the film visually communicated to the Russian public and government what everyday American life was like in that era–a precursor, perhaps, to today’s communication arts, once again demonstrating the Eames’s genius.
I worried at first when I saw actor James Franco’s name appear in the opening credits, as I don’t really think of his voice and inflection as the “documentary type.” However, I was pleasantly surprised with his narration, which didn’t distract me at all. The more powerful sound-bytes, though, were the firsthand accounts and quips by designers who worked at the Eames Office, the couple’s grandson Eames Demetrios, and other friends and acquaintances. Their reminiscing and interjections often brought laughter, tears, smiles, and contemplation to the faces of most of us in the audience that evening. One of the interviewees, for instance, recalls how dinner at the Eames house was followed by a beautifully composed floral arrangement as “dessert” for the guests, and he humorously (with an expletive) described how ticked off he was because he had been famished that day!
Though the people interviewed for the documentary offered great perspective on the couple, the film’s imagery of the Eames’s work, archival scenes from the maddening spectacle of the Eames Office, and personal letters and doodles speak even louder of their brilliance and creative process. And observations on their personal lives and relationship, though fascinating to me, seemed more like a side note in this production. Ultimately, I thought the film was excellently done and could appeal equally to design gurus and the uninformed. I highly recommend it to anyone who’s not seen it. The theaters currently screening Eames are located across the country, so chances are it might be at a theater near you. View the dates and locations here: www.firstrunfeatures.com/eames_playdates.html.
If you can’t make it to a theater, you can also look out for the DVD, which supposedly comes out just a few weeks from now, just in time for the holidays.
Images from top: Charles and Ray Eames posing on a Velocette motorcycle, 1948. The DCW molded plywood dining chair, 1946. Ray and Charles Eames examining the sling locations to be covered by fabric lapping in a prototype of the Aluminum Group lounge chair, 1957. All images Copyright 2011 Eames Office, LLC.