Beyond the illustrious modernist chair, Jason Cohn and Bill Jersey’s Eames: The Architect & The Painter unseats the man and wife design team with an illuminating bio-doc.
Eames: The Architect & The Painter
A Design For Life by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Perhaps more than for the celebrated Eames chair, husband and wife design duo Charles and Ray Eames should be remembered as crafters of a pithy aphorism. Alongside their non-negotiable attitude towards play – “Take your pleasure seriously”, their mass-production mantra, “to make the best for the most for the least”, fed into their democratic, business-minded approach to both work and life. Their studio in Venice, California was like a Bauhaus school of design – part cinema, part film studio – and filled to the rafters with curios picked up on life’s journey. And while “Eames” may have been the signature undersigning much of the group’s work, the constant stream of eager students didn’t prevent Charles and Ray from working hard at the conceptual end of design, under their cautionary maxim “Do not delegate understanding.” The husband and wife team were a perfect combination of Charles’ engineered designs and Ray’s artistic aptitude for colour and placement, and Jason Cohn and Bill Jersey’s Eames: The Architect & The Painter is an enlightening insight into the essence of “Eames” – architect, painter and studio.
Inspired in 1940 by the New York Museum Of Modern Art’s competition Organic Design in Home Furnishings, Charles designed a new chair, together with Eero Saarinen, based on the pioneering plywood moulding of Alvar Aalto. It was designed to be moulded to the body in compound curves and mass produced – a comfortable chair for everyone. And despite winning, the chair – which was originally conceived in one piece – was prone to splintering, and had to be covered with upholstery for the competition show. But when the USA entered World War II, and following the experience Charles gained fulfilling a government contract for manufacturing curved wooden splints for the war effort, the secret was cracked and the chair could finally go into production. The chair in MOMA, which was to become the first of many Eames chairs, was credited solely to Charles. And replacing his one-time architectural partner Saarinen with wife Ray, he founded his own design studio in Los Angeles. With a delegation of would-be democratic designers at their fingertips, they created an extensive and eclectic mix of home products, from four-legged furniture to children’s toys, with Charles in charge of design and Ray responsible for colour and juxtaposition.
It was Ray who provided the interior design for their cantilevered home in Pacific Palisades, filling the concrete-and-glass modernist building with a cascade of blue and white crockery, and hanging tumbleweed and Hans Hoffmann paintings from their ceiling. Charles deferred to Ray’s sense of colour, and Ray’s gift for position, palettes and patterns was more than just a woman’s touch; theirs was a more-or-less equal partnership of clearly defined roles. As a working woman in the Fifties however, the designer consort would often be relegated to the shadows. Following the release of the Eames Chair #2, a leather-upholstered lounge chair, Charles and Ray appeared on The Arlene Francis Show, Ray sitting tight and looking pretty, very much in her husband’s shadow. Described by one pundit as a “delicious dumpling in a doll’s dress”, Ray was always behind Charles, and it wasn’t until after Charles’ death in 1978 that Ray ventured out of her trinket-filled office to take the helm of Studio 901.
Charles Eames may not have been the most articulate, often befuddling colleagues and clients in a cloud of words, but he was extraordinarily charismatic, described here as design’s answer to Henry Fonda. He also had a tremendous work ethic in which life, love and work fed into each other as an insoluble circular equation. His sole objective was to enjoy himself, which meant working all the time. And while he swallowed up the limelight with his easygoing charm and talent for modernist shapes, he wanted to be more than just a chair designer. And just as in a medieval renaissance studio, Charles was happy to hand over the design of quadruped furniture to his eager apprentices. Instead, the master would immerse himself in filmmaking and grand abstract projects, contracted by both the US Government and multi-million-dollar corporations. The Eameses were America’s best mythmakers, soft-core cold warriors responsible for designing much of the American National Exhibition in Moscow’s Sokolniki Park in 1959, the USA’s consumerist riposte to the Soviet Exhibition held in the States earlier that year. Boasting the latest in consumer goods and electronics, Krushchev and Nixon held their infamous Kitchen Debate in an Eames kitchen, and the show was crowned by a seven-screen film Glimpses Of The USA, the American dream conveyed in highway junctions, children heading to school and parents kissing their children goodnight.
The Eameses were the go-to marketeers for heavyweight businesses like Westinghouse and Boeing, uniquely gifted in simplifying and humanising the capitalist message, creating the Do-Nothing machine, a solar-powered showcase for aluminium of snaking axels and spinning dials. Like a modern-day version of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Vetruvian Man, their IBM sponsored film Powers Of Ten explores a geometric theory of relativity with man entirely at its centre. And the Eames studio’s tenure with IBM endured with the The Information Machine, a radical cartoon humanising the computer while charting the progress of human understanding and complex machines, Mathematica – an interactive exhibition of calculating machines, as well as the company’s pavilion at New York’s World Fair in 1964, another multimedia presentation on 22 screens demonstrating the logic of computing. But Eames’ intellectual career culminated in The World Of Franklin and Jefferson exhibition, a vast, maximalist tying together of connections, like hypertext before the internet and in real time and space. Like his short film Tops, Charles Eames’ strokes of genius were often the manipulation of an idea – winding it up, throwing it down and watching it spin.
There was little room for Ray though in Charles’ conceptual realm of science and mathematics, and with her obsessive note-making and hoarding she withdrew into her wonderland of knickknacks, stuffing paper and objet alike into her pockets sewn all the way to the hem, until succeeding as head of the Eames empire. Despite Charles’ affairs, Ray’s crippling perfectionism and a circus-like approach to work, the Eames studio was a Modernist precursor of Warhol’s Factory. And with the husband and wife team’s playfulness and hospitality, once serving a vase of flowers for guests as a ‘visual dessert’, they created an encyclopaedia of furniture to bring pleasure to the masses. Cohn and Jersey’s film doesn’t have quite the same intellectual calibre, and their chronological recounting of the Eames story is unable to draw the same intelligence of connections as Eames can with his maximalist tenet ‘eventually everything connects.’ It’s an attempt to go beyond the chair, beyond the sleek design into the messiness of living. And while the wealth of information is edifying, the construction splinters under the burden of its weighty subject. Placing biography over design, Eames: The Architect And The Painter is unlikely to inspire future furniture-makers, but it does stretch us beyond the plywood mould.
Eames: The Architect And The Painter is released in the UK on 3rd August