What can you do with a chair? If you’re Charles and Ray Eames, you build a design legacy, transform consumer culture, and use a piece of furniture to embody a love affair characterized by collaboration, competition and conflict.
If you are writer/producer Jason Cohn and veteran broadcast producer Bill Jersey, you use a chair as inspiration for Eames: The Architect and the Painter, a fascinating documentary about the Eameses and their off-kilter relationship.
The husband-and-wife team — Charles Eames, an architect who never received a degree and Ray Eames, a painter whose hyperactive creativity meant she rarely wielded a paintbrush — molded fun, fashion and science around the rear ends of post-World War II populations. Their design studio, at 901 Washington Blvd. in Venice, California, turned an address into an announcement, hollering “the best for the most for the least” to anyone who might listen.
Inside the Eameses’ futuristic offices — eerily suggestive of open-architecture complexes like the headquarters of Google and Facebook — the goal was learning first, design to follow. What began as a failed prototype of compound plywood curves and limited upholstery turned, in the hands of the Eames and their bucketload of innovative designers, into a tsunami of creativity.
The results? An extensive furniture line, a radical Pacific Palisade hideaway, 100 films, 350,000 photos, countless love letters and handwritten notes and an iconic philosophy best described as “information overload.”
Capturing the vast array of the Eameses’ influence and innovation on film, the documentary is a perfect example of art imitates life imitates art.
“The script developed in two phases,” says Cohn, during an interview before the movie’s West Coast premiere this Friday. “We had to write a bullshit script for fundraising purposes. For that, you focus on a lot of experts. When you actually sit down with a camera, what you end up with is much different and emerges through the process.”
The documentary provides enough insights to satisfy design geeks, but never abandons the narrative arc at its core. Charles and Ray accomplished a notoriety similar to Steve Jobs, but they did it during the 1950s, when men stormed across the world’s stages and women mostly operated in their shadows. The bitter taste of Ray’s life as the mistaken lesser of two equals glares intermittently throughout the film, as seen in a broadcast hosts’ sexist dismissal and back-stories shared by Eames office designers.
That the filmmakers were able to gather intimate, first-hand accounts — especially from the Eameses’ grandson, Eames Demetrios, who speaks with surprising candor — is evidence of just how fine a film Cohn and Jersey have made.
“Demetrious had taken over the Eames’ office right around the time we approached them,” Cohn says. “I think other people had been rejected in the past. He was just willing to let down his guard and allow someone from the outside to come in.”
A gritty, textured portrait results from the filmmakers’ complete freedom to include critical commentary, covering everything from architect Kevin Roche’s “What the hell is wrong with these people?” when served a bowl of flowers for dessert to accounts of Charles’ perfectionism and love affairs to Ray’s eccentric, shades-of-OCD note taking.
‘They couldn’t go through life with a dead eye.’
The documentary’s tremendous visuals are intelligently curated. Don Bernier’s sharp editing avoids the tyranny of large numbers and never overplays the film’s colorful, brilliant examples.
Drawing from The Films of Charles & Ray Eames, a six-DVD set that first inspired Cohn, snippets from the Eameses’ Disneyland-goes-to-the-circus films speak to the duo’s continuing influence decades after their deaths. Their 1977 film The World of Franklin and Jefferson, with its layered, weblike presentation of text and imagery, resembles nothing more than the internet in 3-D.
Cohn, unveiling his own love affair with the Eames and the documentary’s essence, insists on telling one final story.
“It’s not in the film, but people who knew her said walking down a street with Ray in Manhattan, she couldn’t go more than 20 feet without squealing at something that caught her fancy in a visual way. They were changed forever by that. After that, they couldn’t go through life with a dead eye anymore; they couldn’t see things with anything but a child’s eye.”
Photos from Eames: The Architect and the Painter courtesy First Run Features.