Eames: The Architect and the Painter
Sitting pretty as early gurus of design: Charles and Ray Eames’s philosophy advanced a modern aesthetic
Begin with two highly implausible hypotheticals: that Steve Jobs had been a married couple; and that he (they?) had flourished in the ’50s and ’60s.
Given those two premises, Jobs could very well have been Charles and Ray Eames (Ray’s given name was Bernice). Eames chairs were the iPhones and iPads of their day: cool and personal objects that were as much about style as utility. Like Jobs, the Eameses worked at the intersection of entrepreneurship and design. He made a corporation into a vehicle for promoting a design philosophy (which in turn promoted the corporation). They made a design studio into a vehicle for promoting corporations (which in turn promoted the studio).
Both Jobs and the Eameses advanced the democratization of a functional, modernist aesthetic. The Eameses even had a computer connection, of sorts. For two decades, they did design and promotional work for IBM, striving to give that faceless industrial behemoth a quirky, inviting image more like the one we now associate with, well, Apple.
One of the virtues of Jason Cohn and Bill Jersey’s “Eames: The Architect and the Painter’’ is that that subtitle is the only real attempt they make to categorize the documentary’s subjects. He’s the architect, she’s the painter, though each was a lot more than that, as Cohn and Jersey amply demonstrate.
“It’s the multifaceted nature of the career that is extraordinary,’’ says the curator Donald Albrecht. “We weren’t quite sure what he was,’’ the architect Kevin Roche says of Charles Eames, in words that could apply just as well to Ray, too. “Was he an architect? Was he a designer? Was he a filmmaker? But what he was, obviously, was something we all wanted to be.’’
Who wouldn’t want to have been an Eames? Their studio in Venice, Calif., was a riot of activity from which streamed all sorts of designs of things: furniture and toys and short films and traveling exhibition and architecture. “It was like walking into a circus,’’ says Gordon Ashby, one of the designers who worked there.
The Eamery, as some called it, was highly successful as a business - and, more important, as an exercise in tastemaking. “We wanted to make the best for the most for the least,’’ the Eameses like to say. “Most’’ and “least’’ were relative terms, though. Owning Eames products became an emblem of educated, upper-middle-class life. Why put something on the coffee table for guests to admire when they could admire the coffee table itself?
There’s no rule that high quality, mass consumption, and profitability can’t coincide. But it’s a very tough equation to master. Part of the fascination of the Eameses is their failure to quite bring it off, mass being the impediment. The documentary gives passing attention to this issue, as well as to other such vexing matters as Ray’s pre-feminist relegation to junior partner, Charles’s womanizing, the reluctant doling out of design credit to Eames employees, and the studio’s eager embrace of corporate America (and vice versa). But those are blips in a basically adulatory and very lively look at the documentary’s subjects. Sometimes too lively: Split screens and speeded-up footage have their place (the Eameses used them in their own films), but here they serve to clutter things - and clutter was definitely not an Eamesian design principle.
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.