‘[Is design] a creation of an individual?’- Madame L’Amic of the Musee des Art s Decoratifs in Paris, 1969.
‘No — because to be realistic one must always admit the influence of those who have gone before.’ – Charles Eames, 1969.
In the documentary film ‘Eames: The Architect and Painter,’ Charles Eames, whose biomorphic plastic chair and the rectilinear Eames House in the Pacific Palisades area, were among last century’s most enduring icons of Modernist design, occasionally is shown foundering for the precise expression, the clarity of his desires and intention for design.
The 84-minute film, a marvelously detailed and efficiently paced biography of Charles and Ray Eames directed by Jason Cohn and Bill Jersey, also is a worthwhile primer on the wonderfully mysterious yet still perfectly comprehensible interplay and polyphony of personality in the creative aspects of good, functional design.
The film is being screened by the Utah Film Center Tuesday, Oct. 23, at 7 p.m. in the main auditorium of the City Library in downtown Salt Lake City. The screening, part of the second annual Salt Lake Design Week, will feature a discussion with Eames Demetrios, grandson of the famous couple and principal of the Eames Office. (NOTE: Photos below are of Charles Eames’ office, top, and Ray Eames’ office.)
Narrated by actor James Franco, the First Run Features release, which premiered last year and was broadcast as part of the PBS American Masters series, includes an impressively diverse array of interviews with family members, design and art historians, colleagues and fellow artists as well as plenty of clips from television appearances and films that the Eames Office produced for many clients, including IBM at the 1964 New York World’s Fair. The pace is brisk, mainly because there are so many objects and archival materials that chronicle the Eames’ legacy and its development in an intelligible, historically significant way.
The secondary story surrounding the couple’s complex relationship emerges with nearly equal valence, as it underscores the interpersonal dynamics that drive, extend, and even limit the potential results of creative collaboration involving two or more individuals with distinctly powerful senses of art, aesthetics, and design. Of particular note is the discussion surrounding the difficulty many had during the 1950s in comprehending the valuable partnership role Ray played in the Eames enterprise. As one of the interviewees says in the film, “Ray knew what was art and what was not…Charles depended on her aesthetic sense.”
And, as we learn in the film, the complexity of that relationship became even more difficult to comprehend when Charles’ love for another woman was serious enough for him to consider leaving his marriage with Ray. The directors handle this aspect with a responsibly understated tone so that it does not overtake the larger thematic arc in the film which focuses on the ways in which individuals cultivate and nourish each other’s abilities and senses for creating designs that work artistically and functionally.
It also should be noted that, at the time, even the media or observers that one might believe to be more sophisticated or enlightened about equality in the professional world were as prone to falling in line with the conventions of the 1950s. This has been confirmed by several historians and scholars who have studied the role of women artists in the Modernist movement. Beatriz Colomina, an architecture historian at Princeton University, wrote of one incident, not cited in the film, where a female New York Times reporter wrote an apology to Ray Eames after a copy editor had redacted references to Ray from an article she had written about the Eames Office. Likewise, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City downplayed Ray’s credit in exhibitions featuring the Eames work, even despite the expressed frustration of Charles.
To wit, even in 1952, more than a decade after their collaboration began, Charles specifically cited Ray for her importance at a speech:
‘My wife is a painter, and a very good one… and we’ve been working together for, oh, twelve years now, I guess… and at first I used to help and criticize things she was doing, and then she would help and criticize things I was doing, and we would … pitch in and do all the jiggering for each other and get it as people do…and then, gradually, things began to get shuffled, and pretty soon you didn’t know, sort of, where one started and the other ended, and anything that we’ve looked at or talked about here, you know, I say that I’m doing it, but actually, she’s doing it just as much as I am.’
And, it is that sentiment which drives the film’s epiphany. We know that Ray’s sense of color and composition were integral to the Eames Office activities. And, as for design, Charles could be quite lucid in his straightforward philosophy about the Eames process. In the same 1969 interview as cited above – which later became incorporated in a short Herman Miller film about design – Charles is clearly satisfied that he has been able to practice design under satisfactory, if not even optimal, conditions. When asked if he has ever been forced to accept compromises, his response is elegantly simple and substantive: ‘I have never been forced to accept compromises but I have willingly accepted constraints.’
The Eames Office still operates today, run by Charles’ daughter, designer Lucia Eames, and her five children, releasing their designs in furniture, film, video and other media as well as a new generation of products.
And, as for the iconic chairs, their value has grown to flattering dimensions. A prototype chair can be expected to fetch easily six figures or up to $150,000.
Find Today's Daily Deal on the Best in Salt Lake City!