If you appreciate modern design, chances are you are also familiar with some of the iconic furniture created by Charles and Ray Eames – the American husband-and-wife team (sometimes mistaken for brothers) widely recognized for their impact on modern architecture and furniture.
But for most, the story of the work, life, and love of this Renaissance couple – who explored and mastered countless creative media – hides behind their celebrated designs. The 2011 documentary film Eames: The Architect and The Painter changes that, with an approach as entertaining, energetic and multi-faceted as the Eameses themselves.
“We weren’t sure quite what he was – was he an architect, was he a designer, or was he a filmmaker? But what he was obviously was something we all wanted to be,” says one of the interviewees of Charles Eames. Though today the Eameses are called designers, their oeuvre had a far broader scope. Charles never wanted to be known as just a chair designer. He and Ray explored furniture, toys, architecture, exhibitions, photography and film, working not only for the major American furniture producer Herman Miller but also for IBM and even the US Government.
The documentary introduces us to the unbridled curiosity that drove Charles Eames to create a body if work that continues to influence modern design – and American society. But the story is by no means one-sided. One of the film’s big achievements is its honesty: we see Charles and Ray’s genius but also their (few) professional failures as well as the difficult aspects of their relationship, from the gender role trap to Charles’ unfaithfulness.
The film captures Charles and Ray’s universe from countless interesting angles. Yet it feels like one is in short supply: footage of Charles and Ray speaking for themselves. There are countless other interviews, but given how much Charles and Ray loved to film, you expect to see more of them, “live,” on screen. We do see some greats, including the 1950s, pre-Feminism clip of a female TV host awkwardly putting Ray in her traditional place while interviewing her and Charles.
One thing the film isn’t short on is eye candy. It showcases a multitude of brilliant modernist Eames designs, and tells the stories behind some of them, including the Eameses’ first plywood chair. After Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen’s winning design for a Museum of Modern Art competition proved un-manufacturable, Charles and Ray teamed up to develop a well-designed, comfortable, and affordable model that would be suitable for mass production. And they figured out how to do it while creating plywood leg splints for injured soldiers.
After the credits roll, one questions lingers: Is Charles and Ray’s guiding mission of creating “the best for the most for the least” being upheld today? Herman Miller is a high-end, exclusive design source. And while Eames’ work appears in nearly every modern design magazine in the US, it’s not nearly as ubiquitous in average Americans’ homes. The beautiful Eames Lounge Chair, while certainly the best, is not really for the most, for the least.
But here is the upside: once an Eames piece is in one’s home, it’s there for life. As the last half-century has demonstrated, the Eames aesthetic does not grow dated with time. Rather, it seems to continually carve out a more important place in the modern design universe.
Discover a wide range of Eames design classics at great prices at Lauritz.com.
Anastasya Partan, a Boston-based freelance writer, is a guest blogger for Lauritz.com. She was born in Moscow, raised in the US, and has lived in New York, Washington, DC, London, Paris, and Copenhagen. With both a corporate and creative background, she writes for international brands and explores topics related to lifestyle, culture and the arts.