Eames: The Architect and the Painter

Eames: The Architect and the Painter
dir. Jason Cohn & Bill Jersey | USA | 2011 | 83 mins.

Narrated, laconically, by contemporary art-world all-rounder James Franco, Jason Cohn and Bill Jersey’s documentary biography of two mid-century-design titans reveals a considerable amount about how the husband-and-wife team worked—and, most importantly, about how wide-ranging and varied that work was. The film, made for pbsAmerican Masters series, explains that the Eameses—designer Charles and his lesser known wife Bernice (Ray)—were, in fact, a bridge between the post-war industrial age and the information age, even though they didn’t live to see the latter come about fully.

The couple had one major core principle: a desire for creating beautiful, useful objects for the masses—“the best for the most for the least,” as the slogan for one company with which they were closely aligned went. In some ways, their success could only have come about at that particular time in history: after the war, much of the country was becoming upper-middle-class, moving outside the clogged cities; these young, newly suburbanite families had more space in which to live, more leisure time, and more disposable income. To go along with this new lifestyle, they required, essentially, a new aesthetic—“something new for a new society,” the film explains.

The name was (and remains) a by-word for mid-century (industrial) design—a view to which the film critic, screenwriter and director Paul Schrader and other interviewees continually return—but their “creative marriage” produced more than just furniture and renowned works of architecture: the Eames studio was a veritable ‘artistic Disneyland,’ as one former employee says. Ray’s ethos was to accept work in fields or using materials and concepts he knew next to nothing about—he learned by doing, and his designs came out of education, rather than working exclusively in a domain he was familiar with. (One of his most quotable quotes is “Eventually, everything connects.”)

Their filmmaking ran the gamut from experimental to educational, and they worked extensively in the fields of graphic design and fine art. In fact, they were, as one commentator says, participants in the birth of abstract art itself. Although it dwells for its first half on the multi-faceted nature of the studio’s artistic output—and the much-contested subject of whom in the large team should have received credit for said output, instead of just Charles—the film soon comes to focus on Ray Eames, no less creative than her husband but certainly the lesser known of the two.

She was seen as being the woman behind the man—as a TV host espouses in embarrassingly outdated notions in an early interview with the couple—but Ray was, in the words of one interviewee, as much of an “aesthetic genius” as her husband. Changing notions of gender equality and the role of women in the business world are plumbed in depth, but it is the topic of the Eames’ anticipation of the information age that is most fascinating. With their work for IBM and other major corporates as early as 1960, they were part of the humanization of public relations, making them, in one commentator’s words, the Google of their time. Their projects “the Information Machine” and the exhibitions for the World’s Fair and various scientific and art museums—among them “Mathematica” and “The World of Franklin & Jefferson,” made for the bicentennial—were hypertextual long before Tim Berners-Lee developed the www at cern.

From exploring “experimental space” and predicting (with alarming accuracy) the possibilities of the modern personal computer to creating informative and educational Hanna-Barbera like cartoons, the Eames’ work ranged across technical and artistic realms. For those who know very little about the couple aside from the chair and house named for them (or, at the very least, his name—thanks, Christopher Nolan), this film will be eye-opening and informative. Far more than merely the titular architect and painter, the couple’s work pre-saged our hyper-networked culture, and turned a passion for life-long learning into an internationally recognised brand.

The 2012 World Cinema Showcase runs from March 29–April 11 in Auckland; April 5–22 in Wellington; April 19–May 2 in Dunedin, and April 26–May 9 in Wellington.

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