It all began with the moulded plywood chair. Voted by Time Magazine as the greatest design of the 20th Century, and conceived for a competition at MoMA in 1940 with Eero Saarinen, Charles and Ray Eames attempted to reinvent the very idea of the chair. They wanted to mass-produce compound curves without any upholstery, for which they first experimented with plywood splints for the wounded military during World War II. A new film has been released, produced by Jason Cohn and Bill Jersey and narrated by actor James Franco, that is the first to document their life and work since their death. It was created as part of PBS’s American Masters, an award winning biography series that celebrates arts and culture with documentary film profiles. The film also begins with the moulded plywood chair, but goes on to tell a far more complex story, as I found out at the UK premiere held at the Vitra showroom during Clerkenwell Design Week.
Charles and Ray Eames weren’t just furniture designers; they were also artists, photographers and filmmakers, and most crucially, a couple. These weren’t job descriptions to them; they were a way of life. Charles and Ray were experts in creating an image of themselves; they became a cultural symbol of the ideal modern couple through their use of eccentric clothes and playful photographs. The film strips back these smiling publicity images with the help of lost love letters and archived material, to reveal the highs and lows of a couple bonded by both love and work. Accompanying interviews with family members and junior designers at “The Eamery” as they nicknamed it, give an intimate and candid view into the husband-and-wife team of 40 years.
The film focuses on 901, Washington Boulevard; the Eames’ unconventional studio conceived in a warehouse off Venice Beach, California. Described by former employees as a ‘circus’, the fascinating archival footage shows an informal environment with every kind of object on every kind of surface. Charles and Ray advocated ‘take your pleasure seriously’, a maxim that carried through their design process of learning by doing, but never delegating understanding. They sought to ‘make the best, for the most, for the least’, a design ethos concerned with a way of thinking and living, that soon became embodied in their marketing campaigns for their furniture.
This was the time of Mad Men and archaic sexual politics, when the feminist consciousness hadn’t found a voice. In interviews, we always see Ray quietly stood behind her partner, despite Charles’ emphasis on their collaborative effort. The film challenges the assumption that Charles was the main designer by successfully documenting the frustrations of authorship and control, both with Ray and the other designers at the Eames office. The documentary highlights that it was precisely because they collaborated together as a couple that they were so successful. As is evident in the ironic title and also in the narration of the film, it is impossible to separate the two and their different roles in the design process. Charles was an architectural school dropout who never got his licence, and Ray was a painter who rarely painted. Instead, they became a brand, designing large-scale exhibitions and shooting quirky films, making a name for Boeing, IBM, Polaroid and Herman Miller in the process. As the narrator, James Franco says, ‘they wanted to work for the Google of their time’.
Now on DVD at First Run Features.
All images courtesy of Eames Office, LLC.