…a love story @ EAMES: The Architect and The Painter documentary by Jason Cohn and Bill Jersey

Charles and Ray Eames and some of their famous chairs

Architects and other designers know Charles and Ray Eames by their famous chairs. Non-designers might recognise the chairs having sat on them but most people will not associate them with the creators’ names. Another common occurrence is that some might know the Eames by name but think that Ray was Charles’ brother. Of course Charles and Ray Eames were not brothers they were husband and wife and business partners. This documentary focuses on their professional lives and achievements but also reveals plenty of information about their personalities and relationship as most probably they would not have accomplished what they did if they had not met each other.

Charles was an architecture school drop-out but an undoubtedly charismatic and confident man who needed no formal accreditation in order to start his own architectural practice. He already had a family and an office when he was invited to teach industrial design and further his studies at Cranbrook University where Ray was an art student. Soon after they met they got married and opened their office. In the film many former employees of the Eames practice speak of how it was to work for them. The office as they describe it was intensely stimulating because everyone was urged to be experimental and truly creative.

Charles and Ray / bottom left still from ‘Glimpses of the USA panorama’

Naturally in return all employees offered their time generously along with their most inspired ideas which unfortunately were neither appreciated or acknowledged. One of them even attests they were exploited but somehow they were happy to be exploited by those particular people. The Eames apart from being uniquely talented were also exciting to be around and quite impulsive. They ‘spoiled’ the people that worked for them by taking them to the circus, giving them experimental assignments, even playing games during work hours. Life was far from repetitive and boring.

The Eames were also quite eccentric. One of their friends shared a story of a night he was invited to their house for dinner and was ‘served’ flower arrangements to look at, for dessert.

The documentary in general is beautifully made and keeps the viewer’s interest from start to finish with anecdotes about how the creative duo developed the famous designs. The Eames were clearly very ambitious. They worked for IBM which apparently was the ‘Google’ of their time and thus increased both their fame and income.

The practice was also very prolific in film-making. The short film ‘Power of ten’ was shown for decades in schools within maths and science classes and precedes its time both contextually and in aesthetics by offering information to the viewer in an accelerated pace similar to today’s internet experience.  They also made a number of promotional videos for IBM and a 7-screen panorama called ‘Glimpses of the USA that was shown in Moscow in the midst of Cold war. It was a cultural exchange attempt that aimed to ameliorate the diplomatic relations of the two countries.

Regardless of their professional success the Eames faced plenty of personal problems. For example Ray was deeply disappointed and hurt because her contribution to the practice was not truly appreciated. Charles was more in the spotlight and during the early years she was mainly considered the ‘woman behind the man’. Gender inequality issues and Charles’ charismatic personality that naturally made him shine, tore the duo apart both professionally and as a couple.

Charles and Ray Eames/bottom right their house they designed themselves

However what is made clear in the documentary is that Charles and Ray Eames were contemporary Renaissance people. They were artists, researchers, architects, scientists, problem-solvers, film-makers, pioneers. Each one inspired and complemented the other and for many years they were hugely creative and had loads of fun together. They became the epitome of what is to be a designer. One might say that their whole lives inspired the ‘lifestyle’ concept that suggests how to dwell, decorate, dress play and be creative all wrapped up into one. As one of the interviewees states at the beginning of the film, it was unclear if Charles was ‘an architect, a designer or a film-maker but what he was obviously, was something we all wanted to be’.

Eames chairs

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