Eames: The Architect and the Painter: Film Review
Jason Cohn, Bill Jersey
The James Franco-narrated documentary looks at husband and wife design team Charles and Ray Eames.
Anyone who has yielded to the luxurious embrace of an Eames lounge chair is well acquainted with its sensual and aesthetic pleasures but Charles and Ray Eames, the husband and wife team behind the enduring classic furniture designs are less familiar.
Their partnership and multifaceted careers -- they’re credited with both reinventing the concept of the chair and putting the playfulness back into modernism -- are explored in Eames: The Architect and the Painter, Jason Cohn and veteran broadcast producer Bill Jersey’s well-crafted, straightforward and insightful documentary. A must for those with an interest in modern design, the film’s portrait of an unconventional marriage during the 1950s, and the alchemy that fueled a professional collaboration between intensely creative personalities, who perfectly complemented one another, should extend its appeal beyond the ranks of subscribers to Architectural Digest and Dwell.
Narrated by James Franco, the First Run Features doc opens theatrically in New York and L.A. November 18, and will have its broadcast premiere December 19 as part of the PBS American Masters series.
Described by those who knew them as a union between “a painter that didn’t paint and an architecture school drop-out who never got his license,” the pair initially dedicated themselves to a utopian vision of promulgating beauty to a broad audience through high quality, low cost, mass produced furnishings. Together they helped transform 20th century design in the post-war era.
A photographer, furniture designer and a filmmaker who made over 100 shorts including the much imitated Powers of Ten, Charles was a charismatic, workaholic visionary driven by a voracious intellectual curiosity. Their Venice, California studio, likened to a circus and Disneyland by those who reminisce about working there, was built on the model of Renaissance art studio with the master at the top of the pyramid and a host of talented assistants executing his vision.
Not surprisingly, Charles often overshadowed his wife but the film goes to some lengths to correct the misperception that he was the only Eames who counted. A painter with a keen design sense, exceptionally gifted in the realm of color and a notorious perfectionist, Ray’s aesthetic contributions to the design process were crucial to their success, a fact not lost on her husband who once acknowledged, “Anything I can do, she can do better.”
She was also an obsessive collector and maker of notes on cigarette papers. Her illustrated letters to Charles, along with some 350,000 photographs and voluminous documents archived at the Library of Congress, and shared with the filmmakers, are a delightful reflection of a teeming creative mind.
The doc incorporates archival photographs, television appearances, clips from Eames’ films as well as footage of the futuristic IBM Pavilion at the 1964 New York World’s Fair and the couple’s trendsetting Pacific Palisades home, perched on a bluff overlooking the ocean and filled with fine art and an evolving collage of objects and contraptions that caught their eye. Family members, historians, critics and fellow artists, who worked with or simply admired them, add pertinent commentary, while editor, Don Bernier, smoothly integrates a wealth of material and contributions by multiple lensers.