Film on Charles and Ray Eames a winner [MOVIE REVIEW]

He understood function, they understood form, and she understood color. He was the concept, she was the artist, and together Charles and Ray Eames formed the very definition of conceptual artist. In “EAMES the architect and the painter,” Jason Cohn and Bill Jersey unspool the career of Ray and Charles Eames, because, as what becomes very clear, it was the single career of two people inextricably bound in their art and ideas that gave shape to what came to be thought of as modern American design.

An architecture school drop-out, Charles Eames’ first important collaboration was with his friend Eero Saarinen, who would himself become one of the most important architects of the midcentury. What became known as the Eames Chair designed by Charles and Ray, had its origins in a chair designed by Charles and Eero for a contest sponsored by the Museum of Modern Art. Convinced they could create a shell shaped to the body by molding plywood in two directions, they were foiled by the glues and tools of the time. Nevertheless, they won the contest and the concept stayed with Eames when he continued on his path as a designer at the Cranbrook Academy of Art where he met Ray Kaiser, an artist and student of Hans Hoffman, the great abstract expressionist painter. Soon after, Eames divorced his first wife and married Ray, forming a life/work partnership that endured in one form or another for 37 years.

Moving to California in 1941, Charles and Ray continued to work on his original concept of molding plywood, a trial and error project that led first to the invention of the modern splint that cradled, immobilized and supported the injured limb and revolutionized care on the battlefields of World War II. Using the knowledge they gained in shaping the wood for splints, they were eventually able to overcome earlier problems and in 1946 created what came to be known as the “Eames Chair,” arguably the most iconic piece of American furniture designed in the 20th Century. The design was simple and mass production made it affordable, thereby fulfilling what they considered to be their mandate: “make the best for the most for the least.” The Herman Miller Company entered the picture to market and sell the furniture-related output of the Eames’ studio at 901 Washington Boulevard in Venice, California, putting booth Miller and Eames solidly on the map. Other products followed, all close collaborations between Charles and Ray, along with the assistance, sometimes to a greater degree than was recognized, by their colleagues at 901 Washington, or the “Eamery” as some chose to call it.

Charles was the very charismatic leader of the group, although, as he said about Ray, “Anything I can do, she can do better.” She had the esthetic sensibility and without it, his designs would have been quite sterile. It was, however, the 1950s, the quintessential era of “the man of the house” and the “woman behind the man,” and Ray, less outgoing, became less and less acknowledged for the critical role she played, as illustrated by a 1958 clip pulled from “The Arlene Francis Home Show” where the hostess seems to officially christen Ray Eames the “woman behind the man,” an epithet that would seem to follow her publicly until Charles’ death, although Charles himself always considered Ray to be his equal partner.

The Eames’ collaboration extended far beyond furniture as they expanded to photography, film making and multimedia exhibitions both for themselves and for other clients. They became, in a sense, marketing experts, translating concept and function into application. The multi-media exhibit “Mathematica” is still shown today; their film “Powers of Ten” is a continuing educational tool.

Charles Eames died on August 21, 1976, but the work of the studio was carried on under Ray’s leadership until her death, exactly ten years later on August 21, 1986. With the shifting of views and more understanding of the work, Ray has finally been publicly recognized for the influence and partner that she was.

Written and directed by Jason Cohn and Bill Jersey, “EAMES the architect and the painter” is a truly outstanding documentary. Captivating, well edited, colorful, with an exciting story to tell, this is a film that should be seen by anyone who has ever sat on an Eames creation (or one of its knock-offs) and that would be everyone. Go see it and then enjoy “California Design 1930-1965: Living in the Modern World,” the new exhibition at the Los Angeles County Art Museum. Opening Friday, November 18 at the Laemmle Music Hall.


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