DVD Review: Eames: The Architect & The Painter (2011)
Eames: The Architect & The Painter is a case of a really interesting subject matter told in a rather by-the-numbers fashion. It’s a well-organized look at husband and wife team Charles and Ray Eames, whose influences in architecture and design you are no doubt familiar with, though you may not realize it. Their chair designs became a staple of modern furniture in the 1950s and beyond. They made scores of them. Today you can hardly walk through any airport and not see their influence if not their exact models.
This is not a documentary about chair makers, however. The Eameses were artists from top-to-bottom and together they dabbled in filmmaking, photography, exhibits and architecture. Charles Eames began his artistic ambitions as an architect, his wife Ray as a painter. But their work together and that of their infamous bustling studio, “the 901” (on Washington Blvd. in Venice, California) was a wide-ranging collage of artistic design endeavors. They saw these endeavors as extensions of their initial passions. Film was an extension of painting. Exhibits in their space were an extension of architecture.
What made their artistic careers so fascinating was the diversity of their work.
What made their artistic careers so fascinating was the diversity of their work. A number of interviewees almost lament the point, had they made only furniture, had they made only films, had they concentrated solely on architecture… oh, what could have been. But it is because their interests were so diverse that they were held in such high regard. Their studio was packed with sculptures and photos and film sets and paintings and architectural models, young artists would pour in through the doors anxious to take up work for the great Charles and Ray Eames at the 901.
Famous initially for their modern take on the chair (Time Magazine called it “the greatest design of the 20th Century”), fast-forward years later and Charles and Ray are working on an animated film for IBM to help humanize the brand (paranoia over machined intelligence did not begin with Skynet). Their exhibition, Mathematica: A World of Numbers… and Beyond is still in existence at the California Museum of Science and Industry. One of their great film contributions is The Powers of Ten, a visual concept used in countless espionage thrillers today.
During the Nixon era they were charged with making a film for the U.S. government for a joint exhibition with the Soviet Union. The idea was for the two Cold War antagonists to showcase their country for the other peoples’, so that both the Soviet Union and the United States could see what separates and makes the other country great and what makes them the same (it also led to the famous Nixon-Khruschev “Kitchen Debate”).
The Eames’ motto was simple: “the best for the least for the most”. This liberal mandate is juxtaposed against their more commercial endeavors with the likes of IBM and Westinghouse. Charles and Ray took on projects that interested them. And they seamlessly worked through projects both commercial and independent. But every project small or large, contracted or not were personal. Every project was blood, sweat and tears.
Jason Cohn and Bill Jersey for not succumbing to the rosiest picture of the couple.
The DVD is short on features but does contain seven deleted scenes, all interesting extra layers to the story of Charles and Ray (there is one particular deleted scene with TED founder, Richard Saul Wurman, that probably should have stayed in the film). Credit must be given to directors Jason Cohn and Bill Jersey for not succumbing to the rosiest picture of the couple. At the 901 studio, there was many a young artist who made significant contributions to many of their lauded designs only to receive none of the credit. The film also touches on Charles’s infidelity, not a passing footnote in the life of the celebrated artist, not the least for Ray Eames.
All in all, Eames: The Architecht & The Painter is successful as an eye-opening look at a pair of artists that helped shape the 20th century. And though the documentary is not without its visual flourishes, there is so much artistic life on display in the film that you can’t help but wish the filmmakers had at least approached the imagination of their subjects. Admittedly, a tall order.