[Review] Eames: The Architect and The Painter reveals the story of the first couple of modern design through photographs, letters, archive footage and interviews
The story begins in 1940 in St Louis where Charles Eames, together with fellow designer Eero Saarinen, began experimenting with plywood to create a non-upholstered, mass-producible chair, with little success. That same year Charles became acquainted with Ray at Cranbrook, and a year later they married and moved to Los Angeles where their joint career began.
Noticing that leg splints used by the US army in the war were ill-designed, Charles and Ray developed a more ergonomic plywood version which was bought in large quantity by the US Navy. The couple applied their new techniques to chair and furniture design, and so began a 40 year career in product design that also embraced photography, art and architecture.
Whereas most people know the Eameses for their furniture lines, the documentary credits them for their innovative and playful work with film, such as ‘Glimpses of the USA’, shown at the American National Exhibition in Moscow in 1959 and their much-imitated ‘Powers of Ten’ in 1968.
As well as focusing on the Eameses’ work, the film explores the personalities of both designers. Photographs of the couple in eccentric poses or flamboyant clothes show an early awareness of the need for designers to brand themselves, but also reveal the fact that the first couple of American design didn’t limit creativity to furniture design but brought it to all areas of life.
The film also does well in bringing Ray out of Charles’s shadow. In the 1940s and 1950s when their collaboration began, women were not always taken seriously as designers and a clip from the NBC ‘Home’ show in 1956 illustrates this as the female presenter introduces Ray to the audiences as the ‘supportive wife’ behind the ‘successful man’.
However, whereas Charles – with his background in architecture – was more technical, Ray used her artistic knowledge to perfect the aesthetics of products, especially when it came to the use of colour or the composition of photoshoots. She added the vibrancy to Charles’s austere modernism, and it is this co-dependency – both in work and in private – that is the most enduring aspect of the film.