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Eames: The Architect And The Painter
USA 2011
Directed by Bill Jersey / Jason Cohn
Running time 84 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3 stars


Bill Jersey and Jason Cohn’s documentary about Charles Eames and his wife, Ray, is a well-rounded introduction to one of the iconic design teams of American Modernism. As is the wont of such fare these days also serves as somewhat of a revision of the importance of Ray Eames, often assumed to be the brother of her better-known spouse.

Everyone with a even a passing knowledge of 20th Century design will know the Eames chairs, manufactured and distributed by the Herman Miller company, but this film gives us a survey of their wide-ranging output as product designers, architects and somewhat surprisingly, what we would these days probably describe as media and advertising consultants.

Charles Eames who was trained as an architect arrived in California towards the end of World War ii and opened a design studio with his second wife, Ray, a painter. With their motto “the best for the least for the most” they became leading designers of the new suburban housing boom, combining austere Bauhaus functionalism with pleasing decorative appeal. One might say, broadly speaking that Charles was responsible for the former, Ray for the latter.  Their later equally pioneering work for titans of consumer capitalism such as Westinghouse and I.B.M. place them at the forefront of the Modernist utopian American-style.

Whilst serving as a stimulating survey of the Eames’s output, the documentary which is narrated by James Franco also asks questions about the extent to which Charles Eames took the credit for the work of his student emlpyees, and in particular the contribution of his wife. Of course such questions are driven by our more politically-correct, entitled times and do not claim any Machiavellian intent.  Back then young designers were simply happy to work in a creative environment driven by a spirit of creative collaboration. Equally too, the wife-as-handmaid was simply a given, something we see played out in an excruciating 1950s television show on which the couple appeared.  Needless to say the reality was different and a somewhat sad note is introduced by the waning of the Eames marriage and the marginalization of Ray who tried to keep the studio going after the death of the charismatically handsome Charles in 1978 (she died ten years later to the day).

Eames: The Architect And The Painter crams a lot into its short running time and as a result skims the surface of its subject-matter but as an introduction to the Eames oeuvre it is rewarding viewing,

 

 

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