“Was he an architect? A designer? A filmmaker?” asks one of the interviewees in the new documentary Eames: The Architect and the Painter. Charles Eames was all and none of those things at once– and the same could be said for his wife and collaborator Ray (described in the film as “a painter who rarely painted”). What they were, as that interviewee concludes, was “something we all wanted to be.” As the creative heads of the eponymous Eames Office, Charles and Ray created legendary furniture, legendary educational/promotional/art films, legendary living spaces… for any creative person working in the commercial arts in the postwar era of the 20th century, working for the Eameses would be like working for Pixar, Berg, and Frank Gehry all at once.
The Googles and Apples of their day flocked to hire them, too: Boeing, IBM, Polaroid. The Eameses’ practice of promiscuous cross-disciplinary creativity feels, more than a half-century later, as contemporary as those of IDEO, MIT Media Lab, or Google Creative Lab–all of whom the Eames Office arguably inspired. To Charles and Ray Eames, labels like “architect,” “artist,” and “designer” weren’t boxes to confine one’s practice to, but interchangeable lenses through which to view problems, solutions, and the world at large.
The film, directed by Jason Cohn and Bill Jersey, covers all of the Eameses’ greatest hits with aplomb. The prehistory of the iconic Eames Chair (which began as a prizewinning, but ultimately failed, collaboration with Eero Saarinen) is especially fascinating: The manufacturing technology of the 1940s couldn’t realize the chair’s seamless compound curves in molded plywood, so Charles and Ray used a government contract designing splints for World War II soldiers as an R&D lab to solve the fabrication problems themselves. (The solution: strategically placed elliptical holes in the plywood, which released the tension on the curves and also provided useful places to wrap bandages around and through the splints).
But The Architect and the Painter is hardly a hagiography, and Cohn and Jersey’s willingness to probe the Eameses’ (especially Charles’s) less-than-saintly habits gives the film an unexpected edge. Charles may have been a handsome, charismatic goofball, but he could also be maddeningly inarticulate, as well as a notorious hoarder of credit (claiming the entire output of the Eames Office, and its dozens of young creatives, as his own personal handiwork). He was also prone to capricious hiring and firing–one former Eames Office designer recalls Charles pulling him aside to trash-talk a recent hire whom he “just couldn’t stand,” and fired mere days later–and even philandering. A devastating interview near the end of the film with Judith Wechsler, a young filmmaker whom Charles took a shine to, shows a side of the legendary designer that could only be labeled contemptible: According to Wechsler, he courted her right under Ray’s nose and even proposed marriage. The only thing stopping him from throwing Ray and the Eames Office (which he told Wechsler he would close, so they could travel together) under the bus was Wechsler’s own guilt about the betrayal; she rebuffed Charles’s proposal out of loyalty to Ray.
All the same, one can’t watch this film without feeling inspired by the apparently limitless creativity that the Eames Office injected into postwar American culture. This was the golden age of industrial design and corporate communication, when behemoths like Westinghouse and IBM put total creative faith in the Eameses’ whimsically optimistic vision based on nothing but handshake agreements. Think Google’s friendly, cartoon-like ads are innovative? They couldn’t have happened without the Eameses’ even more radical precedent of making animated industrial films about nuclear missile submarines and top-secret mainframe computers; or constructing a solar-powered “do nothing machine” for aluminum manufacturer Alcoa; or a multiscreen Cold War propaganda film for the U.S. State Department whose unapologetically sentimental ending (an image of forget-me-not flowers, courtesy of Ray) made even Nikita Krushchev weep.
Speaking of Ray’s influence: The filmmakers do their best to dismantle the “cult of Charles,” which was a constant source of tension in the Eameses’ practice. Not between Charles and Ray themselves–their collaboration was total and essential to the Eames Office’s success; Charles apparently had an enormous blind spot when it came to color sense and the fine details of art direction, and deferred to her judgment on these and many other creative matters (like the crucial ending of the aforementioned State Department film). He also endeavored to credit her as an equal partner whenever he had the spotlight or a camera on him: “anything I can do, she can do better,” he told a television interviewer. But the postwar era was simply not as progressive as Charles and Ray were themselves, and Ray often operated in Charles’s shadow, despite her husband’s efforts. The simple fact was that when a white male executive from IBM or Polaroid called the Eames Office, they inevitably asked for Charles. It wasn’t until Charles’s death in 1978 that Ray could finally emerge as a force unto herself, and begin to correct the erroneous attributions of so many Eames Office designs to include her name right next to Charles’s.
But as a creative unit (acknowledged as such or not), Charles and Ray’s biggest contribution was conceptual: They showed that “design” could be an art of manipulating ideas, not just materials. They were master communicators, not fabricators. “We don’t make art; we solve problems” was a favorite maxim of Charles, which still sounds perfectly contemporary in the 21st century, 50 years after he said it. “Design thinking” and research strategies, de rigueur now thanks to firms like IDEO, owe a debt to the Eameses philosophy of what one interviewee in the film calls “selling ignorance.” IBM and Westinghouse didn’t hire the Eames Office for its expertise, which would necessarily be limited; quite the opposite. They hired the Eameses for their process of discovery, of admitting that they knew little, and taking that “beginner’s mind” approach to finding design solutions.
Watching this documentary, one can’t help but wish that Charles and Ray were still around. What would an Eames film about climate change look like? What kind of ergonomic office furniture might they design? What kind of interactive media might they conjure up? Our problems are even more interconnected and overlapping than those of the Eameses’ day, and we need their brand of idiosyncratic creative thinking more than ever. Of course we can’t capture the Eameses’ lightning in a bottle again, but maybe films like this one will inspire the Charles and Rays of our century to emerge.