Eames: The Architect and The Painter

by eames on December 19, 2011

For alot of Eames fans, Christmas comes tonight. It is the national PBS airing of the new documentary–Eames: The Architect and the Painter. I hope you get a chance to see it.

And I have shared a few comments about the film earlier on this blog:

Our family statement
Appearing at the screening in New York
Personal dimensions of the film
And just posted about 10 clips that celebrate Charles and Ray’s work and ideas

But people keep asking me what I think of the PBS movie, so I thought it take a crack at it. What are my thoughts? Mostly very positive, with a few cautions.

First of all, I think the film does an amazing job of making clear the importance of Ray to the partnership and collaboration. And also underscoring how clear Charles was in valuing her contribution and trying to be sure people saw it and respected it.

The film also allows the staff at the office to articulate how that influence and how that process of valuing Ray might have worked. It was just a few years ago that the New York Times referred to Powers of Ten as being made by the Eames Brothers–so the work is far from done. I hope in this upcoming Ray Centennial (she would have been 100 in 2012) there will be more explorations.

Second, visually the film is very beautiful. I loved the House of Cards motif weaving together the transitions. And also think it was fantastic to make the commitment to bring a crane to the Eames House–the footage they got that way is fantastic. That is Bill Jersey watching the screen in the second shot.

Third, because I am someone who has spent a couple of decades working on this material, written a number of books on the topic and comes across as mostly coherent in the PBS film (thank goodness for editors!), I give the filmmakers a huge amount of credit for wrestling with the material. Having spoken with them at length, I know they were originally galvanized by the underlying content and daunted by the sheer volume of material.

So I think what has emerged is an overview of the Eames work that is done engagingly and in a visually attractive way. New transfers, new scans that all look lovely.

I also want to say that we (meaning the Eames family) never sought any creative input into the film. And we weren’t even shown the film until well after they had started circulating the finished cut to festivals and potential marketing sponsors. While we are passionate about the Eames designs and ideas–and work hard to make sure the designs are made right by Herman Miller and Vitra, we welcome all sorts of scholarship into the work. We try to focus our policing on being sure the products are being made right and that we put good content out there. We do tend to object when researchers try to take things from our collection and sell them, but I think that is understandable.

My personal mantra is that as beautiful as the objects are, the ideas behind them are just as beautiful. That is where my passion is. So the fact that Jason Cohn and Bill Jersey were after a more traditional narrative is just great–and a real service. This is only the second feature to be made on the Eameses since Ray’s death and that one was not distributed in the US. So for many, this is going to be their first introduction.

Just as an aside, this wasn’t a matter of “trusting” the filmmakers as some have said. We speak to journalists all the time. In a sense, we were trusting that the essential value of Charles and Ray’s lives and work could co-exist with the natural need of narrative to have dark sides and rough edges and that filmmakers of their skill would craft something strong. And so, I believe, this film entertains and teaches.

When you compress into 85 minutes the careers of 2 extraordinary people who designed hundreds of pieces of furniture, 125 films, significant buildings, dozens of exhibitions, but, most important, shaped deeply the course and quality of the Information Age, design and the world at large, some parts of the story get streamlined. And the compression of time is what is responsible for alot of the clarification questions I have received.

So, some observations:

Observation 1: The Eameses never stopped improving their work

Charles and Ray were married in 1941. The two of them worked in their apartment designing the splints. In 1943, they started what was the Eames Office (though the film cites an old story about it being a collaborative, see this issue of Fortune Magazine from 1944 for clarification–more on that in another post sometime) and Charles and Ray worked together there until Charles death in 1978.

The film tells the story of the journey from the Organic chairs through the splints to the plywood chairs elegantly, but some viewers have gotten the impression that Charles and Ray didn’t make too much furniture after that. While it is true that the LCW was cited as the design of the century in 2000. Actually, the LCW was just the beginning.

The experimentation that led to that chair continued through stamped metal and then in 1950 with the first plastic chair (which, like almost all Eames chairs is still in production today). In fact, though Charles and Ray might have smiled at being honored as the Design of the Century, there is no doubt they saw the real tribute as the presence of their furniture in literally millions of homes, offices, schools and other institutions over the rest of the century-—that pragmatic and populist honor was what drove them.

Sometimes people speak of the Eames chairs as if they were primarily intended for the consumer market. Certainly some, like the lounge chair, were, but even the plastic chair sold much more institutionally—-it was not just middle class families trying to look cool. It was schools trying to have cheap rugged furniture, it was airports who wanted chairs that lasted for decades, it was office seating. Lots of office seating.

And in that process, they learned more and more which they used to make their designs better and better (some day I will do a post on the DAT-1, the chair Ice Cube sits in on the poster). In 1972 they made a chair called the 2 piece plastic chair that eliminated the shockmount completely from the plastic. Remember, this is one of the most successful designs of all time, and 20 years later they are still trying to make it better!

George Nelson observed that Charles and Ray worried over their designs like they were children once they went into production. Until 1958 there was even a small Herman Miller factory in the back of the Eames Office at 901. That is a true integration of design and production.

Observation 2: The difference between design and style

The film touches on this,but one might miss it. And it is especially important today because design seems to be more visible, but I would argue there is too much interchangeable use of the terms design and style.

Ray would say, “What works good is better than what looks, because what looks good can change, but what works will always work.” And they often would say the role of the designer is essentially that of a good host, anticipating the needs of the guest.

As the movie makes clear, they regarded all their work as extensions of architecture (for Charles) and of painting (for Ray). As Bill Lacey said of the Eames Office, there was no house style, just a legacy of problems well solved. I think Charles and Ray and most who worked there would be comfortable with that. The relentless focus was on solving the problem the best way possible (thus the constant focus on improvement) and with no pre-existing assumptions. It is that wholistic notion of design that drove them and allowed the aluminum group chair, the India Report and the Information Machine film to all be designed in the same year.

As the film says, that drive came from the top. It was there every moment because of the only two people were involved with every piece of work produced over 37 years–Charles and Ray. The furniture spanned all that time. Films were being made for 25 of those years and exhibitions designed for 35. It was a holistic vision of design. Hundreds of amazing people worked at the Eames Office, of whom several dozen were particularly key (and fortunately several of those were accessible to the filmmakers). Deborah worked there the longest of that group, two stints adding up to 12 years, and she is sharing her insights at the A+ D Museum–a must see exhibit.

But the reason the quality of the staff and the continuity of Charles and Ray’s vision is being brought up here, is that the Eameses used a practice of relentless iteration to hone off the unessential part of the design (whether chair, film, or exhibit) to get to the heart of the need.

At the Eames Office, we have done hundreds of hours of Oral Histories, which have been available to scholars. We are looking forward to getting more of them online in the next year to expand on the insights in the film.

Observation 3: Look into the ideas

As I said, my bias lies here. The idea of the Guest/Host relationship is alluded to in the film, but there are others. Charles once said, “After the Age of Information comes the Age of Choices.” He also said, “Some day the governments of the world are going to have to choose between their secrets and their planet Earth.” They believed that it was time to develop New Covetables. And they always believed we need to take our pleasures seriously

They also saw that things we sometime dismiss as aesthetics could be a part of function. This is what Charles said about Henry Dreyfuss’ design of the telephone: “The ultimate performance of a building or product is a measure of the way it has functioned; how could we damn a work because it has served mankind too well? If the telephone on our desk is a pleasure to look at and if it feels good and if it smells good and if it tastes good, and when you put it down on the receiver, it sounds good, if it adds to the sort of enrichment of our life, isn’t that the way in which it is functioning for us? Isn’t it serving us better?”

I could go on–and I have. Which is why I am so glad this new film will be taking people on another journey through the Eames work.

If you are curious about the Eames ideas, my book An Eames Primer is available in many libraries as is my film 901: after 45 years of working (which was used extensively in the PBS movie) and I did a TED talk on the Eameses.

Have fun tonight, and Merry Christmas


Carla Hartman December 19, 2011 at 7:00 pm

Eames, thank you for sharing your thoughts with us–no small task! And thank you for providing us with a bit more through your observations re: iterative process/good workings/and universal ideas!

Daniel Ostroff December 19, 2011 at 11:07 pm

Well said, and while I am at it, I would like to add that the one Eames book really worth reading is AN EAMES PRIMER.

Lily Robinson December 20, 2011 at 5:19 am

Yes! Love the work, the ideas, the drive. Your words would make them proud.

eames December 20, 2011 at 8:27 am

Good for you, Lily. That was a word I was missing too in the documentary. Drive! What an incredible commitment Charles and Ray had to it all. To be-ing.

Patty Poulter December 20, 2011 at 5:34 am

Eames – Thank you for taking the time to gather and share your thoughts, not just on the doc, but on the philosophical aspects of Ray and Charles’ work.

Billy Mayer December 20, 2011 at 6:28 pm

Eames – nice work as always. Happy Holidays to all.

joyce December 20, 2011 at 11:56 pm

hello eames,

wow. we just finished watching the film. and now, we are filled with even more admiration for charles and ray (who would have thought it possible?). the film brought a human element to two design icons and a peek into a hive of collaboration and exploration that is almost unthinkable in today’s creative/commerce world. we loved hearing from the other designers at 901. we dream of surrounding ourselves with passionate creative people and living each day making and seeing and solving. of finding even more inspiration in nature and objects and color and shape and function. it’s been hard these days to make time to make things that matter. to go beyond the job and explore and feel that sense of wonder. we just want to say thank you. to you and your family. you’ve been inspiring us for decades and it’s hard to put into words the energy we are feeling right now…maybe just to quote your grandfather, “take your pleasure seriously.” < i'm thinking that may be my next tattoo…i feel i'm rambling…so i'll end by saying thanks again and

happy holidays to you and yours!


eames December 21, 2011 at 6:29 am

Rambles like that must always be rambled! Thanks for the comment. happy holidays to you as well from all of us!

Randy Walker December 21, 2011 at 10:34 pm

Thank you for your articulate comments about the film. As an Eames employee for 12 years, the later years of the Eames office, I felt their was much left out about the actual experience of the office and the energy that gave me empowerment to be the best I could be. I was surrounded by the most talented people I could ever imagine working with. Everyone was driven to do their best. Charles and Ray were always critical of the work but I never felt deflated by their criticisms. There was always a sense of accomplishment and need to take it to the next level. Whether I was working on furniture, an exhibition, a film or a graphics project the process was engaging, exploring, and always taken to the limit of time to our creative talents. I don’t feel any project was ever finished, just completed for constants fo that process.

I loved my work there and still do. This is probably the most satisfying element of the Eames experience. The work was alway new, educational, uncharted, but most importantly always challenging to my creative ability. Charles saw the big picture and Ray saw all of the details. They were made for each other as a design team. Much has been said about their communication skills. I don’t recall any problem in that regard. The hard part was meeting their expectations. This is not unusual as I have worked with many great designers since then and this is a universal challenge when creative people are at work and making a difference in the world.
There is a bond with Eames employees. It’s unspoken, but clearly evident when there is a gathering of Eames staff from different time periods. It’s not so much a philosophy , but there is a way of thinking and definitely an understanding of process. Charles was a great teacher and mentor for the young designers like myself. I admired him not so much for his greatness, but for his selfless energy and drive. He led by example. I know that Charles and Ray had their flaws, we all do in some way, they still inspire me to do my best and look forward to my next challenge. The reward is not the completion of the work , it’s the process of discovery of your unharnessed ability as a designer. Total fulfillment!

eames December 22, 2011 at 8:08 am

I think you have hit on something which is that the “how” and even the “why” was not fully captured or explored. And like that breakdown of big picture vs. details as you consider Charles and Ray’s roles. As for the unspoken bond–it is extremely present whenever you guys get together and I believe comes from this deeply positive place you are talking about.

david December 22, 2011 at 8:48 am

What a wonderful documentary – I knew very little about the Eames until watching it. My artist/designer fiancee has long been a fan, and has something of a “chair fetish,” but until I watched the program last night, I had no idea that “Eames” meant so much more than just a cool chair :-)

Truly iconic – thank you for the wonderful program and insight.

Clark Dugger December 26, 2011 at 10:42 pm

Eames, thanks for your comments. I just watched the film on my iPad and felt they did a great job of condensing so much into 85 minutes. It did bring back fond memories! I can still hear Charles calling, “Ray-eee! Ray-eee!” Or see the grin on his face as he played the calliope. From my own personal experience working there, I would have enjoyed touching more on how a new employee would get an assignment to “test” them (as Deborah Sussman nicely talks about in the LACMA video). But overall, they did a great job of capturing what it was like to work there. And I too love the House of Cards motif.

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