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Movie review: 'Eames: The Architect and the Painter'

Jason Cohn and Bill Jersey's documentary about Charles and Ray Eames is a thorough and vibrant examination of the master Modernists.

November 18, 2011|By Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times Film Critic
  • Charles, left, and Ray Eames posing on a Velocette motorcycle in 1948 in the documentary "Eames: The Architect and the Painter."
Charles, left, and Ray Eames posing on a Velocette motorcycle in 1948 in… (First Run Features, First…)

It's a chair we see first, a stunning Eames lounge chair, and that's as it should be. Because from the chairs came a cascade of furniture, and from that flood an international reputation for Charles and Ray Eames as perhaps the premier American designers of the 20th century.

With the contents of the interior of the Eameses' breathtaking Pacific Palisades house on display at LACMA as the centerpiece of the museum's "Living In a Modern Way: California Design, 1930-1965" Pacific Standard Time exhibition, there couldn't be a better time to examine the complex and absorbing history of this designing couple, and "Eames: The Architect and the Painter" couldn't be a better vehicle for that examination.

Filmmakers Jason Cohn and Bill Jersey are steadfast in their admiration for the Eameses, but it is a clear-eyed admiration, one willing to examine the complexities of these lives lived so much in tandem that Ray died 10 years to the day after Charles, almost willing, it seemed, this tribute to their togetherness.

Charles was an architect who never practiced, Ray was an artist who gave up painting. Together, colleagues say, they brought joy to modernism as they tried to make the best in design accessible to a cost-conscious mass audience. "The best for the most for the least," was their motto, and they believed it.

In their day the Eameses were all but worshiped, a golden couple who operated out of a building at 901 Washington Blvd. in Venice that seemed to visitors like walking into a circus and to employees like coming to work in Disneyland.

Everything for the Eameses began with one of those chairs. Working with Eero Saarinen, Charles came up with a prototype in 1940, but it took his World War II experience manufacturing 150,000 wooden splints — plus postwar advances in the use of plywood — to make it buildable.

Aside from the furniture, the Eameses remain known for their magnificent Case Study house on a bluff in Pacific Palisades, a house that Ray filled with so many objects that a friend once wrote to her as "dearest queen of all packrats." (One of the film's more amusing moments is architect Kevin Roche recalling that he was so put off by an overly precious dessert served at dinner that he stormed out in disgust to a nearby Dairy Queen.)

The documentary also includes short films the Eameses made for the U.S government and for IBM and Polaroid, which were widely seen at the time but have since fallen into obscurity.

If "Eames" celebrates Charles and Ray, it also does not shy away from the difficulties that surrounded them, one of which was the issue of credit. Though Charles encouraged a culture of collaboration at work, he did not discourage the world from assuming that he thought up everything, which was the source of some tension in the office.

Similarly, in the pre-feminist 1950s, it was difficult for outsiders to grasp the crucial role of Ray, his partner in every sense and a woman Charles left his first wife and child to marry. "Ray knew what was art and what was not," says one observer. "Charles depended on her aesthetic sense." Which made it difficult for everyone when Charles had relationships with other women, including one that grew serious enough that he thought about leaving the marriage.

Filmmakers Cohn and Jersey have been very thorough, interviewing former employees, critics, collaborators and family such as daughter Lucia and grandson Eames Demetrios. The result is as close as we are likely to get to the lives of people who lived their belief that "eventually everything connects."

kenneth.turan@latimes.com

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