Cinema Review: Eames The Architect & the Painter

DIR: Jason Cohn, Bill Jersey • WRI: Jason Cohn • PRO: Jason Cohn, Bill Jersey DOP: Ulli Bonnekamp, Andrew Dryer, Vicente FrancoTom Hurwitz, Ed Marritz, Jon Shenk, Petr Stepanek, Thaddeus Wadleigh, Brett Wiley, Brian Wingert • ED: Don Bernier • CAST: Charles Eames, Ray Eames, James Franco

Eames The Architect & the Painter provides an entertaining introduction to the work of Charles and Ray Eames, who were among the most important creative teams in post-war America.

Charles Eames became famous in 1940, when a chair he designed, with Eero Saarinen, won a competition organized by New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Their design proved unsuitable for mass production, and Saarinen gave up on the project. Charles married a young painter, Ray Kaiser, and together they solved problems with the moulded plywood that would make their first iconic piece of furniture.

Ray studied painting under Hans Hofmann, and Eames taught architecture at the Cranbrook Academy. Their work together over the next 40 years centred on their office at 901 Washington Boulevard in Venice Beach, CA, where they explored the ‘complex beauty of everyday objects’. They designed furniture and buildings, worked in photography and on exhibitions, and produced films. Major projects included their house, the Pacific Palisades, and designs for the 1964 New York World Fair and the 1976 bicentennial celebrations.

Highlights from their film career include, Glimpses of the USA, a propaganda film for the 1959 American National Exhibition in Moscow, the backdrop of the famous Kitchen Debate between Khrushchev and Nixon.

The filmmakers emphasise the relevance of their work today, not just because their furniture designs remain popular and influential, but because they anticipate the digital age.  Their corporate filmmaking helped IBM overcome the American’s public fear of computers. A critic describes their World of Franklin and Jefferson exhibition as a ‘hypertext experience in physical space’. Viewers will probably find short films, such as Toccata for Toy TrainsPowers of Ten and The Information Machine, on the internet today.

James Franco’s narration and the use of interviews, stills, photographs and archive footage make for a conventional approach to documentary. The film unfolds in a generally chronological framework. The filmmakers maintain interest by exploring tensions in the collaborative process, the question of credit, and the central relationship between husband and wife.  Particularly clever is the use of clips from The Arlene Francis Show in discussing Ray as her husband’s equal in 1950s America

Irish architect Kevin Roche (whose recent work includes the Convention Centre in Dublin) provides an amusing dinnertime anecdote. Other talking heads include Paul Schrader (writer of Taxi Driver) and Jeannine Oppewall, who worked as a designer at the Eames Office before working as production designer on LA ConfidentialPleasantville and others.

In her later years, Ray catalogued the 350,000 photographs and half a million documents the Eames Office accumulated through the years. The volume of their output presents a challenge for deep analysis of the work, its relation to other artistic approaches, and its place in American culture and society. The film raises interesting questions, maybe more than it can answer, but it succeeds as an overview of the Eames’ output and as a satisfying balance between breadth and depth, and information and entertainment.

John Moran


Eames The Architect & the Painter is released on 3rd August 2012

Eames The Architect & the Painter – Official Website