I first met the designer Ray Kaiser Eames in 1977, when she showed me, my wife, and our son around the renowned Pacific Palisades house she and Charles Eames built between 1947 and 1949 from off-the-shelf industrial components. As she moved slowly through the high-ceilinged living room of the light-flooded, modular-paneled structure at the edge of an arcadian meadow overlooking the ocean, she reacted to the myriad possessions that crowded every horizontal surface as if she had never seen them before. “Oh my God, look at this!” she cawed like an excited mynah bird as she grabbed some pretty trifle, peered at it intently, and extolled its ravishing beauty.
One could not help but love her unbridled enthusiasm, but also quickly understood how trying she might be to live with. As fellow workaholics, the Eameses were providentially matched as the most gifted furniture designers of the twentieth century. Yet their less-than-idyllic private history—they were married in 1941 and remained together, not without difficulty, until the end of his life—also suggests that there was a high price to pay for their countless sacrifices on the altar of creativity. That is the main impression one gathers from Eames: The Architect and the Painter, an engrossing but ultimately unsettling new documentary by Jason Cohn and Bill Jersey.
In purely personal and physical terms it is hard to imagine an odder couple than Charles and Ray Eames. He (1907-1978) was tall, lanky, laconic, focused, and as hunky as the young Warren Beatty; she (1912-1988) was short, plump, loquacious, scattered, and nicknamed Buddha for her high-set eyes and rotund figure. The title of the film itself seems perversely ironic about the couple’s working relationship. He was trained as an architect but executed only one important building (the couple’s own house). She studied under the influential Abstract Expressionist painter Hans Hoffmann but never won recognition as a pictorial artist.
Here Charles Eames comes across as an egotistical, manipulative, and ungenerous genius, whereas his long-suffering but no less talented second wife (whom he met at Michigan’s Cranbrook Academy of Art) is shown to be self-abnegating, acquiescent, and much more responsible for their joint success than generally thought during their lifetimes. (His early marriage to Catherine Woermann ended in divorce in 1941, when he left her and their young daughter, Lucia, for Ray Kaiser, in large part because his first wife was uninterested in the life wholly dedicated to art that he envisioned.)
Because the Eameses’ design range—which encompassed and commingled architecture, interiors, photography, graphics, advertising, and film—was so comprehensive, they would unquestionably object to being best remembered today for the home furnishings they produced for the Herman Miller Company of Zeeland, Michigan, starting in 1946, especially the molded plywood chairs widely considered the finest examples of twentieth-century seating. Whereas much of the Eameses’ work in other mediums now looks rather dated (especially their carnivalesque mixed-font typography and effortfully whimsical stop-action-animated short films about antique toys), these indefatigable aesthetic inventors remain justly celebrated for a still-astonishing array of timeless, affordable domestic designs. Pieces such as their plastic side chair of 1950-1954, in which a sleek one-piece molded shell is perched atop a delicate metal-wire “Eiffel Tower” base, fulfilled the couple’s credo of “the best for the least for the most,” an unsurpassed realization of the Modern Movement’s most fundamental, egalitarian goal.
As might be expected of such committed design reformers, the Eameses lived with their own designs, but they accessorized the interiors of the Pacific Palisades house with a profusion of colorful craft objects brought back from their foreign travels, especially to Mexico. The couple’s love of carefully-composed clutter ran counter to the Modern Movement’s prevalent taste for minimalist restraint, but they saw no contradiction in “warming up” mechanistic architecture with folkloristic artifacts.
The last time I saw Ray Eames, a few months before her death, I mentioned the high prices that the couple’s original furniture was fetching in New York galleries. “Oh, no,” she cried, and held her hands to her ears in genuine dismay. “We wanted our things be available to everyone, not just rich people.” Yet although the Eameses’ molded plywood LCW chair of 1946 at first retailed for $20.95, their rosewood-and-leather lounge and ottoman of 1956 cost a not-inconsiderable $578 when first introduced, and now, still in production by Herman Miller, sells for $4,499. This luxurious seating became a familiar component of upscale psychiatrists’ consultation rooms, as much an emblem of mid-century professional attainment as pairs of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’e chrome-and-leather Barcelona chairs were in the reception areas of Fortune 500 companies.
Eames: The Architect and the Painter offers few credible conclusions about the subjects’ supposedly inscrutable marital dynamic. One of the film’s major revelations comes from Judith Wechsler, an art historian who collaborated on several Eames films in the 1970s. She tells not only of her affair with Charles Eames—one of his many extramarital dalliances, by all accounts—but also reports that he asked her to marry him.
Wechsler says that she rejected him because, “ I couldn’t do that to Ray.” But Pat Kirkham, author of the essential life-and-works, Charles and Ray Eames: Designers of the Twentieth Century (1995), expresses well-founded skepticism that he would have acted on what is a common self-delusion of aging males inextricably bound in longterm wedlock by force of habit and economic imperative. As Kirkham writes, this adored only son of an ancient Civil War veteran and “the most motherly of motherly types…often commented on the ‘strong-minded’ women who had brought him up, always speaking of them with great affection and respect.”
This overlong film suffers from a superabundance of Eames Office employees. They are not only redundant—in a funny quick-cut sequence, one after another calls him “charismatic”—but most also seem concussed, as if they had been hostages rather than willing participants in the joyous group enterprise they recall but hardly embody.
In that respect, these affectless acolytes remind one of zombie-like alumni of the Taliesin Fellowship, Frank Lloyd Wright’s architectural practice-cum-commune, which also demanded unswerving subservience to an all-knowing master and his wife. An Eames apparatchick here speaks of a figurative tunnel between the firm’s legendary office at 901 Washington Boulevard in the Venice section of Los Angeles and the couple’s Pacific Palisades home—the living room of which has been meticulously recreated for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s current exhibition, Living in a Modern Way, California Design, 1930-1965. The LACMA installation is a museological tour-de-force made possible by the concurrent disassembling and restoration of the original structure.
Another related exhibition, Eames Designs: The Guest Host Relationship at L.A.’s Architecture and Design Museum, revisits their abiding love for humble found objects, from the sculptural-looking tumbleweed they used to hang from their living room ceiling, to simple wooden utensils made by native craftsmen, which they found more beautiful than the self-consciously precious fetishes of the MoMA design collection. (Both shows are part of the region-wide series Pacific Standard Time: Art in L.A., 1945-1980, which has been sponsored by the Getty Research Institute and encompasses more than sixty arts institutions in Southern California.)
As their co-workers attest, the Eameses, who never had children together, didn’t get out much, and apparently neither did those worshipful employees, subject to what one describes as a “twenty-four seven, three-sixty-five” work ethic. That inward-turning focus may have benefited productivity, but the truth is that the operation became a creative cul-de-sac.
Thus, although this informative film claims that the subjects’ impact on modern visual culture has become so pervasive as to be ubiquitous, one also can see why the Eames Office died with them. This was a personality cult, pure and simple. We may be grateful for the manifold life-enhancing contributions of Charles and Ray Eames without reservation, but this suffocating documentary makes one grateful not to have been present at the creation.
Eames: the Architect and the Painter is showing at IFC Center in New York through December 1.