Selling his own ignorance.

By Thomas Wagner.

History needs an address: Ray and Charles Eames were the dream couple of mid-century design. Valuable reasons for watching the documentary „Eames: the architect and the painter“ and the things that can be learned for the present day.

To this day, Ray and Charles Eames are still considered the dream couple of mid-century design. The war had been won, the rise of the United States had accelerated even further, the then-idealistic modern era had become democratic – and the world of mass consumption was begging to be colourfully redesigned. There is barely a soul who is unfamiliar with the Eames and what they created: Plywood Chair, Plastic Chair, Lounge Chair, Eames House, films and multimedia shows. So why is the documentary “Eames: The Architect and the Painter” by Jason Cohn and Bill Jersey from the year 2011 an absolute must-see?

It is not only because the contours of yesterday are becoming sharper from a distance. It is also because their image exposes something about our own present day by way of contrast. As Charles Eames explains during the opening credits, “artist is a title that you earn”. How times have changed. These days, almost everyone calls themselves an artist, and does not first have to become what they not yet are. What would become of Ray Kaiser, who had studied painting, and Charles Eames, who had tried his hand at architecture, was not certain from the outset.

The film does more than just retrace the backgrounds, marriage and joint career of Ray and Charles Eames with all their twists, turns and successes. Even if it does not say so explicitly, it explores the question of how designers became what they are today. Where it suddenly no longer plays a role whether Charles was an architect, designer, photographer, film-maker or exhibition designer. And Ray, his wife and indispensable partner in their flourishing design studio, who is said to have seen everything as painting and saw design as just another form of it, something which she also claimed herself. Architecture, painting – for the two of them, these things were nothing more than specific ways of seeing the world, as her grandson Eames Demetrios remarks. For Charles, whatever he did was an extension of architecture; for Ray, whatever she did was an extension of painting. It is thus for good reason that the film is entitled “The Architect and the Painter”.

Eames Office, Venice Beach, 901 Washington Boulevard

Another worthwhile reason for viewing the film, however, is for the insight that is granted into the legendary Eames Office in Venice Beach, California. It exposes the energies, needs and elements that the archetype of a design firm is born from. Deborah Sussman began in the Eames Office in 1953 and worked for the Eames for ten years. There was a simple rule that she articulates here: “Life was work was fun was life.” Work “24/7/365”, every day, around the clock – a kind of “delicious agony”, almost like at a temple.

For Gordon Ashby, who came to the office from a well-ordered architecture firm, it was a grand, unique circus. Tina Beebe, who was there from 1977 to 1980, felt as if she were at Disneyland. It is all likely true, but it remains as vague and subjective as the reference to the atelier of a renaissance artist with his assistants. Ray and Charles, the main minds, in any case seem to have ensnared many young and talented designers, and these designers circled around the pair like satellites. They can now be seen expressing loyal, considered and occasionally also critical opinions about Charles and Ray and about this or that project from their many years in the studio. As the film at one point says, everything was connected for Charles, and that was the decisive factor.

The image of an era

A third reason to watch this film is how it does more than paint a portrait of the thrilling, colourful and diverse life, creation and work of the Eames. The product created from the many puzzle pieces broadens the view and characterises an entire era, almost in passing and without drawing a conclusion. It is a time that shaped America and design and that still affects many things to this day. There are of course a number of familiar things that come up for discussion. Charles’s experiments together with Eero Saarinnen, from the moulded plywood leg splint to the “Kazam! Machine”, a self-constructed device for moulding plywood that made a decisive contribution to the successful Plywood Group concept, as well as films such as “Powers of Ten” – told in an occasionally somewhat idealistic retrospective tone – combine to form an extraordinary story of success where conventional opposites of private and public, life and work, merge together.

Never delegating understanding

Fourthly, the film shares something stimulating about a methodological approach. Everyone is familiar with the Eames’s credo, and Ray repeats it: “We wanted to make the best for the most for the least.” It is a mixture of 1920s European optimism with the enormously confident post-war American consumer culture that had not yet been tainted by doubt. Nevertheless, as the viewer learns, design for the Eames was created from a never-ending learning process. Eames Demetrios, the grandson, points out an insight connected to this that solidified into an important principle: letting the design flow from the experience gained in the process, not from the form. In short, learning by doing. Or, as Charles put it, “never delegating understanding” – an object can only ever be understood personally.

„We wanted to make the best for the most for the least.”

Ray Eames

Two people who complement each other perfectly

It is unsurprising that it is the characteristic mix of practical and aesthetic, architectural and artistic, as created and lived by the Eames that has left traces in numerous domains of contemporary life. For Ray, a student of Hans Hoffmann, it was her infallible feeling for colour and shape, for aesthetic questions of any kind, that made her irreplaceable. In the Eames House itself, as Pat Kirkham reports in the film, the floors and the ceiling, and even the sofa, were merely an additional canvas for Ray’s collage. Charles was charismatic and very attractive – “handsome and smart and cool”, Paul Schrader says – and he presented himself as the assured communicator who preferred to use images instead of words.

The two complemented each other perfectly, and they both believed that things were more than sheer objects. They have meaning and possess character; they are an expression of ideas. In this vein, there is another insight revealed when watching the film: many designers are happy to work on objects. However, Charles was only truly happy when he was working on an idea, something that he was still unfamiliar with and could drive forward. For all of the above, the film is still in no way a mere hymn and does not omit contradictory elements, whether they relate to private matters (such as Charles’s affairs), propaganda films for the United States or advertisements for IBM and computers.

You sell your expertise, you have a limited repertoire. You sell your ignorance, it’s an unlimited repertoire. He is selling his ignorance and his desire to learn about the subject. And the journey of him, not knowing to knowing, was his work.”

Richard Saul Wurman on Charles Eames

Selling his own ignorance

Richard Saul Wurman, creator of TED, boils down to just a few words how Charles differed from other designers and what the enormous span of his projects and the success of the Eames Office established. He says, “You sell your expertise, you have a limited repertoire. You sell your ignorance, it’s an unlimited repertoire. He is selling his ignorance and his desire to learn about the subject. And the journey of him, not knowing to knowing, was his work.”

Negotiations were made directly with the bosses, whether Westinghouse, Boeing or Polaroid. The contracts, sealed with a handshake, were made on the basis that they would receive the best product, but the Eames could not tell them how much it would cost. The designer, and not the stylist, has become anchored as a universalist of design in industry and society, and has also become familiar to a wide audience. While the Eames and the Eames Office are not solely responsible for this, they did make an extraordinary contribution. Accordingly, “The Architect and the Painter” does not only paint a portrait of an exceptional designer couple. It exposes a shimmering, typically American cosmos formed of ideas and work, a world full of possibilities and freedoms to try things out and modify them through design.

Eames: the architect and the painter
Direction and production: Jason Cohn, Bill Jersey
Script: Jason Cohn
Narrator: James Franco
Quest Productions, Bread & Butter Films
American Masters Productions 2011
Length: 84 minutes
Language: English

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