Friday, December 16, 2011

Designing Modernism: The Eames

Charles and Ray Eames have been hailed as two of the most influential designers of the Twentieth Century. They have legions of hipster admirers, but their best known work was produced for corporate clients. Indeed, they were delighted to have the business. The power couple of modern design are profiled in Jason Cohn & Bill Jersey’s Charles & Ray Eames: the Architect and the Painter (trailer here), which airs this coming Monday on PBS’s American Masters.

Charles Eames was an architect who was never officially licensed to practice. His wife (not brother) Ray Eames was a painter who studied with Hans Hofmann. They are best known for the molded Eames chairs, which became a staple of chic suburban décor in the 1950’s. Royalties from the Herman Miller furniture company would underwrite many of the Eames’ more experimental work. However, some of their most ambitious projects were corporate work-for-hire, including the IBM Pavilion at the 1964 World’s Fair.

Perhaps one of the biggest revelations of A&P is the role the Eameses played in Cold War history. At the behest of the U.S. Information Agency, the Eames studio produced a film for the previous 1959 World’s Fair, famous for the so-called kitchen debate, to introduce Soviet citizens to their typical American counterparts. Employing seven individual screens simultaneously, it can now be considered a precursor to the I-max experience. Though relatively few people have ever seen the film, it was a big hit at the Fair.

As a documentary, A&P is a real breath of fresh because it takes their remarkably creative corporate work so seriously. While Eames chairs will always have admirers, it is satisfying to see the architectural and design work of projects like the Pavilion and the IBM-sponsored Mathematica exhibition for the California Museum of Science of and Industry get their just due.

Cohn & Jersey handle the complicated circumstances of the Eameses’ private lives fairly adroitly, explaining enough so they cannot be accused of whitewashing their subjects, but never sensationalizing the details. They also shrewdly navigate issues of attribution, suggesting some of their studio employees might have appreciated more recognition, while also clearly implying the more outgoing Charles was quite forthright about the shier Ray’s role as a creative collaborator, but the clueless ADD media just was not listening.

Frankly, the filmmakers only made one mistake, going for James Franco’s big name as the narrator. Unfortunately, his voice is rather dry and characterless, completely lacking the rich resonance of a Liev Schreiber or a Keith David. The man just can’t “host.”

Boasting some striking graphics and scores of intriguing vintage images, A&P is much more visually dynamic than the standard issue documentary portrait of the artist. Audiences have clearly responded to it, considering its theatrical run continues in New York at the IFC Center. However, viewers can see it for free in the comfort of their own home when it premieres on PBS this coming Monday night (12/19). Entertaining and informative, it is a worthy addition to the American Masters roster.

(Photo: © 2011 Eames Office, LLC)