The Architect & The Painter, the new film on Charles and Ray Eames, is broad in its ambitions and captures a few things very well. The film positions America’s most iconic design couple within a very particular historical moment, and in doing so, touches upon everything from burgeoning fabrication technologies and atelier culture to gender roles and the dawn of the Information Age. Within this dynamic mid-century context, the breadth and diversity of the Eames’ prolific careers—from Charles’ early collaborations with Eero Saarinen to Ray and Charles’ later exhibition designs for high profile clients—feels emblematic of the zeitgeist. Tethering this sweeping narrative, the voices of former employees, clients, and collaborators lend the film an intimacy that vacillates between revelation and confession, encapsulating the ‘delicious agony’ that was the Eames’ world.
Although celebrated for the timeless pieces commissioned by furniture giant Herman Miller, the Eames’ foundational ambition to bring ‘the best to the most for the least’ was arguably most effectively, though least famously, realized through their role as content curators and exhibition designers. Advocates of information overload, the Eames communicated through a multi-layered, multi-media approach that approximated what they believed to be the way the human mind worked. Their 1976 exhibit for the US Bicentennial,The World of Franklin and Jefferson, coalesced 120 years of American history through “all manner of things, from a stuffed bison to paintings of the West by George Catlin, to fossil bones which Jefferson sent to France to show how big American animals were, silver tankards by Paul Revere, Franklin’s glass harmonica and Jefferson’s superbly crafted wooden plough blades,” generating a hyper-saturated display that visitors could navigate at random. In this sense the Eames anticipated a postmodernist understanding of the world, and drew prominent clients such as IBM and Polaroid—the Googles of their time—who understood technology’s capacity to integrate design and desire, work and leisure. Though creative avant-gardes, the Eames were neither iconoclasts nor political rebels, but beneficiaries of a WWII-era optimism that helped launch their early career: they designed for a middle-class audience for whom democratic ideals and purchasing power were synonymous.
While the film’s breadth is heroic, its bittersweet portrayal of the Eames relationship is decidedly not. Charles emerges as a charismatic and driven ring-leader that took credit for others’ efforts and slept around, but this feels like a revelation only for the naïve. The film suggests that creative co-dependence and gender inequality (a TV description of Ray as a ‘delicious dumpling in a doll’s dress’ was meant to be a compliment…) prevented a formal marital dissolution, but exacerbates this injustice by essentially ending the narrative with Charles’ death, paying only lip-service to Ray’s late-in-life endeavors, and insinuating that she timed her death 10 years later to the day, for him. Whether true or not, the speculations have a distancing and paradoxical effect. The film reiterates Ray’s indispensability in the partnership but the narrative of victimization, ex post facto, nearly buries her in the end. A colleague of mine left the film feeling a little deflated: ‘I’d never thought of Ray as behind-the-scenes until now.’
But to feel badly for Ray is to the point of Ray: she wielded an inimitable design joie de vivre both in and out of the studio. Details of the Eames’ physical milieu bear her signature, which elevated the ordinary intelligence of crafted objects into inspirations. Her world was not a quick study but one of layers, of constant arranging and rearranging to achieve the right color, form, or texture, as a single look at her desk or the Eames House would reveal. The film’s visual message at least, speculations aside, is that without Ray’s sensibility, Charles’ ambition might have lacked its vector.
It’s worthy to try to transcend the starchitect story by humanizing these giants, revealing the vulnerabilities that make them relatable to us, but the soap opera and the design documentary risk working at odds here. If there’s a lesson that might bridge these two perhaps it’s for us to get over our dramas and get on with the work, as the Eames undeniably did. No matter what was happening in the underbelly of their lives, their painstakingly constructed self-image celebrated action, invention, and play—and this was as true to life as any subtext beneath it.
The Architect & The Painter is directed by Jason Cohn and Bill Jersey.
 The Sunday Times, as cited at http://eamesdesigns.com/catalog-entry/franklin-jefferson/
All images courtesy Eames Office