Tuesday 31 July 2012

Three chairs for the office: "Eames: The Architect and the Painter"

It may be a damning indictment of the artless and unstylish life I've so far lived, but I honestly hadn't heard of Charles and Ray Eames, the husband-and-wife team who revolutionised the design of America in the years after World War II, before I sat down to watch Jason Cohn and Bill Jersey's documentary Eames: The Architect and the Painter. The Eameses had some influence on the look of TV's Mad Men, which - coupled with the current boom in counterprogramming - gives some clue as to why this small-screen doc, from the same American Masters strand as the recent Woody Allen: a Documentary, is receiving a UK theatrical outing.

The Eames Office, we learn, was distinguished in two respects. It was multi-disciplinary, believing art, architecture, film and photography to be part of the same creative urge, to be followed wherever it may lead. Eames himself was as likely to turn his attentions to planning a dream home as he was to turning out a cutesy stopmotion animation, an educational film for one of his corporate patrons, or one of the plywood chairs with which he first made his name and fortune. Secondly, this was a broadly egalitarian enterprise, staffed by collaborators committed to producing - in the words of the Eames office motto - "the best for the most, for the least", and in doing so benefitting from the consumer boom of the late 1940s and 50s.

As a couple, the Eameses divided along gender lines: Charles the stiff, analytical engineer and architect, forever tinkering with details and blueprints, while Ray - a painter by trade - brought colour and flexibility to the pair's projects. Their marriage is as much a part of the legend as the Eames Office itself, or the fabled Eames House: how it mixed and matched different skillsets, devoted to the notion of "learning through doing". Just as the first Eames chair came about through a happy accident, so Charles met Ray while with his first wife, and this do-over would change (at least some small part of) the world. Yet Charles's open-mindedness almost put an end to the marriage, and dented his professional reputation when his cluttered Bicentennial exhibition on the lives of Franklin and Jefferson opened at the Met in 1976.

All of this is interesting enough, but at the end of the day, we're still being asked to coo at tables, chairs and corporate commissions, which may only make Eames a must-see for those who still have the money (and inclination) to subscribe to *Wallpaper magazine. Still, you get a parade of experts - including Paul Schrader, who specialised, as a critic, on Eames's filmed output - between the evocative archive footage, which is rich in the saturated colours of an America on the brink of going pop, and Cohn and Jersey find respectful ways of integrating criticism of the Eameses' scattershot, artsy-fartsy approach. Take the testimony of the architect who, having been invited to the Eames House for dinner, was presented with three bowls of flowers by way of "visual dessert": "I was really fucked off. I hadn't eaten much that day."

Eames: The Architect and the Painter opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

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