Having watched a couple of documentaries recently that were frenetic, to say the least, it was something of a relief to watch Jason Cohn and Bill Jersey’s straightforward documentary about husband and wife team Charles and Ray Eames, two of the most influential industrial designers in 20th Century American history.
The duo are known principally for their experimental, modern furniture design, but their practice – largely operational between the 1930s and the 1970s in Venice, California – was more of an ‘anything goes’ type of place, and as a result the studio was used by the duo and their employees for photography, film-making, painting, architecture and other forms of design work.
This documentary, narrated by James Franco, ignores the early childhood and adolescence of both, and instead begins at the point where Charles Eames and Ray Kaiser first met. It briefly alludes to Charles’ first marriage, to Catherine Woermann, but it is primarily concerned with Charles and Ray’s working life together. The importance of Ray’s input was not fully recognized at first, partly due to the nature of the era, when women’s roles were still largely seen as being supportive, and also due in part to Ray’s own shyness; she stayed in the background, perhaps happy to a certain extent, perhaps not.
In this respect the documentary feels incomplete to me. Presumably the makers only ever intended to concentrate on the pair’s working life together, and this is covered in fascinating detail, illuminated by interviews with a range of contemporaries and colleagues / employees including screenwriter / director Paul Schrader. However I’m just a stickler for getting the complete picture. An extra 15 minutes’ worth of detail to a 90 minute documentary surely isn’t going to put off people from seeing such a specialist film. It would have been nice to have had more information on both Charles and Ray’s early life, and the way in which that shaped their respective paths. Still, it hardly ruins things entirely: we’re lucky enough to be living in an age where as much information as we could ever need is a millisecond away, and of course I can find out all I need to know elsewhere.
The Eames office branched out from furniture and worked on many other incredibly interesting projects. In the late 1950s, at the height of the Cold War, the USSR and the US bizarrely ‘traded’ exhibitions; the Soviet exhibition was held in New York City, and the US exhibition took place in Moscow. Both aimed to show the enemy what life was like in the respective superpowers (with a healthy dose of propaganda sprinkled on top, no doubt). Charles and Ray were asked to make a film for the US exhibition, which they duly produced. (Glimpses of the USA, a fascinating collage of thousands of images of 1950s America, which you can see here.) As well as this, they designed an exhibition for IBM, made the fantastic short film Power of 10 (which has re-appeared in the work of many, many directors fond of the rapid pull-away-into-space shot), designed the famous Eames House (among other stunning architectural works) and left such a legacy they are widely recognized as being huge influences on contemporary and subsequent generations of designers.
The documentary is packed with interesting footage, images, photographs and interviews. It is visually impressive, but it does not try to dazzle, and while the subject matter won’t be to everyone’s tastes, it’s interesting viewing for anyone with even a vague interest in design. While it felt slightly cold and detached from the human story at times, it does a good job of detailing a fascinating pair of working lives.
Directed by: Jason Cohn, Bill Jersey
Written by: Jason Cohn
Starring: James Franco
Running Time: 83 Minutes