The Eames chair is an iconic piece of mid-century design, but how much do you know about its creators?
30 May 2012 - 5:26 PM  UPDATED 30 May 2012 - 5:26 PM

Directed by Jason Cohn and Bill Jersey and narrated by James Franco, Eames: The Architect and The Painter is a portrait of the prolific and beloved American designers Charles and Ray Eames. The first film dedicated to the husband and wife team since their death, the documentary spans their multi-faceted creative careers, stretching from their most famous work – the omnipresent Eames' Chair – to film production, exhibition designs and major corporate accounts.

“People often have no idea they made so much. They usually think that they are brothers,” Cohn reflects on the misconceptions that abound.

Charles and Ray met at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan when Ray assisted Charles and his design partner, Eero Saarinen, in preparations for a plywood chair that would become the prototype for Eames' most enduring work. The couple married in 1947, and later established the Eames Office.The documentary largely speaks to their former employees.

“Charles and Ray were the kind of people who were very private,” Cohn says. “In a sense, to know them you had to work with them. For our purposes, talking about them as designers and architects, we really wanted to hear it from the perspective of the people who were with them 24-7. We were a little insecure about how much these people wanted to say. When we got them on camera, we were delighted to discover what strong personalities so many of them have and what strong feelings they have about Charles and Ray. Their time in the Eames Office meant so much to them.”

The voices in the film collectively echo the aspect that apprenticeship fuels the design process. “The important thing to take away is that this is a field where the good old fashioned apprenticeship really is the best education,” Cohn says. “Charles really believed that. He educated by letting them do stuff, not by telling them what to do.”

It's an element of the process not without controversy. “Some people felt that they should get the credit – I understand that argument – but I think there are very few people who at the end of their time with Charles and Ray felt that they hadn't received the best possible education you could get in design. Many of them went on to have stellar careers of their own in film. There were four or five Oscar nominations that came out of the Eames' Office, including people who worked on The Lord of the Rings trilogy as well as many great furniture designers and architects.”

The controversy doesn't stop there. The interviewees reveal personal aspects of the Eames' private lives. “I think that people had been keeping respectfully silent about [certain personal factors] for 30-odd years. I think that people felt enough time had passed. It's an important part of the story. Many people who worked in the office were close with both Charles and Ray. A lot of people suffered for Ray. I think they felt it was something we should be talking about when we were talking about that relationship; that theirs wasn't the perfect, happy marriage that it often seemed to be from the outside.”

The response to these revelations from the Eames' surviving family is as expected. “My sense is that it's not their favourite part of the film,” says Cohen. “I think they feel that we could have just stuck to their designs and the ideas behind their designs. The world doesn't have a need to know about those things – that's a perfectly legitimate argument. I really appreciate the fact they gave us the freedom to make what we felt was an honest and true story. They never tried to stop us. They've never been openly critically. They have said that the portrayal of Charles and Ray at the end of their lives was darker than they remembered it. It doesn't surprise me at all. Those are the grandchildren. I don't know how much grandchildren see of grandparents' marriages.”

The Eames' all-encompassing creativity produced a legacy archival collection housed in the Library of Congress. “It's in the range of one million items: 850 thousand images, 150-200 thousand documents,” states Cohn. “That doesn't include archives of three-dimensional objects, the prototypes at the Vitra Museum in Switzerland, for example.”

The museum houses a Charles Eames permanent collection. “They were so incredibly productive. There's so much material to use. I think it's one of the great collections in the world in terms of a group of people over 30, 40 years. They documented everything so extensively. They were shutterbugs. Never were they in the office without a camera. Charles would say he'd never really see anything until he saw it through the lens of the camera.”

Eames: The Architect and The Painter took six years to complete and despite the extended time spent with the Eames' legacy, Cohn remains in awe of the mass of work the pair produced. “I know we found a lot of things that people have never seen before. There are a number of films and images in there that really have not been seen widely, if at all, until we got a hold of them,” he says. “I'll still go to my grave with a certain amount of sadness thinking that somewhere at the bottom of one of those boxes was the perfect image to tell the story and we just couldn't get it.”

Eames: The Architect and The Painter is screening from June 1-17 at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image in Melbourne. For more information visit the official website.