My knowledge of art is pretty limited, and my knowledge of design is virtually nonexistent, so I don’t find it surprising that I hadn’t heard of the husband-and-wife team of Charles and Ray Eames. But because they did most of their work between World War 2 and America’s bicentennial (the year before I was born), and because some of their most well-known contributions are in furniture design, I don’t feel too bad about it, either. But even if they aren’t household names, that doesn’t mean their story isn’t interesting.
Charles Eames and Ray Kaiser (a woman, despite her masculine name) first gained notoriety in the art world with the creation of a new kind of chair, with the goal of being inexpensive to create and easy to mass produce. The design they created won significant praise, and Time Magazine called it one of the greatest designs of the 20th century. Unfortunately, World War II broke out before they could begin actually manufacturing it, but they instead used their abilities to design a new kind of splint for the military, and when the war was over they were able to use the experience gained from designing the splint into perfecting their chair. With their new-found success, and a contract from Herman Miller, Charles and Ray opened an office where they would do their creative works for the next several decades.
Their forays into the art world went much further than furniture design, and they often found success in unusual places. For example, when they demonstrated a unique approach to making films, they found themselves tasked with creating a film to help represent American life to Russian citizens, followed by a number of commissions from big businesses like IBM and Boeing to create films that made them seem more relatable to the average person. The Eames home in itself was a work of art, and evolved over time to reflect their perspectives.
Although Charles and Ray did design their house as a kind of work of art, that’s about the extent of the architecture in the film (at least in the classical sense of designing buildings). It does delve a little further into general design with a discussion of their chairs and other forms of more functional works, but it’s really more a biography of artists than a discussion of art. I haven’t seen a lot of art-focused documentaries, but I’d say there are more similarities with films like Art & Copy (a documentary about advertising, where the work is very accessible to and intended for the general public) and Marwencol (a documentary about a man who uses photography and miniatures to cope with brain damage, where it takes a look at fascinating people) than films which depict art in more abstract forms and in which the goal is perhaps more art for art’s sake than general appeal (which is kind of the direction taken by Exit Through the Gift Shop). I don’t think that Eames: The Architect & The Painter is quite on the same level as these other films, but at the time of this writing, they are all currently available on the Netflix streaming service, so you can watch them and decide for yourself.