Review: ‘Eames: The Architect and The Painter’ Offers A Beautiful Journey Through American Design

By  · Published on November 18th, 2011

Modern American design and its history have become major preoccupations within contemporary cosmopolitan circles. Gary Hustwit recently finished his third documentary on the subject, Mad Men makes us nostalgically long for clean copy and clear utility, and the death of Steve Jobs brought forth considerations of the important connections between user-friendliness, sleek aesthetics, and the construction of products around human intuition. Making the case that we have still yet to exhaust what continually proves to be a fascinating and increasingly relevant subject, Jason Cohn and Bill Jersey’s historical documentary Eames: The Architect and The Painter traverses the fascinating life of a couple whose contributions broadly determined what modern postwar American life looked and felt like.

As narrator James Franco romantically points towards the beginning of the film, Charles Eames was an architect who never got his license, and Ray Eames was a painter who rarely painted. Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of their influential lives was that they rarely operated within the confinements of either of these titles. They couldn’t be pigeonholed as architects, marketers, filmmakers, etc,. And as such, their work reflected an impending new world of convergence where art, commerce, and visual culture all became deeply related during the second half of the twentieth century. The many lives they influenced can be evidenced by the occupational variety of well-regarded professional people who lend their sound bites to the lives of Mr. and Mrs. Eames including filmmaker Paul Schrader, TED founder Richard Saul Wurman, and architect Kevin Roche.

While Eames does go into some biographical detail regarding the lives of its subjects (specifically the gender divide in the public perception of Charles and Ray, and Charles’s infidelity), Charles himself was (thankfully) a rather inarticulate man, so Cohn and Jersey employ the smart approach of mostly letting the incredible work of the Eames office speak for its founders. What happens as a result is far more than an engaging dialogue on design, but a history of American visual culture from the 1950s to the 1970s, as their influence stretches everywhere from the ergonomics of an office chair to films for classroom use, all carrying their signature flare of confident fashion and impeccable polish. Eames intricately depicts a moment when modern art moved from the walls of the museum to where you sit your butt down at a board meeting, a moment that solidified the ongoing relationship between commerce and progressive aesthetics.

As any good documentary about design should, Eames is executed with as much constructive assembly and well-honed care as anything that came out of the Eames office. The film moves at a brisk pace, providing an engaging and entertaining experience, even for somebody lacking the most basic awareness of its subjects (myself included). Sincere and expertly crafted, Eames gives you plenty of reason to share the enthusiasm and interest in the work of its subjects with filmmakers. It’s a fascinating and damned good-looking history lesson to behold.

The Good Side: A very pretty and very good documentary about two people who have likely influenced your lives in ways that you’ve never known.

The Bad Side: Eames is at its best when it lets the work speak for the people who made it. The film’s explorations of Charles and Ray’s personal lives reads as tonally divergent.

On the Side: For such a cinematically pleasing documentary, I was surprised to learn that neither of the filmmakers have had a career in design or feature non-fiction filmmaking, but instead have had a long career in television documentaries.

Check out the trailer: