Eames: The Arcitect and the Painter


Directed by Jason Cohn, Bill Jersey Club, IFI/Screen, Dublin, 83 min

ONE MUST BE grateful that nobody stoops to calling Charles or Ray Eames “the Steve Jobs of their day” in this diverting documentary on that potent design team. Mind you, I have done just that. So, there really is no escaping the comparison.

From the 1940s until the 1980s, Charles and Ray, respectively an architect and a painter, ran an extraordinary design studio in the Venice quarter of Los Angeles. Emerging in a US that still furrowed its brow at female professionals,

the team was often mistaken for brothers, but Charles and Ray were, in fact, a closely meshed married couple. A startlingly condescending, contemporaneous TV interview – carried out, ironically, by a woman – finds Ray being tidied into the role of sounding board. The film works hard to dismantle that patronising assumption.

The Eames partnership is, perhaps, still best known for an elegant, inexpensive chair that made ingenious use of plywood. But, as this picture makes clear, there was barely an area of art or commerce that evaded their attentions.

Together they designed a medical splint during the second World War. They built a startling modernist house in Pacific Palisades. Paul Schrader, the great director and screenwriter, turns up to discuss their influential short films. Every item demonstrated a taste for play that was too often missing in more forbidding manifestations of modernism.

The Architect and the Painter tells its story in lucid and uncluttered fashion. Contributors are even-handed: we also hear about marital infidelities, outbreaks of pretention and the withholding of credit to collaborators. But the picture doesn’t do much to justify its place on the big screen.

Made for the American Masters series, it comes across as an excellent piece of TV that seems somehow to have escaped its little box. Fascinating throughout, nonetheless.