Alternate Memoirs are a series of posts where I explore lesser-known passions of famous individuals: the art of designers, the designs of mathemeticians, etc.. Other than being fascinating, this shows how rich and complex these people were, beyond just what they were famous for.
Charles and Ray Eames exemplified an era. They are some of the most well-known designers of all time; “the Eames chair” is a phrase with a life of its own, and who knows how many promising young designers it has inspired? But there’s a catch: The Eames couple did not want to be known by just a chair. At least, that’s a side of them that was revealed in the groundbreaking documentary the Architect and the Painter.
The film was my first formal introduction to the couple, and quite frankly, I was enamored. The pair led such prolifically creative lives, constantly living design in a way that was intertwined with their love for each other. They were a self-sufficient duo of creators taking on the world together til death did they part. And as a design student, I am far from alone when I assume that these individuals were, first and foremost, two of the product design greats. Yet it’s so often forgotten that they were also producers of whimsy, intrigue, and novelty beyond manufacturable, user-tested products.
Perhaps the couple’s second most well-known creative output was their films. These are particularly interesting from an artistic perspective because, although they resemble short “art films” in many ways, they were not created for this purpose by the Eames. Charles himself believed that they “…never used film as an art form but, as projections of concepts.” The couple was very interested in different ways to convey ideas, and for them, films were an ideal format. This is reinforced by the direct, plain narration present in many of these works (as opposed to "art films," which tend to be more open to interpretation).
Yet there is certainly more than an element of artistry in the execution of the videos. The attention to detail, in particular, is astounding. One example of this is the couple’s 1959 film, “Tocatta for Toy Trains.” And yes, it’s worth the investment of thirteen whole minutes—you should watch it.
At first, I thought “Tocatta” would be like an old black-and-white action film as viewed by a millennial, where the ideas would be good ones but the pacing would leave something to be desired. Indeed, barring Charles’ narration within the first couple minutes, it took me almost half the film’s length to grow accustomed to what I was seeing. But once I did, I discovered something exquisite and delightful.
The music was the first thing I really began to enjoy about the film. It matches accurately, effortlessly, and delightfully with the visuals, corresponding perfectly to whatever is occurring with the toy trains. I realized only after minutes of consideration that the music had to have been written after the visuals were created, and recorded with precision. How long it took me to realize this is a testament to how natural the soundtrack was. My next and most lasting impression of the film was the filmmaker’s obvious affection for the subject. The Eames’ passion (for toys, design, and honesty of materials) shines, from the flawless conceptual and visual execution, to the film’s focus on specific details of craftsmanship in the toys. This is a movie made with love, like so much of good art.
Despite all of this, the couple did not call these films works of art. They considered film a tool for communication rather than expression. Despite all the craftsmanship, passion, and even frivolity that the Eames’ films possess, the couple didn’t believe they had crossed the invisible line into the realm of art.
The reasoning behind this stance is ultimately lost in history; perhaps it was no more than a disinterest in the pretensions and expectations of the label “art film.” For a pair so visionary in their creative output, however, this seems an unsatisfactory explanation. The answer may lie not in how the Eames felt about art, but how they felt about communication. In a Salon interview with Architect and the Painter director Jason Cohn, he remarks that “I think there’s a kind of interesting duality in this idea of visual articulateness and verbal inarticulateness. I think that Ray and Charles were not always verbally articulate, but they were incredibly visually articulate.”
This is an interesting insight from a non-designer, because this is in many ways a fundamental rule among designers, spoken or unspoken: They are visual communicators. This is tied inextricably to the rule that sketching is integral to the design process. Sketching is the best way to communicate many ideas within design; as a result, design attracts and rewards the kinds of people who communicate best visually rather than with writing or speaking. And film is an extension of this—a good example lies in the close relationship between product design and video advertising. But film represents a gray area, because so much of it is artistic (or pure entertainment).
The Eames’ creative output extended still further, beyond both chairs and films.
There is the art of Ray herself, the “Painter” half of “the Architect and the Painter.” Although her painting background has been mostly eclipsed by the fame of the Eames’ chair designs, she was both skillful and successful. She studied under the famous abstract expressionist Hans Hoffman and was a founding member of the American Abstract Artists.
As a historical figure, Ray symbolizes an intersection between art and design. She and Charles both considered her contribution to their designs to, quite literally, be painting. When Ray encountered pushback from the public for “giving up painting,” her response was “I never gave up painting; I just changed my palette.”
As a person, Ray was artistically gifted. This was known from a very young age. Throughout her life, she displayed a high attention to detail on matters of color, texture, and even décor for the couples’ home, and was described as possessing an exceptional visual memory. She was, in short, the ideal candidate for a legacy as a painter. It is through a twist of romance (and finances) that her talents and energy were poured into a lifetime of design, a lifetime of design that would obscure her “fine art” legacy in public memory.
The Eames couple’s definition of art leaves something to be desired, as definitions of art are apt to do. They insist on the more pragmatic interpretation of their films, yet label Ray a painter for her role in furniture design, a medium dominated by practicalities.
The couple were so much more than just chair designers, but the details of their roles outside of design remain far more undocumented or, worse, more ignored. Yet as “the Architect and the Painter” reveals, these details were still enchanting. The Eames’ creativity, passion, and vision is obvious in all of their work, from the least practical brushstroke to the most commercial design. But perhaps this says less about the Eames and more about the nature of passion, a force that has no motivation to extricate art from design; moreover, passion thrives at these intersections.
Watch the full Eames documentary "the Architect and the Painter" online at Youtube, iTunes, or Google Play. (It's not free, though—sorry!)
Learn more about the Eames on the official website dedicated to the couple here. Their films are cataloged and many are available for viewing here.
Join the Eames Foundation (dedicated to the preservation of the couples' remarkable home) here, or just schedule a visit to the Eames House!
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