Charles & Ray Eames: The Architect and the Painter

You don't see many films about furniture designers on television, even on PBS. But the subject of Charles and Ray Eames is much more compelling than just their plywood chairs and home furnishings that helped revolutionize the look of the American home in the mid-20th Century. Working out of a studio in Venice, California, the husband-and-wife team made corporate films and exhibitions that were a precursor to how consumers would consume visual information in the future (an IBM exhibit for the World's Fair used 21 screens). They had a highly defined whimsical personal style and an idealistic view of consumerism that became, in today's parlance, a brand. The couple's life and work is examined in a new film, Charles & Ray Eames: The Architect and The Painter, which is narrated by James Franco and premieres on PBS' American Masters on December 19. The Biz talked with producers and co-directors Jason Cohn and Bill Jersey.

TV Guide Magazine: This is the first in-depth documentary done on the Eames. Why has it taken so long to tell their story, especially since there was so much great visual material to draw on?

Jason Cohn: Design exists in a netherworld between architecture and art. It hasn't been taken that seriously as an art form. There's a much stronger interest in design these days. A lot of companies have seized on quality design as a differentiating factor over their competitors. Mid-century designers were golden age innovators who created the set of criteria of what's good and what's bad. The other part is the family wasn't comfortable with other people telling the story of Charles and Ray for a long time.

TV Guide Magazine: It seems they were protective of their image. Your film is extremely candid. We knew them as a married couple who were creative partners. But your film reveals a darker side of the story. Did it take some doing for the family to go there?

Cohn: We never had a conversation about it. We know they liked the film. They did not look over our shoulder and we did not ask for permission.

Bill Jersey: Once they gave us permission for the footage they never saw anything we shot. They never saw it until it was finished.

TV Guide Magazine: Was Charles Eames' longtime relationship with Judith Wechsler, who worked with them on their films, a revelation?

Cohn: It was known by a lot of people in the Eames office. Her name came up in a lot of conversations.

Jersey: When I interviewed her in Boston, we started talking about the films they did together. I said we need artifacts [and asked], do you have any letters? She said, "Oh we have letters." She read a letter that talked about The World of Franklin and Jefferson exhibit that was part of the bicentennial celebration and then said, "The rest is personal." That felt like an opening to go there.

TV Guide Magazine: Even in an 82-minute film, you sense that the couple saved everything that they did.

Jersey: There are piles of stuff. Shelf after shelf with reels of films. We had 850,000 images in the Library of Congress to go through. It's an embarrassment of riches or the tyranny of large numbers.

TV Guide Magazine: Charles Eames did business with some of the biggest corporations in America — Westinghouse, Boeing and IBM — yet he never had contracts with them and often spent his own money to make sure a project met his own personal standard and vision. Anyone you can compare him to today?

Jersey: He really is not of this age. He is from an age when ideas really mattered. When it wasn't just what you did but how you did it and why you did it. These days the only reason to do things is to make more money. Apple is an exception in many ways. He's of an age of what may be possible for human beings — thinking himself as a host and what he had to provide. I don't know what he would have done today if he had to sign contracts and had to get approvals. I don't know how he would have taken that.

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