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PRINT October 1999

film

Charles and Ray Eames

IN 1954, WHEN I WAS A PINK-CHEEKED lad of a mere thirteen years, our family—newly returned to Los Angeles from the aging, sooty confines of Cleveland—paid a visit to an old friend of my father’s who’d made it big at Capitol Records and built a house on Webster Drive, in LA’s Silver Lake district. The house was a simple box, half redwood and half glass, with a little stainless-steel trim. The far wall of the living room was entirely glass, looking out onto a sparse deck and, beyond, a spectacular view of the Silver Lake reservoir. Standing for the first time in the living room, I thought the home might somehow be airborne, but I learned later that it was merely cantilevered out over a slope and propped up, like the ripply, translucent carport roof adjacent, by two thin metal stilts. In a corner of the living room, by the plate-glass window, stood the Christmas tree (ours was a holiday-season visit): Sprayed entirely white, its alabaster branches were punctuated only by pinpoint red lights and red glass globes the size of grapefruits. I thought I’d shuffled off this cabbagy, overstuffed-armchair mortal coil and ascended to good-design heaven.

I guess I’ve been trying to return to that modernist paradise ever since. I live in a spartan loft with a few Breuer chairs and am constantly purging the place of tchotchkes. And even though the last forty-five years have cooled my fervor considerably, I experienced a spasm of the old passion recently, when I took another look at the films of those all-purpose California masters of good design, Charles and Ray Eames. Some fifty of these films will be on view this fall in New York, as part of the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum’s 500-piece retrospective, “The Work of Charles and Ray Eames: A Legacy of Invention.”

Charles Eames (1907–78) was already a noted architect when he migrated to Los Angeles with his second wife, Ray (1912–88), from the Cranbrook Academy of Art, near Detroit, in 1941. In LA, they turned their apartment into a workshop for experiments with molded plywood. During World War II, the Eameses’ research was put to good use in the form of rigid, lightweight splints and stretchers for the military. After the war, the Eameses put their uncommon expertise to civilian use, designing avant-garde, but egalitarian, furniture. Charles once defined his design philosophy as “getting the most of the best to the greatest number of people for the least.” Eventually, he (tall and chiseled in his characteristic nubby sports jackets and square-tipped Rooster ties) and Ray (short and button-faced in dirndl skirts) came to embody a friendlier, more pleasure-driven, California version of Bauhaus austerity, which stood as a tasteful antidote—if not a scold—to the Cadillac-tailfin excess proffered to prosperous, postwar America by conventional, conformist corporate gray flannel suits.

In addition to designing furniture (the great molded-plywood side chair [1946]), practicing architecture (their famous Miesian “Case Study” house made entirely—and cheaply—from off-the-shelf materials [1949]), and crafting ingeniously portable topical exhibitions (“Nehru: His Life and His India” [1965] and “The World of Franklin and Jefferson” [1975]), the Eameses managed, somehow, to make 110 short films during their multifaceted joint career. Two of them are among the best short films ever made. The very early A Communications Primer (1953) is a classic of pedagogic ingenuity. It uses the simplicity of grade-school felt-board design to clarify and convey the basics of “communication”: a message, originating in a source, coded to fit into a transmitter, sent through a medium, distorted by noise, received and decoded in a receiver, to arrive ultimately at its object. Powers of Ten (1968) is probably the greatest ten-minute movie ever made. No one who’s taken its cosmic, warp-speed, macro-to-micro roller-coaster ride—first to the edge of the universe, then to within the nucleus of a carbon atom, all in order to experience the limits of the size of objects in the universe—will ever forget the metaphysical frisson one gets when the narrator concludes, “. . . that is, one, followed by forty zeros.”

Most of the Eameses’ early films were sheer labors of love, growing out of the couple’s insatiable collecting of G-rated stuff like tops and toy trains, and from their noticing the visual poetry of everyday life. Tops (1957; 1969) and Toccata for Toy Trains (1957) contain, in fact, a kind of Eames film formula: close-ups of nice, shiny objects—cute objects, really—rhythmically intercut to upbeat, jazzy music in a sequence lasting about as long as it takes to listen to a couple of pop singles. Blacktop (1952), a ten-minute paean to the surprising moments of beauty created by hosing down a grammar-school playground, proves the Eameses could work a minor magic no matter the subject. These films might not sound like much today, to people jaded by slick, high-octane MTV videos, but at a time when most nonfiction films were on their way to becoming stentorian fodder for The Atomic Café, the Eameses’ little movies were sweetly revolutionary.

But not perfect. Day of the Dead (1957) depicts (in the words of Eames Design: The Work of the Office of Charles and Ray Eames [1989] by John and Marilyn Neuhart and Ray Eames) “the Mexican philosophy of death and the ways in which the people have come to terms with mortality.” One version of the film is narrated in learned English, with a Mexican accent, by a woman who certainly doesn’t sound like one of the locals. The film amounts to a kind of designer anthropology; if Day of the Dead weren’t so inventive, it would be entirely insufferable. Some films—Lounge Chair (1956), for example, in which a man demonstrates how easily and quickly the chair can be assembled with only a screwdriver—were mere trade commercials for their products.

When the Eameses signed on to help IBM explain computers, their cinematic craft may not have suffered, but, at least in retrospect, their persuasiveness did. Although IBM’s expensive, unwieldy machines would quickly make airline reservations easier and school records more accurate, the Eameses were as blinkered as any corporate flack in their inablility to conceive that someday ordinary people might be able to own a computer and do something with it. Likewise, it’s difficult now to look at the first film the Eameses made for IBM—The Information Machine: Creative Man and the Data Processor (1957), in which the narrator intones that computers represent the “culmination of centuries of tools and systems man has developed to process information”—without immediately thinking it’s an ad for Big Brother rather than Big Blue. In the 1960 film Introduction to Feedback, the subject is (the film’s narrator speaking) “the principle of feedback—the cycle by which performance is measured, evaluated against desired results, and corrected for future performance. . . . Situations as simple as a girl adapting her moves in a game of jacks”—cue the patented Eames super-close-ups: hands, ball, jacks—“and as complex as the mechanical operation of a ball governor regulating a steam engine were filmed to demonstrate the process.” Seen strictly in terms of machines, Feedback is fairly innocuous. But viewed from a liberal humanist perspective—something the Eameses always purported to embrace—the film is more than a little spooky: Not just the performance of a ball governor but people at work in such big corporations as IBM may also be constantly “measured, evaluated against desired results, and corrected for future performance”—most likely by the corporation. Big Brother, it turns out, wears a Rooster tie.

There’s worse. The Expanding Airport (1958) is an infomercial (you could say the Eameses invented the genre) for a hideous plan to save travelers from too much walking before departure (entire boarding lounges made mobile by internal combustion engines), and The Leading Edge (1966) lobbies in favor of Boeing’s god-awful—and, thank god, aborted—supersonic transport program. But it might be unfair to come down too hard on the ’50s Eameses with a late-’90s eco-political truncheon. They were, after all, products of their consumer-utopian times, when corporate technology was commonly thought to be advancing in furtherance of a better life for all. Everybody works for hire sometimes, and not even famous designers can screen their clients too closely . . . or see the future consequences of their projects. We should probably just be grateful that the Eameses, in their films, were making better-looking stuff than anybody else at the time—except maybe for the person who decorated that Christmas tree I saw in 1954.

Peter Plagens is the art critic for Newsweek and a contributing editor of Artforum.