The Best for the Most for the Least


Though best known for their furniture designs, Charles and Ray Eames made more than 125 films—striking attempts “to get across an idea.”

Still from Powers of Ten.

The movie theater is a gauge for datedness. From the darkened seats, insurrectionary giggles further distance the audience from the screen, which plays on foolishly. Last month, when Metrograph screened a selection of films by the designers Charles and Ray Eames, the image of a white woman in a starched A-line dress, batting her eyelashes while caressing a S-73 Sofa Compact, hit a ten on the theater’s laugh-o-meter; it hadn’t aged well since 1954. But it’s important to understand why the Eameses cast her and how her seductive touch becomes that of the camera’s eye, shifting the focus from woman to sofa and seeming to connect the two. Both are ready to endure spills, support children, and foster intimacy, signaling wholesomeness and modernity at once. “There is no predicting what may happen in the life of a sofa,” the narrator said in all seriousness, unaware that he was speaking to a theater of skeptics.

Charles was trained as an architect and Ray as a painter. During World War II, they found recognition for the leg splints and aircraft parts they’d designed for the U.S. Navy. Their Case Study No. 8 house in Los Angeles has become an icon of midcentury design, but they’re best known for their furniture: the sofas, chairs, and tables of molded plywood and fiberglass that became fixtures of the sixties home and office. Lesser known are their toys and exhibitions, and more obscure still are their films, of which they made more than 125 between 1950 and 1982. 

Charles had grown frustrated by the complications and compromises inherent to large building projects. “I’ve chosen to do things which one can attack and better control as an individual,” he said. “Furniture design or a film, for example, is a small piece of architecture one man can handle.” He had worked briefly as a set designer in MGM’s art department in 1941, and his close friend Billy Wilder once hired him as “photographic consultant” for the montage sequences in The Spirit of St. Louis. But the Eameses’ films were unconnected to nearby Hollywood. Short, experimental, nontheatrical, and nonnarrative, they belong more to an avant-garde or independent tradition—and sometimes a commercial one. Charles said himself, “They’re not experimental films, they’re not really films. They’re just attempts to get across an idea.”

As filmmakers, the Eameses obeyed the design dictum that form follows function: they applied whatever approach would work best for the subject. They held mirrors to the lens to create abstract, psychedelic effects. They used narration and music, thirty-five-millimeter slides, and stop-motion techniques. They sped up footage or slowed it down. They embraced color film and black-and-white. They spoke through animation or actors, or made cameos themselves.

The couple’s main motto was “to make the best for the most for the least”; a designer, they believed, should be “a very good, thoughtful host, all of whose energy goes into trying to anticipate the needs of his guests.” Emphasis on the efficiency of connection is what made their furniture so easy to assemble and durable, but these same qualities open their films to charges of oversimplification and datedness. The editing tends to be airtight—each shot maintains a logical clarity in service of a tidy narrative arc that leaves no opportunity for misinterpretation or discomfort.

The Eameses’ contemporaries in avant-garde filmmaking in Southern California were Maya Deren and Kenneth Anger, whose work was concerned with the ambiguous depths of the subconscious, eroticism, and the occult. Deren criticized Hollywood and positioned herself in the bohemian art world; Anger’s films were banned for obscenity. Both filmmakers spent little money on their films and made little to nothing from them.

In contrast, the Eameses made branded content. Their clients were IBM, Boeing, Polaroid, Westinghouse, ABC, and Herman Miller, Inc. The films were often made for internal use, to explain products to sellers, or to promote the benevolence of the brand. Since their clients trusted them enough to give them complete creative control, the Eameses may have seen their partnership as a distribution method, a way to reach “the most,” but they were also marketing themselves as a brand. “Charles and Ray Eames were especially well suited partners for America’s progressive industries,” writes the design historian Donald Albrecht. “Young and successful, the Eameses embodied a forward-looking perspective that fit well within the nation’s expanding capitalist economy.”

Still from Think.

In fact, the couple may have been the tech sector’s original creative consultants. The Eameses were the first to humanize the computer for the public at a time when the machine was a complete mystery, and a threatening one. In The Information Machine (1958), they used animation and storybook-like narration to draw a friendly line from the dawn of human toolmaking to the computer. Their most ambitious multimedia work pushed the capacity of the medium and its platform, as when they designed Think for IBM’s Pavilion at the 1964 New York World’s Fair: a spectacular, twenty-two-screen live lecture about problem solving, and America’s first taste of information overload. IBM also distributed what’s become their best-known film, Powers of Ten. Its root, as with most Eames projects, is the human in his everyday life. Viewed from above, a graphic box of one square meter draws itself around a man napping on a picnic blanket. The view then expands exponentially by a power of ten every ten seconds, quickly pulling us from the borders of Chicago into the outer reaches of the observable universe and then plummeting back to the man before inverting into negative powers of ten, ending up at the center of a carbon atom in his hand.

Today’s America appears to be exponentially distant from the Eameses’ when it comes to technology. Charles and Ray could never have expected the Internet, nor Silicon Valley, smartphones, or apps. But just as in Powers of Ten, the link between our time and theirs can be seen as a simple matter of scale: it’s the rate of the change that leaves us dizzied and disoriented. Their philosophy of being “a very good, thoughtful host, all of whose energy goes into trying to anticipate the needs of his guests” has distorted into the ever-expanding “life hacks” promoted by app developers. Need is no longer anticipated, it’s generated by the technology itself.

The Eameses were lovers of mass production. They always emphasized the process of the many hands and machines that labored together to get their products to the showroom floor. To them, it was the choices and procedures that gave their products value. Today, technology’s role is to erase the process. Apple doesn’t want you to ask where and how and by whom their products are made. Apps offer a designed interface that makes life easier, cutting the corners of procedure and social interaction. The Eames Office was revolutionary in its embrace of invention, experimentation, and collaboration. Today, tech companies offer a similar setting with amenities like Ping-Pong tables and free beer, but no benefits or contracts. This all feeds into the hands of the techno-utopians at the top of each start-up, the ones who call themselves “change agents” and “disrupters” but are, at their core, up-by-your-bootstraps capitalists attaching ethics to the very nextness of the next big thing.

*

One week before the Eames films screened in New York, I was waiting at the gate for a delayed flight to Los Angeles. When I called Priceline about my rental car, the recorded hold message was not music but a man trying to be funny. He told me trivia and corny jokes about travel that fell flat on purpose. Being a captive audience of one, I stared at the strangers huddled around the few chargers available in the airport terminal, tapping aimlessly on their phones. In what branding strategy meeting, I wondered, had they decided to insert whimsical cuteness, cloying character, into this straightforward situation? A person calling Priceline Customer Service has a high likelihood of being in distress. After I hung up I immediately got an email about my call, reminding me to download the Priceline app.

Between the Eameses’ time and ours, brand loyalty has vanished, and along with it the self-assured fantasies companies used to promise. These days, brands are self-conscious and needy. The idealism and directness of midcentury advertising is the very reason we laughed at the woman enjoying her Eames sofa. Earnestness and sincerity are outdated, uncool, and often offensive. Instead, what’s relevant is cynicism, and the brands that share and validate our neuroses can commiserate, but prove unaccountable and unreliable.

On my final morning in LA, I visited the Eames Case Study House in the Pacific Palisades. The house is the ultimate monument to Eamesian ideology, though it was never mass-produced. Built in 1949 as part of the Case Study program to make a model of a modern home, it was made of two cubes—one home, one studio—which the Eameses lived and worked in until their deaths. The house, built Erector-set-like with off-the-shelf parts in just a few days, was designed to fit in, not interfere with, the meadow and line of eucalyptus trees on the site. When I went, the meadow was covered in a layer of mulch and the eucalyptus trees were being pruned. A man was on the house’s flat roof, blowing leaves off with a loud whir. The interior has been preserved just as they Eameses left it when they died, except for the fresh cut flowers in the vases.

Later, waiting in the airport security line at LAX—the diametric opposite of the Eamesian good host model—I felt a little guilty as I consulted my iPhone photos to reflect on the experience. Those images don’t do the house the justice that the Eameses did in what is their most poetic, associative, and moving film, House: After 5 Years of Living. Made as an exercise in looking at architecture through the medium of film, it begins without a sponsor, simply proclaiming, “Made by Charles and Ray Eames,” and beneath that “House … 1949, Film … 1955.” It was Charles’s idea that stills could better express the house than a moving camera, and hundreds of images process without explanation, accompanied by Elmer Bernstein’s score. There are no people, just a mise en scène—textiles, paintings, rocks, candles, hard-boiled eggs, toys, feathers, philodendrons, an Eames chair, perfumes, moss, film equipment, marmalade, combs, the distant plane of the Pacific Ocean, the mess of dishes in the sink and of fallen leaves on the wooden walkway. As dawn turns to dusk, the diversity of form and color is exaggerated by the house’s skeleton, a grid that holds glass panes varied in opacity and pattern, the windows becoming frames and lenses.

The Eames goal was to make the house a home, the chair a host, the film an understanding. The uncharacteristic looseness of House: After 5 Years of Living shows us the lifestyle they weren’t just marketing, but living themselves: a work-life balance of two equal parts, all situated in respect to nature. No one in the theater laughed at it.

Sarah Cowan is a freelance writer and a video editor at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She lives in Brooklyn.

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