American Masters – Charles & Ray Eames: The Architect and the Painter presents the first film made about America’s most important and influential designers, Charles and Ray Eames, since their deaths in 1978 and 1988, respectively — and the only film that explores the link between their artistic collaboration and sometimes tortured marriage. Jason Cohn and Bill Jersey’s definitive documentary delves into the private world the Eameses created in their Renaissance-style, Venice Beach, California studio, where design history was born. Narrated by James Franco, the film premiered nationally Monday, December 19 as the 25th anniversary season finale of American Masters.
From 1941 to 1978, this husband-wife powerhouse brought unique talents to their partnership. He was an architect by training; she was a painter and sculptor. Together their work helped shape the second half of the 20th century and remains culturally vital and commercially popular today. Best known for their beautiful and functional, yet inexpensive furniture, most notably their signature molded plywood “Eames chair,” Charles and Ray’s influence on significant events and movements in post-World War II American life – from the development of modernism to the rise of the computer age – is less widely understood.
The Architect and the Painter crafts a fascinating, complex blueprint of two great American artists and provides a candid view of their emotional lives as they apply their genius to practical problems and innovation. The film draws extensively from a virgin cache of archival material, visually stunning films, love letters, photographs, and artifacts produced in mind-boggling volume during the hyper-creative epoch of the Eames Office. Critics may argue about how to delineate Charles and Ray’s respective roles in their prodigious design output, but American Masters reveals how they and the Eames Office designers actually dealt with questions of authorship and control. Interviews with Charles’s daughter Lucia, his grandson Eames Demetrios, Eames Office designers, director/screenwriter Paul Schrader, TED founder Richard Saul Wurman, noted architect Kevin Roche, design historians, and others guide viewers on an intimate voyage through the “Eames Era,” shining a light on the genuine legacy of their design – that which elevated aesthetic refinement and functionality to a higher plane.
The Eameses applied the same process of inquiry to large-scale exhibitions and their quirky, beautiful films, which pushed the envelope for communicating complex ideas to mass audiences. The Architect and The Painter tours their landmark house in the Pacific Palisades and incorporates clips from their films (“Tops”) and exhibitions for clients like IBM (“Powers of Ten”), Westinghouse, Polaroid, and the U.S. government (“The World of Franklin and Jefferson”). The technique known as “information overload,” was one of the most lasting Eamesian innovations, as seen in 1959’s Cold War project “Glimpses of the USA,” featuring thousands of images of American life projected simultaneously on seven enormous screens.
“This is a particularly personal project for me,” says Susan Lacy, series creator and executive producer of American Masters, “because I had the great privilege of knowing Ray and Charles Eames. They introduced me to the concept of design through their magical, whimsical and beautiful work – their artistic vision affected everything they touched. I am thrilled to have these true masters as part of American Masters.” This year the series earned its eighth Emmy® Award for Outstanding Primetime Non-Fiction Series in 11 years.