Mr and Mrs Eames: Sleek designs and a complex life

Designer duo: Charles and Ray Eames.

Designer duo: Charles and Ray Eames.

It is hard to remember whether there has ever been a big Hollywood production about the mid-century modern-design world, but certainly the series Mad Men played into the planetwide appetite for sleek wooden sideboards, organically shaped table lamps with tall ­conical shades and individualistic-looking chairs that seem to have human ­personalities.

It is the industrial-design milieu and the people who inhabited the post-war living and work space, that form the core of the 2011 work by Jason Cohn and Bill Jersey.

The documentary is showing at this year’s Encounters documentary film festival in Johannesburg and Cape Town. 

The wartime and post-war development of materials that could adapt from the war zone to the living room and the post-war lifestyle provided a springboard for a journey that would propel Charles and Ray Eames into the centre of a world obsessed with the “new”.

But while Cohn and Jersey’s documentary provides a definitive résumé of the important work undertaken by the design world’s first couple, it is their relationship that, arguably, ranked alongside their furniture as a wacky act of creation itself.

The film contains plenty of no-holds-barred interviews with the people who knew and worked under Charles Eames.

One emphasises the hierarchy because a number of them express their ambivalence about their part in constructing Charles into an almost religiously revered design icon, and the film hints that he took sole credit for the efforts of a collective. 

If there is a character who emerges as slightly tragic, enormously ­talented and somewhat misunderstood, it is Ray Eames.

Archival footage, the archival archaeology of letters and office doodles and eyewitness accounts tell the story of a world-class artist who lived in the shadow of her famous husband, and who brought a unique creative twist to every project the studio undertook.

Yet Ray Eames seems to have sacrificed something of herself in order to be part of the Eames empire.

South Africans should see the documentary because such information cannot be accessed anywhere else.

It has examples of most of Eames’s work, including his many short films (often made with automated tin toys), his ground-breaking ­exhibitions and the couple’s ­visionary ­prefabricated house.

By watching the work, self-proclaimed aficionados will learn that Charles Eames was so much more than a moulded plywood and leather lounge chair with a footstool.

The so-called Eames lounge and ottoman of 1956 has been knocked off so many times, it has entered the realm of the vulgar.

Yet, in many other ways, Eames ­created an environment that prefigured the world we know today.


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Matthew Krouse

Matthew Krouse

Matthew Krouse is the arts editor of the Mail & Guardian, a position he has held since 1999. He has edited two anthologies: Positions (Steidl, Jacana Media 2010) about artists engaging with politics in South Africa today, and The Invisible Ghetto (GMP, 1994) a compilation of creative writing about gender. His essays have appeared in collected works about arts and culture here and abroad. He has worked in the theatre for over a decade as an actor, writer and senior publicist at the Market Theatre. Read more from Matthew Krouse

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