For our second Design & Technology lecture we watched the 2011 documentary; Eames: The Architect and the Painter. The documentary is about the husband-and-wife duo of Charles and Ray Eames who are widely regarded as America’s most important designers. Best remembered for their mid-century plywood and fibreglass chairs, the Eames office also created a mind-bending variety of other weird and wonderful products, from splints for the wounded military to photography, games and toys for some of the largest brands and corporations of that era (IBM, Boeing, Polaroid). The documentary also touches on their personal lives whilst living in America including the development of modernism and the rise of the computer age.
I am no film critic but here is my take…
I was very impressed by the documentary about the crazy innovators. I found it fascinating, and at times a little oblique, just like the famous couple themselves. However, I felt that “Eames” is not as successful in delving into the emotional world of the couple. Despite the very interesting archival footage and the fascinating interviews with designers who worked with the couple over the years spent at their Disneyland-like warehouse, there is little backstory to give us a sense of what these two people were really all about. It seems they were impenetrable during life, and remain so in death. Whatever the case, the documentary ultimately succeeds as a celebration of creativity and a childlike spirit that is in all of us, if we just harness it. So 4/5 stars from me.
Bearing all of this in mind, what I really took away from the documentary was the wonderful and fascinating design process that Charles and Ray Eames practiced. In the documentary it was described as though they “take their brains out and knead them like dough!”. It’s amazing to watch and it was this experimental and sometimes childish approach to design, design by doing, that really inspired me. Charles used to say; “we don’t do art we solve problems”. I like that.
The Eames office created low cost high quality goods for the masses, or otherwise described as “best for the most for the least” and were extremely successful doing it! So much so that I am writing this very blog post whilst sitting on my very own, (replica) Eames DSW side chair, almost 70 years after they were first released.
This ties in nicely with my question to myself for this semester; “How to design a product to last a lifetime?”. The simple and functional designs are still just as popular today as they were when they were first released. Why is this? What makes a particular piece of furniture desirable throughout almost a century of different trends, fashions and interests? On the contrary, why are some products designed, sold and simply forgotten about only a few years later?
Part of me used to think that this could only be achieved with limited run, ‘hand-crafted’ item using rare, high quality materials. But these chairs were mass produced, single-shell, moulded fibreglass (later re-introduced as injection moulded plastic). So perhaps it actually comes back to this extensive, imaginative and innovative design process explored in the famous ‘Eames office’ of 901 Washington Boulevard, California.