Q & A with Jason Cohn, Director of American Masters - Charles & Ray Eames: The Architect and the Painter

The PBS documentary explores the achievements and artistry of a couple who changed the world.

By , Columnist

Charles and Ray Eames might not be household names but from 1941 to 1978 their work helped shape nearly every facet of American life. They were pioneers in the use of new materials and architecture. Their ideas changed the way Americans furnished their homes. From their architecture and furniture, to their photography and design work for corporations, their work was a major influence artistically and culturally both during their lifetimes and today.

The PBS American Masters program Charles & Ray Eames: The Architect and the Painter is Jason Cohn’s first feature documentary. Cohn, the film’s producer and co-director, previously produced programs for PBS, and has written documentaries for National Geographic and public television. He is a great admirer of the Eameses and their work and he spoke with me about the making of the film and the influence his subjects had on the world.

eames2.jpgWhat was it about the story of Charles and Ray Eames that inspired you to make it the subject of your first feature documentary?

It was my dream to make a film about these people who were so incredibly productive and creative and purposeful in their creativity. They didn’t just make stuff to sell it and they didn’t make stuff for a frivolous sense of beauty. They made films and exhibitions and objects that really had a sense of purpose underlying them. That, I think, was a big part of it for me.

My interest, like most people’s, started off as a surface-y, aesthetic appreciation of what they made. But it didn’t take long reading about them and reading them in their own words a little bit to come to an understanding that there is a philosophy at work in their design work sense. They didn’t just make stuff for frivolous reasons. They made stuff because they believed it moved society forward in one way or another.

In the era in which they lived, it was unusual to find a woman working side by side with her husband.

I think in the story that we tell about Charles and Ray she was often kind of in the shadows — not because he put her there but because society put her there — I think that that was actually a surprisingly common phenomenon. Even in the design world you come across many other cases of women who were very important and active behind the scenes in design studios or architecture studios. And only in the ‘70s or ‘80s when people with sort of a feminist agenda started looking at their work did it come out how important they were. In England there was Robin and Lucienne Day, who were a sort of Eames-ian British designing duo. They were married and I think he got most of the credit. So I think that that kind of thing was actually pretty common.

I think that what might be more unusual is the fact that Charles really did make an effort to push her forward and Charles and Ray were generally featured side by side with almost matched clothing. Definitely a sense of it as being a tandem, a designing duo. I think that that was unusual.

The documentary is beautiful visually, with all the wonderful footage your were able to unearth. Viewers who were previously unfamiliar with the Eameses' story will certainly be able to appreciate what the couple achieved, as well as realize how so much of what they designed is familiar to them.

I think the real pleasure of the film for people will be to make a connection with something that they’re familiar with but they didn’t know the story behind it and they didn’t know the people who made it. This is certainly true with a lot of the furniture but also some of the films. There are people who might have gone to the IBM exhibition in 1964 in New York [World’s Fair], for example, and not really known. They might have gone as a kid. Their parents brought them and they didn’t know anything about Charles and Ray Eames.

That was me.

You’re not the first person to say that.

Charles came up with many interesting adages like “Take your pleasure seriously, never let the blood show,” which were as simple and straightforward as the products he created. Do you think for all his complex ideas he was basically a simple guy?

No, I think he was an enormously complex guy. And those slogans are kind of riddles in a lot of ways. I think you can look at them simply but they’re not. There’s a kind of oracular quality to them. He said, “Design is a method of action.” Well, what does that mean? “Take your pleasure seriously, never let the blood show” doesn’t just mean be serious about having fun. It means that pleasure is serious business and games and toys are a prelude to serious ideas. And you can learn a lot by seeing how people take pleasure in objects, for example. So no, I don’t think that he was simple. I think that his ideas were actually complex and profound and that he was kind of complex as a person.

eames_think.jpgIn this sense, you can make a very strong comparison between Charles and Steve Jobs.

I think since we’ve come out with the film, a lot of people have made the comparison and I think it’s quite valid. First of all, I think that Steve Jobs himself clearly admired Charles and Ray and considered them his design idols. When he did his ‘Think Different’ campaign, I remember seeing Charles and Ray on one of the billboards and they were the only people you didn’t recognize. Everyone else was like Muhammad Ali and Albert Einstein, people you instantly recognized. And then there was Charles and Ray — a kind of funny, cute 1950s couple on a billboard. I had no idea who they were and it was much later that I figured that out. I think that he put them up there for personal reasons, not because they would resonate with everybody the way Muhammad Ali would.

I know for a fact that Jobs was influenced by Eameses since I had conversations with people at Apple. I know for a fact that he really admired them and I think that there is an Eames-ian design ethic that permeates Apple. I think that they had a very similar approach to things. Steve Jobs was famous for saying, “The market doesn’t know what it wants until you show it to them,” and I think that’s the way the Eameses treated the market as well. They didn’t let focus groups and market research drive the way they designed and created. They let their own ideas or the ideas of people they really respected drive what they did.

In your film you make the point that Eames made agreements with corporations with a handshake. It could never work like that today.

He was lucky. It was just the time and the place. It was a generation of designers who had the ear of major corporations who were true believers in it. They formed a kind of alliance. Corporations like IBM or Herman Miller were like Medici. They [worked as] sponsors.

Why haven’t there been documentaries made about the Eameses before?

I think there was one in Germany at some point. In English, the last one was in 1973. It depends on what you call a documentary. We’ve been saying this is the first documentary since their deaths but there have been documentaries and shorts put out in very limited distribution. I feel comfortable saying that this is the first feature length documentary since Charles and Ray died.

How long did it take you to make the film?

From beginning to end it was something like six years but most of that really was fundraising and research. Once we started to get production money in and for the actual shooting and editing it was probably about two years or a little bit less. We feel like we covered most of the major areas of the work that they did. I think it’s a good introduction.

Do you think viewers will be surprised at the scope of the couple’s vast legacy?

That’s exactly what I hope. I hope that people will be amazed by the variety and the breadth of the work that they did. I hope that they’ll be inspired by the gumption that it took for them to defy categorization. That’s sort of the joke of the title that he was an architect and she was a painter. In their time, the typical thing would have been, okay, if your training is in architecture, that’s what you do. You make buildings. And if your training is as a painter, that’s what you do. You paint canvasses. Charles and Ray absolutely defied that. They took those definitions as only definitions of their training and that training put a perspective on things. They recognized that that perspective could be applied to almost anything.

American Masters-Charles & Ray Eames: The Architect and the Painter premiered Monday, December 19 on PBS. Check PBS's website and your local listings for more air times.

You may also view the entire program here on the PBS website.

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Mindy Peterman is a freelance writer whose focus is on television, movies and pop culture. She has written over one hundred articles for the award winning Blogcritics.org website and has conducted interviews with producer Peter Asher, psychic-medium John Edward, Greg Grunberg and Bob Guiney from Band…

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