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.
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.