‘Eames: The Architect and the Painter’ or why feminism matters

Nowadays, if you hear the name Eames you might think of a certain tough detective on the long-running “Law & Order” series. Before her , Eames was a cultural movement. The “Eames Era” of modern furniture, style and advertising began as the Americans were coming off of the victory of World War II and flush with economic prosperity. Jason Cohn and Bill Jersey’s documentary looks at the lives and loves of the Eames who were based in Venice Beach, California. Ray and Charles, were often confused  as brothers, but were a husband and wife team during a time when women were not considered equals to men.

Charles has trained to be an architect but left Washington University in St. Louis after two years of study. Born in that city in 1907, he was the nephew of St. Louis architect William Eames and by high school he was working part-time at a steel company. He met his first wife, Catherine, at the university and married her in 1929.

In 1930, Charles formed his own architectural practice but he moved to Michigan to study architecture at the Cranbrook Academy of Art and became a teacher and head of the industrial design department. Besides designing what would be the beginning of his groundbreaking chair design, Charles met Ray-Bernice Alexandra Kaiser whom he married in 1941 after his divorce from Catherine was finalized.

With the Sacramento-born Ray, Charles moved to Los Angeles where they settled at 901 Washington Boulevard in Venice Beach for their design studio and designed the Eames House in the Pacific Palisades area of Los Angeles in 1949.

Ray had been a painter before meeting Charles.Afterward, she became, according to the documentary, a painter who didn’t paint. Instead, she was a stylist, one that set the tone for their company.

The Eames were best known for the chairs–using molded plywood, fiberglass, plastic resin or wire and generally designed for Herman Miller. They also helped popularize scientific exhibitions, beginning with the 1961 “Mathematica: A World of Numbers…and beyond” which was sponsored by IBM. IBM was also behind their 1971, “A Computer Perspective: Background to the Computer Age” which was meant to calm fears  of the general public toward computers.

The documentary suggests that the company was run like many Internet ventures would later be run at the beginning, where work was play and long hours and absolute dedication were required. But there was also a matter of credit. Charles took credit for everything his team did. And because of the sexism of the time, Ray, who was an equal partner and contributed to the look, style, color and presentation, was marginalized.

The businessmen wanted to talk to Charles, not Charles and Ray. The works were originally credited only to Charles. Even when they appeared together, as in a clip of the couple on the “Anne Francis Show,” Ray was characterized as the woman supporting her man. Perhaps Charles was a bit uncomfortable, but perhaps he was also a man of his times and seduced into believing that he was the sole creative force.

Her resolve must have been further tested when she saw her husband stray, just as he had turned to her when married to Catherine. There is always a karmic danger in marrying someone with whom you committed adultery. The women at the company almost uniformly describe him as charismatic. At one point (that we know of), Charles was looking to leave Ray, and was only stopped because the woman confesses, she couldn’t do that to Ray.

Charles died in 1978. Ray tried, but couldn’t quite keep the work going and settled into cataloging their creative output. It wasn’t until recently that Ray was given credit.

The documentary includes interviews with family members (Charles’ grandson and daughter) as well as former Eames office designers. Yet one longs to know more about Ray, who died 10 years to the day after Charles. Our modern sensibilities particularly as Americans owe a lot to the creative genius of the Eames and their Eamery and yet without the feminist movement we would all still be just hearing about Charles Eames. This intriguing documentary is timely considering the current collaborative exhibition “Pacific Standard Time” because it shows the impact that California had on American and international culture and style.

And yet it seems to present another question, one not of if the West Coast has culture, but how there is a split between Westside culture and everything east of downtown. The Eames were definitely Westside: the studio in Venice Beach, the Pacific Palisades home and the new Herman Miller showroom in Culver City.

Herman Miller is about office and healthcare furniture systems. Herman Miller began as Star Furniture Company in Zeeland, Michigan in 1905. It became Herman Miller in 1923.  The new showroom  was awarded a LEED CI Platinum certification, but Herman Miller’s Eames’ designed showroom opened in 1949 on Beverly Boulevard.

The design was connected to the Eames House, not under the administration of the curious Eames Foundation. Currently the contents of the Eames House living room are on display at LACMA. It’s part of the “California Design, 1930-1965: Living in a Modern Way” that opened 1 October 2011 and closes 3 June 2012.

You can visit the home, but for $10 you only get to tramp around the exterior on a self-guided tour. A reservation is necessary. For an interior tour, you’ll have to make it on the Saturday closest to Charles and Ray’s 20 June wedding anniversary which is Members Appreciation Day. There are also private guided tours of one-hour and limited to two adults with reservations required a week in advance for a fee or a picnic for four with food provided in the meadow. If you really like the Eames House you can have a party there (limited to 50 participants) or even a two-adult only overnight stay where you’ll be welcomed by Charles’ grandchildren and have breakfast at the back studio.

Charles said his design was “the best for the most for the least” and that motto is more about industrial arts than craft. In Pasadena, really San Marino, the exhibit “The House that Sam Built” looks at one of the Eames contemporaries who was more concerned with the individual, individual pieces and building a community.

Maloof who was nine years younger than Charles (born in 1916) was a California native, born in Chino. He attended Chino High School and worked at the Claremont-based Vortox Manufacturing Company after graduating from high school.

Maloof served in the U.S. Army during World War II in the Pacific and returned to California in 1945. He married Alfreda Louise Ward in 1948 and they lived in Ontario, California where Maloof made his garage into a furniture workshop. They moved to Alta Loma in the city of Rancho Cucamonga in 1953 where he could build his own studio.

Maloof was also famous for his chairs, but instead of a studio like the Eamery, he built up a circle of friends who exchanged their work and ideas (and got individual credit) while living in and around Claremont in the Pomona Valley. If you’re not in Los Angeles, Claremont is east of Pasadena, taking 30 minutes to an hour by car.

Maloof also built chairs to order, some even for offices (one of display intentionally made uncomfortable to keep the meetings short), but he was known for making beautiful wood chairs and rocking chairs for individuals.

The Maloof Foundation is in Rancho Cucamonga (don’t you just love that name?). The exterior of the house looks like a homey fortress. You can go an a docent-led tour for $10 per person ($5 for students). Currently on exhibit is “In Words and Wood: Sam Maloof, Bob Stocksdale and Ed Moulthrop” which features woodturnings from the foundation’s Arts and Craft’s collections.

The weekend, (26-27 November) the Maloof Foundation is hosting a Mexican Fold Art Weekend with a free fiesta lunch offered on Saturday. They also have pruning and planting workshops in the spring.

If you want to get an idea of the value of the chairs, the Los Angeles Modern Auctions has a Charles & Ray Eames DCW prototype chair on auction 11 December 2011. LAMA estimates the chair will go for $100,000-$150,000. Other more modest items include the Charles & Ray Eames lounge chair (1956 with black leather and rosewood) that has an estimated value of $1,500-$2,000.

In lot 153, a Sam Maloof custom cabinet goes for a minimum of $10,000. A side table (lot 154) has a minimum of $6,000. Looking for locally (Altadena), John Moran Auctioneers offered a Sam Maloof rocking chair of walnut and ebony from 2002 for an estimated $30,000 to $40,000 in 2009.  I haven’t been to the LACMA exhibit yet, but at the Huntington, they’ll let you sit in a genuine Sam Maloof chair and it’s comfy!

Maloof identified himself as a woodworker. He was considered a craftsman instead of an artist, but the Eames were involved in industrial art and even commercial art. While Alfreda seems to have fulfilled a more traditional role of the homemaker, especially compared to Ray, the Huntington’s exhibit includes the objects made by women (Kay Sekimachi and Marion Stewart for fiber, Laura Anderson, Betty Davenport Ford, Martha Longenecker for ceramics and Jean Ames and Ellamarie Woolley for enamels).

In the humble construct of the chair, you can see the diversity and the rich cultural contributions that Southern California and the Pacific Coast has made to American and international culture. These two creative communities existed at the same time in the same general region and that’s something to keep in mind when watching this documentary.

“Eames: The Architect and the Painter” opened on 18 Nov. 2011 at the Music Hall and will open at the Pasadena Playhouse 7 26 Nov. 2011 (as well as the Monica 4-Plex, the Town Center 5 and the Claremont 5).

If you miss it, “Eames: The Architect and the Painter” will also be on PBS  in December.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.