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Long before I had ever heard of Charles and Ray Eames, much less flopped into one of their supremely comfortable and perennially stylish plywood and leather Lounge Chairs – feet up on the ottoman – I nurtured splintered memories of a curious film about toy trains. It was shown at school when I must have been eight or nine.
I have no idea how Toccata for Toy Trains, made in 1957, had got into the mix of stalwart British Transport Commission films showing our nationalised railways cheerfully at work. Yet there it was, a celebration of colourful and wobbly vintage American toy trains seen from a toy’s-eye view and set to a magical score that echoed long and uncertainly in my mind’s ear.

Years later, I was hoping to interview Ray Eames. I never did; she died, in August 1988, shortly before I was meant to meet her in California. But, while researching the Eames, I stumbled across a copy of Toccata, one of more than a hundred films that, it turned out, had been made by the golden couple of Mid-Century Modern American design. Theirs is a style many people will know today from Mad Men and Pan Am. Remarkably, a wealth of Eames designs dating from 1945 are still in production, as desirable and as influential as ever.
A new documentary film, Eames: the Architect and the Painter, by Jason Cohen and Bill Jersey, is a happy reminder of what a joyous talent this formidable husband and wife designer team possessed, and how, from the launch of their first moulded plywood chair in 1946 for the American furniture company Herman Miller, Charles and Ray Eames brought playfulness and colour to Modern Movement design.

Ray, the daughter of a theatre manager and insurance salesman, was born in Sacramento, California, in 1912; she was a painter, colourist and gannet-like collector who wanted everything around her to be bright and beautiful. Charles was an architect by training, born in St Louis, Missouri, in 1907. His father was a railway security guard, who turned to journalism after being wounded in a robbery. Charles had an eye for form and a natural ability (and unstoppable propensity) to communicate new ideas with an originality and chutzpah that remains thrilling, in a Marshall McLuhan-like way, 44 years after his death.

Genius is a word bandied about all too loosely, yet genius informed and underpinned the alluring world created by this gifted American couple. Jason Cohen and Bill Jersey’s intense, visually compelling homage to this special genius is a handsome and engaging reminder of just why Charles and Ray remain so highly esteemed by architects, designers, film-makers and those in the business of advertising and communications today.

If you know nothing, or not enough, about the Eames and their work, this fast-moving film – more Amtrak express than toy train – will set you right. Be careful, though: Eames designs are not cheap. Charles and Ray believed they had a mission to create “the best for the most for the least”, yet as others who have tried to make beautifully crafted objects, whether by hand or with machines, have found, quality does indeed come at a price. (For all his good intentions, every time William Morris crafted some fine new piece of furniture, he felt himself “ministering to the swinish luxury of the rich”.)

In the Fifties, however, the Eames seduced a young, well-educated and well-off American middle class keen to break away from the pre-war world. The Eames’ designs meant the jet age, Audrey Hepburn, dry martinis, Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, Miles Davis, Frank Sinatra, Pierre Koenig’s steel-and-glass Hollywood houses, James Dean, IBM, the space age and… Toccata for Toy Trains.
As Cohen and Jersey’s documentary shows, in a dizzying galaxy of images, the Eames had a special trick up their sleeves. Where Charles had spent a honeymoon in Europe, with his first wife Catherine Woermann, a fellow architectural student, looking at buildings by Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe, the young Ray Kaiser collected vintage Americana, and when she and Charles married in 1941 and drove to California, their joint sensibility gave birth to a body of work owing as much to the very latest in materials technology and production know-how as it did to patchwork quilts, Indian masks, vintage blue-and-white china, and wobbly tin toys.

The very same designers who installed a home-made moulding machine for modern furniture production in the spare bedroom of their first home in Los Angeles were to make whimsical films like Toccata for Toy Trains. When they built their exquisite house at Pacific Palisades in LA, in 1949, this low-cost, prefab steel-and-glass structure was soon filled with the latest in furniture design and Ray’s growing collection of vernacular art. From the ceiling of the double-height living room, they hung a tumbleweed picked up on their honeymoon while heading west, along with a pair of Abstract Expressionist paintings by Hans Hoffman, Ray’s teacher at the Art Students League, New York. To Ray, ceilings, floors and walls were canvases to colour in. Described at the time as “a delicious dumpling in a doll’s dress”, she saw everything as a painting, serving flowers in pretty bowls as pudding to guests at what must have been painfully artistic meals.

Likened to Henry Fonda – “a compliment” said the handsome Hollywood actor – Charles began to believe that “everything connects”, that the worlds of their sleek aluminium office chairs were inextricably linked to Ray’s collections, while those of communications and media were as real as a prefabricated house. It was all getting a little heavy.
Meanwhile, the success of their early designs for Herman Miller had generated large and regular royalty cheques. The income paid for an office and the forensic way of life that went with it. Speaking through Cohen’s and Jersey’s film, former members of the Eames’ design team talk – repetitively, and as if still overwhelmed by the experience – of “coming to work in Disneyland” or of “walking into a circus”.
The LA office was a fast-paced workshop where furniture prototypes were made, as well as a film studio, an art gallery and a place of prodigious productivity. Charles and Ray worked most days from 9am to 10pm, with a resident cook on hand to feed them. The “parents” of Toccata for Toy Trains would have no children – there was no time.

Dedicated to freedom of the imagination, Charles and Ray refused to hold regular meetings – the kiss of death to creative people everywhere – yet were able, through a blend of charm, energy and talent, to design what they really wanted even for the formidable corporations they worked with from the late Fifties, including Boeing, IBM, Westinghouse and the US government.

These dominant organisations, at the height of their power during the Cold War, took Eames designs onto a global stage. For the National Exhibition, staged in Moscow in 1959 and held inside a geodesic dome designed by the maverick American inventor Buckminster Fuller, Charles showed Glimpses of the United States through the medium of seven screens to enrapt Soviet audiences; images of starry night skies gave way to fast-moving snapshots of everyday life in America, ending with close-ups of forget-me-nots. Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet leader, cried: he found it all so very moving. Astonishingly, American government officials had been unable to see the finished show until it opened in Moscow; Charles feared that, if they had, they would have forced changes that would have weakened its impact.

By the early Seventies, the Eames’ work was becoming too intense. Joy, as Cohen and Jersey’s film suggests, had been superseded by egotism, eccentricity even. Charles fell in love with Judith Wechsler, an art historian – one of his many extramarital affairs – and wanted to close the design office and concentrate on photography instead; yet, even now, Ray – or perhaps the idea of the Eames as a design duo – came first. After Charles’s death, Ray spent much of the following decade documenting and archiving their work. The office died with them, bringing to a close an extraordinary roll for a hugely talented couple for whom, perhaps, their single greatest creation had been neither furniture, nor photography, nor films, but their own enduring self-portrait, through design.

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Jonathan Glancey | The Telegraph | Design
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