If you’re reading this, chances are good that you live in the modern world, or at least visit it from time to time. But what do I mean by “modern”? It’s a too-broad term that always requires a definition. Sometimes, for brevity’s sake, we settle for listing the names of artists who brought modernity into being. When it comes to the truly modern in industrial design, we get two names in one—the husband and wife team of Charles and Ray Eames.
The design world, at least in the U.S., may have been slower to catch up to other modernist trends in the arts. That changed dramatically when several European artists like Walter Gropius immigrated to the country before, during and after World War II. But the American Eames left perhaps the most lasting impact of them all.
The first home they designed and built together in 1949 as part of the Case Study House Program became “a mecca for architects and designers from both near and far,” notes the Eames Office site. “Today it is considered one of the most important post-war residences anywhere in the world.” “Famous for their iconic chairs,” writes William Cook at the BBC, the streamlined objets that “transformed our idea of modern furniture,” they were also “graphic and textile designers, architects and filmmakers.”
The Eames’ film legacy may be less well-known than their revolutions in interior design. We’ve all seen or interacted with innumerable versions of Eames-inspired designs, whether we knew it or not. The pair stated their desire to make universally useful creations in their succinct mission statement: “We want to make the best for the most for the least.” They meant it. “What works good,” said Ray, “is better than what looks good because what works good lasts.”
When design “works good,” the Eames understood, it might be attractive, or purely functional, but it will always be accessible, unobtrusive, comfortable, and practical. We might notice its contours and wonder about its principles, but it works equally well, and maybe better, if we do not. The Eames films explain how one accomplishes such design. “Between 1950 and 1982,” the Eames “made over 125 short films ranging from 1-30 minutes in length,” notes the Eames Office site, declaring: “The Eames Films are the Eames Essays.”
If this statement has prepared you for dry, didactic short films filled with jargon, prepare to be surprised by the breadth and depth of the Eames’ curiosity and vision. Here, we have compiled some of the Eames films, and you can see many, many more (15 in total) with the playlist embedded at the bottom of the post. At the top, see a brief introduction the designers’ films. Then, further down, we have the “brilliant tour of the universe” that is 1977’s Powers of Ten; 1957’s Day of the Dead, their exploration of the Mexican holiday; and 1961’s “Symmetry,” one of five shorts in a collection made for IBM called Mathematica Peep Shows.
Just above, see the Eames short House, made after five years of living in their famed Case Study House #8. The design on display here shows how the Eames “brought into the world a new kind of Californian indoor-outdoor Modernism,” as Colin Marshall wrote in a recent post here on famous architects’ homes. Their house is “a kind of Mondrian painting made into a livable box filled with an idiosyncratic arrangement of artifacts from all over the world.” Unlike most of the Eames designs, the Case Study house was never put into production, but in its elegant simplicity, we can see all of the creative impulses the Eames brought to their redesign of the modern world.
See many more of the Eames filmic essays in this YouTube playlist. There are 15 in total.