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‘Eames: The Architect and the Painter’

by Kaori Shoji

Produced by Jason Cohn and Bill Jersey (there is no director credit), documentary “Eames: The Architect and the Painter” examines Charles and Ray Eames, one of the 20th century’s most enduring and influential couples in industrial design. They were eccentric, too: In the film, a colleague of the Eames’ talks about how he was invited for dinner and was confused to discover that the after a light meal, dessert was “visual” — meaning inedible ornamental flowers.

Charles was an architect-school dropout and Ray (born Bernice Kaiser) an unsuccessful painter when they met in the late 1930s. Charles ditched his wife and child in 1941 to embark on a creative/connubial partnership with Ray, whom he saw as the one woman who got what he was trying to do. (She drew the blueprints for what would become the classic Eames chair with dire results, but they soon rectified that.)

The couple hurled themselves into their work, guided by Charles’ mantra of “the best for the most for the least.” They believed design should be for the masses at affordable prices, and this belief played a part in defining the postwar lifestyle of the American middle-class. Now, of course, the Eames chair and the plywood coffee table are coveted items among design aficionados. I know no fewer than three men whose killer pickup line goes something like: “I have an Eames chair at home if you’d care to stop by.”

The film itself is pretty hectic, bogged down in places by the couples’ frenetic energy, which they poured into their work like wet cement into a building foundation. Narrated by James Franco, the fun parts in “Eames” are its archival footage, often pulled from the couples’ own films.

They were obsessive documentarians of their own work, which was devised almost exclusively in their colorful studio nicknamed The Eamery. Here, as they traipse from work table to ladder to makeshift stage, the Eames’ often come off like bubbling, adorable design elves (especially Ray), busily making Americans happier and more attuned to their coffee tables. On the other hand, the couple were apparently hard to work with and work for: They refused to credit their studio underlings and often stormed out of meetings. Ray was a victim of Charles’ womanizing, though the film never delves into that very deeply.

Depth is not what “Eames” is about, though it could have benefited from digging below the surface and making the story a bit more intimate. But the Eames’ were famed for putting up a wall of impenetrability even though they professed themselves designers of the people, and encouraged the masses to put design and utility on the same aesthetic level. No one really knew them, and the film leaves it at that, content to circle around their work without shedding much light on their personalities.

In many ways Charles and Ray may be as mythical and enigmatic as Steve Jobs, another design giant who altered the way we see the world and conduct our lives (also famed for being a demonic boss). That’s probably how they’d have wanted it.

For a chance to win one of five special “Eames” file folders, visit jtimes.jp/film. The deadline is May 20.