Design in motion

Eames on Film

Legendary designers Charles and Ray Eames, seen here, also made more than 100 short films, some of which will be screened at the Nevada Museum of Art.

Legendary designers Charles and Ray Eames, seen here, also made more than 100 short films, some of which will be screened at the Nevada Museum of Art.

Photo courtesy of Eames Office, LLC/Copyright 2006

Charles and Ray Eames were the dynamic duo of American design.

“No, Ray is not my brother,” Charles said, probably more than once. They were a husband-and-wife creative team whose sprawling Venice, Calif., studio housed a museum’s-worth of their decades-long exploration of forms and ideas. More than a museum’s-worth, actually. Their encyclopedic output of furniture design, photographs, films, toys, architectural plans, sculptures, prints and just about anything else that could be designed or built was divvied up among several museums after Ray’s death in 1988. (Charles passed away in 1978.)

The Nevada Museum of Art, while it wasn’t a recipient of Eames memorabilia, is offering a brief glimpse into the prolific world of the Eames aesthetic, marked by post-war efficiency, functionality, Ray’s pearly 1950s smile and a remarkably approachable classiness.

A few Eames chairs appear in the NMA’s 100 Chairs, 100 Years exhibit, including the 1956 lounge chair and ottoman, a cross between living room furniture and office furniture that is currently in production. (Herman Miller reissued it this year.)

The Eameses made more than 100 films, each between one and 30 minutes long, a few of which the museum plans to screen next week.

Charles and Ray were always concerned with process and experimentation, and their penchant to dig beneath the surface of every idea to see what complexities or wonders could be scraped from beneath it is illuminated by their range of approaches to filmmaking. Some of the films are instructional, with the requisite authoritative ‘50s voiceover. Some are narrative or documentary. Some are ambient, such as one consisting of several minutes of footage of graceful, abstract motion that’s really nothing more than a close-up of bubbly water rinsed off a car as it’s being washed. (You need to watch it for a minute to figure it out.) Collectively, the films document enough slices of the Eames’ inner workings to begin to get a handle on their complex creative processes. Their wide-eyed wonder at the world—art, society, science, everything—emanates quietly from the screen.

The 1977 film Powers of Ten begins with a couple picnicking in a park in Chicago. The camera appears to zoom out at a rate 10 times the original distance every 10 seconds until the viewer is looking at the scene from outside the galaxy. The camera then apparently zooms back in at the same rate until we are looking at the nuclei of the atoms in the skin of the man’s hand. This is easily the Eames’ most famous film. There’s a Powers of Ten book. There’s a poster. The Eames Foundation has even deemed an official Powers of Ten Day, Oct. 10. The “holiday,” casts an appropriately wide Eamesian net. According to the foundation, it’s “for , librarians, architects, designers, parents, store owners, webmasters, businesspeople, scientists, filmmakers, gurus, parents, kids and anyone wanting to extend the boundaries of their thinking.”

But if you don’t want to wait until October, the museum offers a rare chance to see a small selection of the big-thinking Charles and Ray Eames’ films on the big screen, where they were meant to be seen. If you can’t make it, or if you’re hooked on them after seeing a small sample, go straight to your Netflix queue. The films are collected on a six-disc DVD set.