As I walked into filmmakers Jason Cohn and Camille Servan-Schreiber’s home in Berkeley, California, a wave of déjà vu swept over me. An abundance of color and warmth, a pronounced playful sentiment… then the connection struck me: the décor bore many of the elements found in the work of two of the most influential mid-century modern designers, Charles and Ray Eames.

Cohn’s first exposure to these design pioneers was in college when a friend introduced him to The Films of Charles and Ray Eames DVD set, about which he said, “I was just kind of blown away by the [films]… I didn’t really know what to make of them because they’re just so esoteric and weird and eccentric, and they don’t fit into any clear categories of any kinds of films I’ve had previous experience with. They weren’t art house/experimental films; they weren’t informational-type films; they weren’t, you know, narrative films by any stretch of the imagination. They were just their own thing. But they were very, very beautiful, and the images stuck with me.”

He revisited the topic when he and his wife/co-producer, Camille Servan-Schreiber, were renovating their home. Given Servan-Schreiber’s French background and Cohn’s time spent in Los Angeles, the two had rather conflicting ideas about how to approach the project. A compromise was discovered when they realized they both shared an attraction to the Eamesian aesthetic. As a result, Cohn’s journalistic nature compelled him to research all things related to modern design and was particularly fascinated by the story behind the Eameses. He brought the idea to his colleague (and later co-producer), Bill Jersey, who loved it. And so, the seed was planted to create their documentary, Eames: The Architect and the Painter.

The film focuses on the story behind the Eames name. Not only is it an accurate historical representation that conveys the magnitude of influence that Charles Eames had on design, but it also draws to light several themes that are often overlooked: Ray’s contributions, the inner dynamics of the Eames Office, and (what Cohn hopes viewers take from the film) that “design is not a surface art.” “It solves problems,” said Servan-Schreiber. She also said that due to time constraints, the film is just a small piece of the greater story that could be told about the couple’s fascinating lives and prolific career. Yet the film manages to capture the essence of the Eames: their “spirit, whimsy, and eccentricity.”

Narrated by James Franco, the film visually manifests the trajectory the Eameses followed: beginning with the famous plywood chair, creating the Eames Office in LA, establishing the Eames name, making sure their designs evolved with the development of technology, etc. Eames: The Architect and the Painter includes people like Charles’ daughter Lucia; the Eameses’ grandson, Eames Demetrios; and those who were actually working in “The Eamery” (e.g. Jeannine Oppewall, Deborah Sussman, and Gordon Ashby) to give accounts that reveal a humanizing perspective of the Eameses. Cohn explained, “There had been biographies written about [the Eameses], and a lot of people knew about their work, but I felt like their personalities and personal lives and their life stories were kind of a black box because they were so private. And also because the Eames family didn’t like to talk about that stuff; they liked to only focus on, you know, their accomplishments as designers, and the Eames family had always kind of controlled the story quite a bit. And so I felt that the only way to get inside that black box and to reveal them as people would be to spend time with the people who kind of knew them best, in a sense, and those were the people who were in that 24/7 work environment with them all the time. But I was worried that these people wouldn’t be very good storytellers and, you know, a lot of them were getting a lot older… so I was a bit worried about that. And even in the interviews, they would be kind of discursive, and I was never that confident that they were going to carry the story. It really wasn’t until the edit that we started to see how good some of them were. And they just really were. It’s not just that they were so insightful about Charles and Ray, but their feelings for Charles and Ray…” “There’s just so much love. And feelings of admiration and respect that come through,” Servan-Schreiber added. “I think that, in a way, they had been waiting for an opportunity to sort of open up about their time in the Eames Office and about Charles and Ray,” Cohn said.

With respect to the process of creating the documentary, the team behind the film seemed to have experienced a very different path than what the Eames Office followed on projects like those for the US government and IBM (a more trusting arrangement in both cases). Instead, because of the restraints dictated by funding and an advisory board, scripts had to be developed and researched in early stages: “They want to make sure you’re doing your research, and they want to make sure you’ve talked to the best people in the field,” Cohn said. “The next stage was where we started saying, you know, these people are very smart and have a lot to say and they’re really interesting, and they’ve provided all of the background we need to know, but is that really the story we want to tell? And that was when we realized we wanted to spend more time with the people who knew [the Eameses] very well: the people who worked with them in the office,” he added.

“In our case, because the whole process of fundraising took about six years, and as some of these people were getting older, we started production five years ago—but very little bits and pieces. So over the course of several years, we accumulated a number of interviews. By the time we got the rest of the money to really get into production and get the rest of the interviews and get the editing done, some of these interviews had been lingering for a while, so there was a process of rediscovery of who these people were. So when we sat down in the edit room, it was wonderful to see it all once again. And then it really felt at that point we could decide how to really do this film,” Servan-Schreiber said.

Cohn further commented on the six-year process: “There’s something really cool that happens when the course of the film gets elongated [due to fundraising, etc.]: you start to discover new things that interest you,” citing the realization that the most common knowledge about the Eameses became “conventional and sterile” and their fascination with the Eameses’ eccentricity resulted. And the film indeed successfully portrays this dynamic alternate side to the well-known story about the Eameses.

With Eames: The Architect and the Painter in theaters since September 29th, Cohn said, “I would want people to walk away thinking about how design can serve society at a deep level and to dispel this notion that design is about providing that surface gloss for some trendy new feature that’s going to help sell products.”

TEXT BY Shilpika Lahri