A Conversation with Documentarian Jason Cohn on Charles and Ray Eames (Part 1)

Late last year I had the pleasure of speaking with Jason Cohn about his latest film project called Eames: The Architect and the Painter, which is set to air in Fall 2011 on the PBS show American Masters. A condensed version of the first half of our conversation is published below. You can find the second half here.

I’ve known Jason for over 30 years and have followed his career with a lot of interest. When I started Curating Los Angeles (CLA) last Fall, I knew I would interview him at some point about his work, since as you’ll learn below, he is as fascinated by Los Angeles as I am and appreciates the many ways that the city has nurtured creative energies and impulses in a wide variety of fields.

Jason Cohn (standing at the far left) with DP Thad Wadleigh and co-director Bill Jersey (seated inside the Eames house). Photo by John Blaustein.


CLA: So how did you come to this project?

COHN: The genesis for it actually came out of buying a house. My wife and I bought this house and we needed to decorate it.  So we just started looking at pictures of interior design and we found that there was this one area that really got us both excited and that was mid-century modern American design. And you know, I’m a journalist and when I find out about something I usually want to find out more so I just started reading about mid century modernism and my first thought was, ok – this stuff wasn’t just about aesthetics, there was an ethos to it, there was a moral / ethical dimension to it. It was a social movement in a sense. So I got really interested in mid-century modernism.

My first thought was we should try and do a documentary about mid-century American designers that would bring in George Nelson, Isamu Noguchi, Eliot Noyes, and Charles and Ray Eames of course. But then the more I read about Charles and Ray the more I realized that they were the most interesting. They encapsulated everything you’d want to say about the mid-century modern movement and they did it in a way that was full of a huge amount of pleasure, color, personality and charisma. And also a lot of idiosyncrasies, a lot of weirdness.

CLA: How did they work as a couple?

COHN: It’s extremely complex. It’s not constant from one period of their work to the next. It’s not even really constant from one project to the next because their skill sets would work one way in furniture and another way in exhibition design or graphic design or architecture or filmmaking. So you can’t say that it was always one way.

When people try and simplify it what they typically say is Charles was the engineer, he was the architect. He was the guy who understood the engineering principles. He was really a savant when it came to materials. He was very brilliant at always seeking out what the newest miracle materials were and figuring out how to design with them. Not just for novelty purposes but designing in a way that really used those new materials to their most fully realized purpose. People also give him credit for being this extremely charismatic figure with a tremendous intellect, who was able to hobnob with an elite class of people – CEOs of major corporations, like Westinghouse and IBM, Polaroid, people in the US government, the Indian government, people who went on to become his clients.

Charles and Ray Eames


Ray on the other hand is usually given credit for providing a kind of aesthetic, artistic refinement to their work. Form in its purest sense was her domain. Color was her domain. People who are professional colorists and met Ray 20 or 30 years ago say they’ve never seen anybody like that before. Somebody who kept in her mind literally thousands and thousands of colors and always knew exactly what color she wanted and had a refinement with color which was way beyond the average graphic designer and way beyond Charles, who had very little interest in color. She was the difference between something being a great design because it functioned well and something being an Eames design because it not just functioned well but was beautiful to look at. One person who worked there called her “the aesthetic conscience” of the Eames Office.

So when you talk about the plywood chair that’s the clearest example probably. There’s a lot of documentation that’s ambiguous about who did what and it gets very complex. But you can make a pretty strong argument that the development of the plywood molding process was largely done by Charles in terms of creating the machinery that made it happen and sort of understanding plywood and glues that bond it. But Ray was probably instrumental in refining the forms of those chairs that are so organic and beautiful and appealing. They look like little animals crawling around on the floor that you just want to touch and pet.

CLA: How much of that perspective is based on Ray’s gender?

COHN: That’s a great question. When she started working with Charles in the early 1940s, industrial design was really dominated by men. So a lot of the template for how things worked was determined by those times. And it sort of fit into a gendered division that made sense to people back then, which is to say the man does the serious work of engineering, the technical stuff. He’s the architect. And the woman is the decorator. She puts the feminine gloss on things. She adds the color, she does the soft stuff. And that made sense to people then and I think it worked. Society put them into boxes. But her role in the firm also reflected her background. Ray studied painting.

She started taking classes at the Art Students League with a man named Hans Hofmann who is usually credited with being the most important modern art teacher in America in the interwar period. He’s a guy who taught people who went on to become major modern painters, like Lee Krasner, Jackson Pollock’s wife, Irv Kershner, the guy who directed The Empire Strikes Back, he just died last week, and Robert De Niro, Sr. – really major painters. And he was very well known as a painter himself, but he was even better known as an art teacher. He fed the New York arts scene that took over the art world in the 1950s.

Ray was one of his first students when he came over from Germany, fleeing the Nazi’s. She studied with him for six or seven years, ‘33 to ‘39 I think. That was her only training – in art, in painting. She did a little bit of sculpture, collage and stuff like that, but it was really in painting.

His teaching was really all about how you create structure within a two dimensional picture plane. So that was the extent of her understanding of structure and design. It was purely from a painterly perspective. She took that and she did manage to apply it to things like chairs and then later to making films and stuff like that. But she had no architectural background or engineering background. She was not skilled in that sense, so she enters the design world only able to contribute that aesthetic sensibility. And Charles, to his credit, knew that wasn’t his thing. He recognized in Ray somebody who had great training within this limited area. But that’s what he cherished in terms of her ability to contribute to the design staff.

CLA: Is that also what opened the path to making films?

COHN: I think that came from Charles for the most part. I think at some point he just felt like he had things to say that couldn’t be expressed in furniture. It was too small a stage. He was really interested in photography and he got a hold of a movie camera. I think he made his first film when he was still at Cranbrook in 1939 – it’s not much of anything. But when they were living in Los Angeles together they were surrounded by this film community, so they had access to stuff and they had people working in the office like John Whitney, who was a major Los Angeles experimental filmmaker. They just started doing stuff, making these little films. And they started getting more and more sophisticated.

CLA: How much actual source material is there that reflects their thinking?

COHN: There’s a guy named Dan Ostroff who is doing a book right now which is going to be the first time that anybody has tried to compile all of the known speeches, articles and interviews by Eames. So it’s basically Charles Eames in his own words. And nobody has really done that for the reason you alluded to. It wasn’t clear there was a whole lot.

But they were interviewed quite a bit and right now a lot of what we’re spending our time doing is hunting that stuff down, trying to find the best quality prints of stuff that might have been on film. One thing that we’re going to be able to show for the Eames fanatics out there is Charles and Ray being interviewed, or film by and about them that a lot of people haven’t seen. You know, they’re very idiosyncratic as speakers, so it’s sort of an acquired taste. But they’re really interesting.

CLA: It sounds like the story is evolving organically as you’re discovering more about the subject. What’s the process you’ve been going through?

COHN: It’s been a five plus year process. A huge amount of time was focused on just raising the money, of course. We had to go through the federal government for a lot of our money and that process forces you to do your homework. You have to really know your story. You have to interview dozens and dozens of people, you have to read everything there is to read. You have to be able to express it in the form of a treatment or script in a way that can convince people you’re going to be able to tell the story.

But having said that I kind of feel like I’m making the film twice, because the first stage was doing all that [i.e. the above process] in order to get the money, but really that product is not a film – it’s a script and a fundraising proposal and all of that. So what I had was sort of temporary material. It wasn’t real.

So now we’re doing the real interviews on camera and I’m finding that it’s not always the same. Some things are more interesting to me now than they were a year or two ago when I was raising money. I’m definitely finding a new sense of the story we want to tell. To me it’s a little bit more idiosyncratic. It feels less like just trying to tell a straightforward, chronological biography of these two people and their work. And trying to get a little better sense of who they were. Let their personalities, their idiosyncrasies come out. Maybe not just show the most famous works but the stuff that’s a little bit less expected. And I think a lot of that is a byproduct of my having spent so much time with it. I’ve moved past the most essential story.

CLA: Five years is along time to spend on anything and I’m sure that there were plenty of times you wished you just had the money and could get going on the project. What sustained your interest?

COHN: Yeah, I was sure I was ready to make the film three years ago, or four years ago, and I could have made a film but I don’t think it would have been as interesting. You can enter the door of the Eames in any number of ways, I think that’s a metaphor that I stole directly from [Charles’ grandson] Eames Demetrios, but most of the doors into the Eames work, into the Eames world are very very accessible. You look at the plywood chair or the fiberglass chair. You just look at them and go “Oh, that’s delightful, I love that, that’s great.” And that’s how you start. But you can keep scratching deeper and deeper with almost everything they did and you find that there is almost always something at the next level. It’s profound design. It’s profoundly considered, profoundly thought-through. Everything they did is about solving problems. And their design process was about understanding the problem or understanding the need at the deepest possible level. The Eamesian solution is much richer, much more beautiful, much more satisfying. I would say that’s what sustained my interest.

Part 2 of my interview with Jason Cohn was published on Friday, February 18th and is found here.