A Conversation with Documentarian Jason Cohn on Charles and Ray Eames (Part 2)

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 second half of our conversation is published below. If you missed the first half, which was published on February 15th, you can find it 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 (left) and Co-Director Bill Jersey. Photo by John Blaustein at the Eames House.


CLA: To what degree is Eames Demetrios involved in the project?

COHN: I think he’s going to be one of our key storytellers. He knows their story inside out. But he also brings his own perspective to things, which is quite interesting. I’m really looking forward to the interview with him. He’s that very rare interview where he can provide perspective and insight at multiple levels. He actually grew up with them – had experiences with them. I think Charles died when he was sixteen. He would spend summer days at the office kind of interning. So he even had a sense for how the office worked a little bit. He knows a huge amount about their work, but he also knows the greater design world, some of the big design issues. He’s pretty clued into all that stuff.

Today his main work is running the Eames office, which is still a going concern thirty years after Charles died. They still have all of these relationships with Herman Miller and Vitra and the licensing of all of those designs and all of the images and film.

CLA: Do they create new products or are they really managing the existing intellectual property?

COHN: I think what they’re primarily doing is managing the existing intellectual property. They get involved with some changes in the furniture. For example, probably the only major changes since Charles and Ray died have to do with environmental concerns. The original plastic chairs were made with fiberglass-reinforced plastic, which seemed like a good idea at the time, but it’s actually pretty toxic stuff and it doesn’t recycle because you can’t separate the fiberglass from the plastic. So the Eames family got involved with basically redesigning that. So now the chairs are made out of polypropylene, which is a much more green material. So they get involved with that kind of stuff, but they’re not really involved with designing.

CLA: When I was preparing for this interview I found this reference to a book called The Story of Eames Furniture. It seemed to imply that other designers had more to do with furniture design than the Eameses themselves. What do you make of that whole argument?

COHN: So the author of that book, Marilyn Neuhart, is a really interesting person. She knew Charles and Ray fairly well. That book is enormously controversial within the community of people who know a lot about the Eameses. There are people who worked in the office who say Marilyn really nailed it and then there are those who say she fabricated lots of the stories or chose the most negative interpretation of everything Charles and Ray ever said or did. We interviewed Marilyn for our film understanding that she has an agenda, which is quite clear. And the agenda is to bring out of obscurity the people who worked in the Eames office, including her husband, John Neuhart.

The Eames office was so unbelievably productive. There was so much coming out of that place at any one time that of course Charles and Ray couldn’t have done it by themselves. So they had, just like in any major architectural or design firm, a lot of people [working with them], very often young people, very often underpaid and under credited. It gets into some very complex issues of authorial credit. There’s a difference between saying that somebody is the person who actually did most of the hands-on work and saying that that person is the designer of something. And most of the people who I’ve talked to say, “Well, maybe I didn’t really get the credit that I deserve.”  But very few of them would say that they consider themselves the designers of anything that came out of there. Almost to a person they say “Oh no, no, no, it was a Charles and Ray Eames design. I did most of the work but it was a Charles and Ray Eames design.” It gets into very sticky issues of how you delineate all of those things.

I think people should read her book [The Story of Eames Furniture]. But if you only read her book you would get a perspective, especially on Ray, that is shared by a small minority of people. She’s very negative on Ray – to the extent that you kind of wonder what’s going on there. There are a lot of people who really, really respected Ray, but Marilyn I don’t think is one of them.

CLA: What you’re saying is that after talking with the people who worked in the office, most give the credit to Charles and Ray.

COHN: Right. One of my favorite people who I interviewed in the Eames office is a woman named Jeannine Oppewall, who in her post Eames years has had a remarkable career in Hollywood. She’s the production designer, or set designer, for many major Hollywood films like LA Confidential and Pleasantville. I think she’s won a couple of Oscars, or at least she’s been nominated for a couple of Oscars. She’s really an amazing set designer. To paraphrase what she said on the subject, she said, Oh, I was exploited, but I was happy to be exploited. She said I was happy to be exploited by a proper master, which is how she described mostly Charles, but Ray, too. She was very fond of Ray.

The Eames office operated as an old-fashioned apprentice system. Charles believed that a young person who was working there and doing hands on stuff was getting an education in design that would serve them well and if you look at the alumni of the Eames office it’s pretty clearly true. The people who came out of there – a huge number of them went on to have important careers in their own rights.

CLA: How did Charles and Ray Eames end up in Los Angeles?

COHN: What happened was Charles and his friend, Eero Saarinen, won this competition from the Museum of Modern Art for some furniture. The problem was that it was supposed to be mass producible and they couldn’t really figure out how to mass-produce it. So he said, “Ok, this is sort of my ticket, if I can figure out how to actually make this stuff, how to mass produce it we’ll be able to get into Bloomingdales and all of these stores and then I’ll be a successful furniture designer and we’ll have money.” Charles and Ray had just fallen in love and they were in Michigan. So I think what he did was say “Let’s get out of here. We’re going to go somewhere where we can work on this stuff together.” And they weren’t going to go back to St. Louis, where Charles was from, that would have been a dead end. Ray was from Sacramento but that was a cow town in 1940. And I don’t think Ray wanted to go back to New York, where she had been studying with Hans Hofmann.

So Los Angeles kind of beckoned. It was the new city. It was a very modern city. It was a place where there were a lot of modern architects working – much more than in a lot of other places. Also, believe it or not back in the 1930s, Charles just had this idea that maybe they could make these weird little films about art and architecture and stuff. So he just sort of had this idea, even back then, that he could have the kind of career that he ended up having, which was sui generis, nobody had ever had it before. Nobody had ever been an architect, filmmaker, designer, graphic designer, exhibition designer, before. They wanted to do it and Los Angeles is the place where anything can happen.

CLA: So Los Angeles represented opportunity for them.

COHN: I think it did for the whole country. It was the late 1930s – the beginning of that tectonic shift where Los Angeles was beginning to become a legitimate counterweight to New York. There were opportunities there. Aerospace was there. The movie industry was there. Los Angeles had a huge manufacturing sector. If you look at their career they took advantage of everything that Los Angeles was good at.

CLA: What do you think their legacy is for the City of Los Angeles?

COHN: Wow, that’s a great question. Well, I think that their house is a lasting legacy that’s being lovingly maintained by the Eames Foundation and the Eames family. I think the Eames house represents a lot of the best that Los Angeles has had to offer. It’s this little jewel box. It’s unpretentious; it’s kind of small. It’s the opposite of the McMansions that are popping up all over Los Angeles.  It’s a model for what housing should have been like in Los Angeles or should be like in Los Angeles. So there’s that.

The Eames House (Case Study House #8)


But looking at it more grandly, I would say that they captured a spirit, a West Coast, Los Angeles spirit, in almost all of their design work, that’s very hard to put into words because it is so many different things. Its colorful, it’s delightful, it has a sense of humor, it’s fun, it works unbelievably well, it’s deceptively deep.

They also captured the essence of this moment in southern California when life was still grand – there was endless opportunity. It was before things started to turn kind of dark in Los Angeles. So I think that’s the legacy. Sadly I don’t think Los Angeles is still the Eameses’ Los Angeles. But at the very least they left us an image of what it was that if nothing else lets us look longingly back at that time.

CLA: Like every era, that one is defined by multiple, overlapping realities. You could make another film that’s set during the same time period and it would tell a totally different story and reveal a completely different reality that reflects life for a particular segment of the population.

COHN: I kind of think about it as the Eames bubble. When you were working in the Eames office your whole life was essentially there and that was true for Charles and Ray too. I bring that up because we were talking about the Eameses in their time and I think they are so interesting in the way that they kind of reflect their times and then in other ways it’s almost like they’re in a bubble that had nothing to do with the times. They were in Venice Beach in the middle of the 1960s. The Doors were in a beach flat down the road, but it’s like they were completely oblivious to all of that stuff. They were completely not hippies – politically they were liberal and they seem to have been aware of the world, what was going on in Berkeley and Venice and these places. But it was just outside of their bubble. Their bubble was their work and the problems that they were trying to solve. It’s just very interesting. But at the same time in some ways they represented the best of their time. I think they were really ahead of their time in recognizing the talents of women.  Their workforce was pretty multi-racial. They were sort of oddly in tune. They walked to the beat of their own drummer I guess is what I’m saying.

CLA: What was life like in the Eames office?

COHN: If you’re going to walk away from a book or movie about the Eameses knowing one thing, it’s that these people worked their asses off. They were unbelievably disciplined. And it wasn’t just Charles and Ray, it was everybody who worked in their office. The culture of 901 Washington Blvd. was about work. You worked and you worked and you worked and you worked, but they didn’t consider it work because they enjoyed it so much. There were no boundaries between work and play and work and the rest of your life. It was hard to have a family. That’s part of why they liked young people, they didn’t really want people with kids. If you had kids, you had to go back to them.

But when people talk about those times it’s not with a sense of resentment for how hard they worked. It’s with a sense of awe that they were allowed to work on such exciting stuff, that whole worlds were opened up to them through the work of the office.

CLA: I have one last question for you. In addition to this film about Charles and Ray Eames, you’re working on a documentary about Prop 13, another story that’s inextricably linked with the City of Los Angeles and southern California. Is there something about Los Angeles that you find intriguing or that’s really drawing you? You’re not making films about the city itself, but you are finding subjects that clearly have a connection to this place.

COHN: It could just be coincidence, I don’t really know. But I do find that even though I’ve lived in the Bay Area for as long as I lived in Los Angeles, I still consider myself an Angeleno. And I’m much more interested in the history of Los Angeles than I am in the history of the Bay Area. I’m not sure why that is exactly. I guess it’s just sort of something that gets in your blood.

Look, Los Angeles is a fascinating place, it really is a fascinating place. San Francisco is a fascinating place too and maybe one day I’ll find myself wanting to know about all these things the way that I do about Los Angeles but for some reason Los Angeles has always sort of had its hook in me. I really love reading about it and talking to people about it and I love going there, I love visiting there. It’s not really a town I want to live in right now. I find that it’s not as livable a place. But I think it’s one of the most interesting places in the world and I’ve always felt that it gets a bad rap.

In my years in exile from Los Angeles I spend all of my time defending it because most of the people who talk shit about Los Angeles don’t really understand Los Angeles. They don’t understand what a dynamic place it is. They don’t understand how many creative people there are. They talk about how shallow it is and all of that. It’s like: “You have no idea. The most creative and brilliant people are in Los Angeles  – or a lot of them are.” So I think Los Angeles is grist for endless storytelling.