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In 1956, the designers Charles and Ray Eames appeared briefly on the NBC television show Home – presented by the actor Arlene Francis – and introduced their new lounge chair and ottoman: probably their best known work. Charles, with his crew cut and bow tie, submits to Francis’s cooing description of his talents, but subtly reminds her that his wife and creative partner is waiting in the wings. “She is behind the man, but terribly important,” asserts the host awkwardly.
It’s an embarrassing interlude from one of the great collaborations in 20th-century design. Charles had trained as an architect, and Ray as a painter. Their design career began in the 1940s with moulded plywood furniture and early plastic chairs. Based on a philosophy of “learning by doing”, born out of a busy and generous studio culture, their work expanded to include buildings, toys and exhibitions. The NBC television spot hints at other ambitions: a decade after their first celebrity, and on the occasion of unveiling a luxurious signature piece, the Eameses are eager to plug the film they have just made about their house in Pacific Palisades, Los Angeles. As a new exhibition at the Barbican in London shows, by the mid 1950s they were producing films and multimedia presentations that are as much part of their formal and intellectual legacy as their furniture or the glass-walled Eames house itself. Charles had taught himself wet-plate photography as a child, was in the habit of documenting his life and work obsessively, and encouraged studio employees to do the same: “I’ll do anything to give an excuse to take photographs.” He and Ray had met at Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan, married in 1941 and moved to California in the same year. Before they had set up their design studio proper, Charles got a job in the art department at MGM, where he made friends with Billy Wilder and took countless photographs of Hollywood stage sets. Making films, he would later say, was a “terrible, enjoyable bloody business”.
Despite their immersion in the west-coast image industry, the Eameses never conceived of the hundred or so films they made as movies per se, or even as experimental films. […]