Masters of Design

I went and saw some films by Charles and Ray Eames today. The Eames, who were active basically from the 40s through the 70s, were "designers" in the broadest sense of the word. Many of the classic pieces of furniture that perfectly characterize the 50s and 60s were Eames designs (they were the ones who first figured out how to shape plywood along multiple axes); you've probably sat in dozens of Eames chairs in your lifetime. They also curated museum exhibitions, designed homes, and made films. Lots of films, in fact, each either about the nature of design itself, or deploying their astonishing sense of aesthetics and function to make some point with grace and impact.

Their most famous work is Powers of Ten, a documentary film that starts with a closeup of a man sunbathing on a Chicago beach. Then, every ten seconds, the scale increases by a power of ten, zooming out through the atmosphere, the solar system, and out beyond the galaxy. At a scale of 10 to the 26th meters, the journey reverses, and we descend back to the beach scene and then down to the subatomic level, 10 to the minus 14th meters across. It's a remarkable film, one of the most genuinely boggling attempts to communicate the mind-boggling variation in scale our universe contains I know of.

Also on the bill, though, were several lesser-known films which I thought were even more fun. Tocatta for Toy Trains is a beautiful celebration of classic toys, set to a charming Elmer Bernstein score. Atlas is a map animation, eight years per second, of the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, and watching it, you understand just how cataclismic the the Huns' westward push was, from the perspective of everyone else in the way. And House: after 5 years of living, a wordless montage of still photographs of their house -- most of which aren't even of the house itself, capturing instead the light falling across a flower, or an arrangement of plates on a table --, is an amazing testament to the Eames' design vision.

Walking out of the theatre, I realized what it was I felt when I saw their work on screen: I felt patriotic. It's easy to scoff at decades past, to gasp at their architecture, their obsession with plastic, to fill your house with gaudy pieces of "retro" furnishings and luxuriate in your temporal syncretism. But for Ray and Charles Eames, these furnishings had a deeply human meaning: the first thing Charles Eames did before designing what would become his signature chair was to go out and measure hundreds of people's butts. And their films and exhibitions are a celebration of a wonderfully American design sensibility. Their house. built as a showpiece from readily-available standard industrial materials, is a marvel of comfort and appealing lines; watching the films, you're deeply aware how much the couple taking the photographs loved their house, what a sense of the beauty of things they had.

The Eameses look marries simple components with advanced technology; clean lines with delicious clutter. They responded to the visual rhythms of the capacitors and microchips and wires that were driving the computer revolution, and to the musical rhythms of jazz and Bach. Designers aping them, and blindly applying visual formulas they developed, have been responsible for a lot of atrocities over the decades. But you can't blame the Eameses for that; such was never their vision. And to look at their work, quintessentially American in its inspiration and so influential that it came to define American design for a generation, is to remember what lies underneath, the purity and beauty of a complex understanding of simplicity and its limits. Design isn't just a look, it's a spirit and a way of doing things, and any country that can create and itself be created by the Eames spirit has got something good going.