Charles & Ray Eames: The Architect and the Painter – A Q&A with Filmmaker Bill Jersey

December 14, 2011
Filmmaker Bill Jersey. Photo courtesy of Quest Productions.

Inside Thirteen recently spoke with New Jersey-based filmmaker Bill Jersey, co-director and producer of American Masters’ upcoming documentary, Charles & Ray Eames: The Architect and the Painter.

The film, which is narrated by James Franco,  explores the lives of the iconic couple, whose innovative work continues to influence the design world to this day. Here, Jersey discusses his inspiration for the film and the Eames’ lasting impact on American culture.

Charles & Ray Eames: The Architect and the Painter premieres Monday, December 19 at 10 p.m. on THIRTEEN.

Inside Thirteen: What inspired you to make this film?

Bill Jersey: [Co-director and producer] Jason Cohn. Jason fell in love with Eames’ movies, of all things, and when he bought his new house with his wife in Berkeley, he had Eames furniture. All I knew about Eames was that I was in Minneapolis with my then girlfriend and now wife, and she said, “Oh, my friend has an Eames chair.” I said, you live in Minneapolis, my children live in San Francisco, and I live in New York. What am I going to do with a chair?” I sat in an Eames lounger, and within five seconds, I said, “I’ll take it!” I didn’t think about what it would cost, how I would get it anywhere — I loved it. I’ve sat in it every day in my house and my office for the last 30 years.

Also, Jason did a lot of research, and I realized that the Eames, as Charles was of course fond of reminding people, were not just designers of chairs. Their philosophy, their way of being in the world and their excitement about everything — that excitement was infectious. To me, that’s what the film is about. It’s creating excitement around them, as they created excitement around their world. They inspired all kinds of people. A financial magazine in Norway that had one of the biggest circulations did a review of one of the Eames’ exhibits, and people said, “What in the world is a financial magazine doing with the Eames’ show?” But that was what was so exciting about them, they touched every world, and the film touches every world.

So that’s why I did the film…in the beginning it was, “Why not?” but then at the end, why? Because it’s so rich, so varied, and so much fun. Someone told me, “This is not your typical PBS show.” Well, I think that they were not your typical people, so if we made an atypical show, it’s because we had atypical people to make a film about.

IT: What kind of person did you have to be to work for the Eames?

BJ: Well, first I think you had to be fairly thick-skinned. Charles was not an easy person to work with. A friend of mine, Bill Couturié, a very well known filmmaker — his first job was with Charles. He went out on shoots and was scared to death that Charles would hate everything he shot, but he actually liked one out of nine. And Bill said, “Boy, did I feel good!” But then Charles added, “Well, one in nine is good; if I’d have shot it, nine out of nine would have been good.” He was a very tough task masker, in spite of his charm and dimpled chin. But obviously, as my favorite character in the film Jeannie Oppenwall said, “Well, I was exploited, but I was exploited by a proper master.” And as she said, you’d be really stupid if you didn’t exploit the relationship.

IT: What do you think the Eames’ greatest contribution was to American culture and design?

BJ: For me, it’s personal — they produced something that when you sat in it, you wanted to buy it — that’s a major contribution. Like Charles says in the film, they felt like they were the hosts, and the hosts had to prepare their guests something they would like. I think that attitude, and also the attitude that the designer’s job was not to be clever, or creative, or original — it was not to be an “artist” and certainly not a genius. The job of the designer is to satisfy a problem.

When Charles did the “Mathematica” exhibit for IBM, as creative as it was, it was an attempt to get people to understand what a computer could do and that it wasn’t a dangerous monster that would transform their lives into a number. So, I think it was attitude and a design sense. You still have people talking about Eames era. And there is so much knock-off Eames stuff; you know the difference. It saddens me that when you go into airports today, instead of seeing the Eames stadium seating, which is wonderful and attractive, there are cheap versions. You feel like, why did they do that? Why do farmers take a tomato that tastes delicious and redesign it so it ships and doesn’t taste like anything? But I do think it’s coming back. I think most people like it because it’s comfortable and attractive.  To me, that’s their greatest contribution, saying, “You know, what we should be about as designers is making something that works, and works better and with more beauty than ever before.” I think that’s why Steve Jobs was such a success. That’s why The New York Times connected Eames to Jobs — both of them set out to solve a problem. They weren’t about trying to create something pretty; they were about trying to do something that people needed done. But, once they accomplished that, they wanted to make it attractive.

IT: What did it mean for the Eames’ career and reputation at the time to be selected to put together such high-profile international projects like “Glimpses of the USA,” representing the U.S. to the Soviets in Moscow, and the IBM Pavilion at the 1964 World’s Fair?

BJ: “Glimpses of the USA” made their career soar, as well it should have. Charles’ greatest interest was in ideas. “Glimpses of the USA” was not to show off; I think he just loved doing what he did. When he did the do-nothing machine, for instance, that was just because he liked to play. This was a guy who never grew up — he was never ashamed of what he did.

I think “Glimpses of the USA” was their biggest impact. They were lovers — with one another, with the world, and with their work. And that came through, so that it wasn’t just information well told (which it was). It was a kind of a love affair with America that Charles had that made him a good propagandist, because he really believed that this was a good country for him and for the rest of us. I think the inspiration derived from the enthusiasm and the commitment, as well as from any mechanics of design.  So while the chairs changed their careers as designers, “Glimpses of the USA” changed their public roles as filmmakers and communicators.

IT: Do you think the disparity between Charles and Ray’s positions in the company, at least in their public roles, was a product of the time, or was it because of their personalities?

Charles and Ray Eames. Photo courtesy of Herman Miller.

BJ: It was a product of the times; it was a product of Ray’s acceptance of that role of the times. Not every woman accepted that ‘stand behind the man’ role. Many others stepped out from behind and said, “I’m not going to stay behind that guy because I’m the one that’s doing it.” But at the time, the man was up front and you just accepted it…there was a certain level of comfort in that for her I suspect, but I don’t know. But she wasn’t shy in relation to the world. We never really got that in the film, but a number of people talked about that. She’d go to New York City and she’d walk down the street, and she would see everything — she would see the crack in sidewalk that had a great shape, she would see a little flower that wasn’t normally a flower. Everything attracted her, which of course terrified people when she was driving a car because she would even do that while driving! She’d look to her left and say, “Oh did you see that?” And the others in the car would say, “No we didn’t, and we don’t want you to!”

IT: Are there any misconceptions about the Eames that you hope this film will clear up?

BJ: Yes — the misconception that they were chair designers. Charles was a superstar; he was handsome, charismatic, famous. One of our delights was that moment where we looked at that letter Ray wrote to Charles in France where she revealed that she and some other people worked on and made some changes to the chair’s design. That was the kind of unarguable evidence of her contribution. As we look back, lots of people say, “Oh, Ray did this, Ray did that.” My hope is that people will see them as complex human beings and see the complex relationship that they had.

IT: You’ve produced many documentaries for public television, including for WNET in the past. What has attracted you to PBS as a venue for your films?

BJ: Many reasons. The shows I did for network television in the 1960s were similar to the shows I did with PBS. But 1960 was a very different world in television. There were four stations – three commercial networks, and PBS. Shows I did for network television at the time were part of The DuPont Show of the Week in 1960. The FCC was very aggressive in insisting that the networks provide information instead of just entertainment, so that The DuPont Show of the Week said, “Okay, we’ll do 13 dramas and seven documentaries.” And they couldn’t care less what we did! So it gave us the liberty to do whatever kind of film we wanted. That’s where I got my first Emmy in 1963. So it was a very different world then, and you could get attention doing network television; in a limited way, but a significant way. Whereas now, if you want to take a serious subject and make a sincere work that has nuances in it and doesn’t get cut up in five pieces so that you have to restart every ten minutes, there’s no place but PBS. Ken Burns said it well — he could’ve gone to commercial television, but there’s no reason to!

I did a two-part series for Fox on the Mob, but that’s all they want to do! All they [commercial networks] want to do is the Mob, sex and violence. Who wants to do a show on a guy who designed chairs and made pictures?  Only PBS, and only American Masters. We felt that this was the place we could really address substance rather than just surface. Where you could really engage in the pursuit of light rather than just heat. I don’t know where else you go besides PBS.