An interview with jason cohn. Eames: The architect and the painter.
[DesignApplause] We’re talking with Jason Cohn, the co-director/writer of the documentary film Eames: The Architect and the Painter. Jason, please tell us a little about your background and the role you played making this film.
[Jason Cohn] I consider myself a journalist, I’m not a design historian by any stretch of the imagination. I’ve done work in almost every medium. Writing for print, online, radio and television. The last 10 years or so I really focused on documentaries. I’ve always worked on other people’s documentaries and this is the first time I’ve had the chance to create a documentary from scratch, raising the money, producing and directing. So this film is my first feature documentary. And I worked with another great director on this, Bill Jersey.
[DA] Jason, how old are you?
[DA] Do you consider this first effort a success?
[JC] It’s much more successful than I ever thought. I really didn’t have a sense how broad the interest in Charles and Ray was. I knew that it was deep, but I thought that the number of people who were really interested in Charles and Ray was kind of limited to design professionals, people in the A&D (architecture & design) community, the design geeks. What I found since making the film is that design is like music in a way. You don’t have to be a professional musician to really appreciate it, to be a fan, to want to surround yourself with the best of it. To carry that analogy further, I see Charles and Ray as the Beatles of design. Everyone who cares about modern design loves them, just like it’s hard to find people who like rock music but don’t like the Beatles. It’s fantastic that a lot of people like the film, but what I’m really taken with is the number of people who have come to see it in theaters, buying the DVD, the reach is very large.
[DA] You’re right about the design geeks. You have discovered the mavens with your film. The mavens are a huge audience for DesignApplause also. The mavens represent a larger piece of the design pyramid and they’re so interested but they don’t have the design network the geeks have. The internet has been highly responsible in creating the opportunity for special interest groups to network and interact freely.
[JC] The internet is so powerful, it allows people to find things that interest them, even if those things don’t come knocking on their front door. You think of design cities as being New York, LA, San Francisco, Chicago, Miami, the usual suspects, which they are. And it’s easy and predictable for these people to come see the film in their local theatre. But because of the Internet, even people who don’t live in one of those cities, they do read design blogs, and we’ve been written up in 50-60 design blogs. This drives people to the American Masters site or to TV or to buy the DVD.
[DA] Until you get involved in the Internet in some way you may not comprehend the reach of the Internet. My first DesignApplause marketing was postcards, leaving them in bookstores, coffee shops in every city I visited. But the reach is 10’s of thousands, 100’s of thousands of viewers, worldwide viewers. The business model changes upon that realization. Do you have a headcount of those seeing the film in the theatre?
[JC] No, I don’t know those numbers. But If you go to the First Run Features website and look at the playdates page you can see all the venues we’ve played at or are going to play at and its 60-70 venues. In New York we played at the IFC for over a month.
[DA] I can’t begin to tell you the number of people that alerted me your film was playing on PBS just so we would put it on DesignApplause. When did Eames first resonate with you?
[JC] A long time ago. When I first heard the name I was in graduate school, 15 years ago. And it was the films, not the furniture. I was studying journalism and focusing on documentaries. In this group was a cadre of people who can have easily have been going to film school instead of journalism. This group was interested in obscure, interesting cinema. We were exchanging DVD’s of movies we were interested in instead of, say, music. And someone handed me a 6 DVD set of Eames films put out by the Eames Office. I was baffled at first, not really knowing what I was watching. I thought the films were cool and surprisingly beautiful, but they didn’t make sense because they didn’t fit in a particular category. They weren’t narrative or informational films, they weren’t documentaries, they weren’t PSA’s, not art films, no neat category. Later I came across that essay that Paul Schrader wrote, the great filmaker and also a film critic. He wrote a criticism of the films of Charles and Ray and he called them “idea films.” They’re films about a single idea. He called it “the poetry of ideas” actually.
[DA] I don’t know where my first film fit into their film chronology, the film, Power of Ten. It doesn’t go unnoticed that it didn’t matter who I talked talked to, a cab driver, a doctor, it seems everyone has seen that movie. You don’t have to be a designer to like it, it’s cool, the concept is cool. The other movies I remember are movies promoting products: Polaroid’s SX-70, Westinghouse ABC, those films were interesting, non-advertising, from a creative’s perspective, it was the “good-way” to market a product.
[JC] Totally. The first time I saw them I didn’t think of them as advertisements. Like the Polaroid film, a film really about photography, the joys of using a camera. The SX70 film was really meant to sell the camera, but even that was not a hard sell. In our film we show that they did shill a bit for their clients. We put in the film they did for Westinghouse and we sort of did it for comic effect because it’s funny, very dated, corny. But Westinghouse wasn’t typical and we make that point. Their films were really about educating people. They felt that they could help the client by educating the audience. And it wasn’t about educating about the product but more about the realm the client worked in. For IBM they weren’t selling the IBM computer they were talking about the value the computer provides society.
[DA] They were way ahead of their time. A contemporary example is when BMW hired great film directors, Alejandro González, Wong Kar-Wai, Ang Lee, Guy Ritchie, to make short films that entertained. And each of the films contained a BMW. Not feature the car just have it show up at the right time.
[JC] Right. I do remember Power of Ten from when I was a kid but I didn’t make the Eames connection. I think that everyone who lives in an urban environment has quite a bit of exposure to their work, most just aren’t aware.
[DA] Do you have designer objects in your home?
[JC] Not really. My wife and I are both documentary film makers and mid-century modern today is expensive. We have picked up a few Eames things lately.
[DA] Chances are you’ll be picking many more Eames things.
[JC] I have found several pieces on the street. A post office had a pile of furniture in a corner and I recognized a chair. I asked if I could have the chair and I walked out with it.
[DA] I’m not good at it but I know many that have made major acquisitions via the Sunday newspaper. Tell us about the timeline, the process of making your film.
[JC] It started about seven years ago. It took four years to get into production, so mostly fundraising.
[DA] What were you using as fundraising materials during this stage?
[JC] Right off we contacted the Eames Office which is basically the Eames family. We asked if it was OK to do this movie and could we have access to the archives, which is gigantic, one of the great archives in the world. But most of what we were doing was like what you’re doing, interviewing people. We would go to people’s homes with a handi-cam and do on-camera preliminary interviews. We were writing scripts to get a sense of a story we could tell.
[DA] Four years go by, when did you start production?
[JC] We did our first shoot in 2008. Then we finished fundraising. The heavy production was 2010 and 2011.
[DA] Other than the Eames family, who did you collaborate with?
[JC] It was really three groups of people. It was the Eames family, Eames Demetrios the grandson and Lucia Eames, Charles’ daughter. The largest group was people who actually worked in the Eames office or were colleagues with Charles and Ray. Designers like Jeannine Oppewall, Deborah Sussman. Gordon Ashby, architect Kevin Roche, Ralph Caplan, who worked as a writer for the Eames Office and is also a noted design critic. The third group were historians, architectural historians Thomas Hine, design curator Donald Albrecht, Pat Kirkham who wrote the first authorized biography of Charles and Ray. But I really think we focused on the Eames Office staff, the people who worked with them on a daily basis.
[DA] Describe the Eames Office? They became very visible. Were they chasing work or doing all they could handle, or picking and choosing what they wanted to work on?
[JC] Definitely the latter. Their office would be the envy of every design office in the country today. Just in terms of the quality of the client and projects they worked on. They would turn away work that other people might salivate over. A classic example is Anheuser-Busch who came to them in the 70s, when AB was far and away the world’s largest brewing company. They wanted a redesign of their flagship brand, Budweiser. Any other office would snap at such a huge and prestigious commission. Charles and Ray looked at the design and listened to what Annheuser-Busch said about wanting a more modern look and Charles and Ray said, This is a terrific logo for you. It speaks to what your product is. So many people identify with it now. And they tried to discourage the redesign which is eventually what happened. They stayed with the old logo.
[DA] You’re right, a classic example. Let’s go back to the film. What was the statement you wanted your film to make? What did you wish to achieve with your film? Did the precis hold true for the film or did it turn into something else?
[JC] When you work on a project that spans seven years your interest tends to go from the shallow to the deep, and from the mainstream to the idiosyncratic. We became much more interested in who they were as people, rather than telling a superficial timeline, chronology-type story. We became interested in their relationships, and we also became very interested in their quirky aspects of their characters. So rather than portraying them as flawless Olympian figures, we started seeing them for their idiosyncrasies and quirks. You know they were really kind of offbeat characters. The way they dressed and spoke, the way they interacted with other people. They definitely marched to their own beat. That’s what appealed to us, and we fell in love with the less known aspects of their character and that was more interesting to us. Maybe it was because we had steeped so long we had grown tired of a story that everybody knows and felt compelled to tell the lesser-known story.
[DA] When I’ve seen photos of Charles and Ray with their peers, their inner circle was comprised strong individual characters in their own right.
[JC] People really respond to that when they watch the film. The people that we interviewed, the people that worked in the office, all came off as total characters. These people aren’t storytellers per se. They’re people who work with their hands. And we weren’t sure how they could come across. But on camera it turned out they all had enormous personality. Very funny and engaging people. I think Charles and Ray drew those kinds of people to them and liked having those kinds of people around. And you probably had to have a pretty big personality in the office to survive as it seemed to be a hard driving competitive environment. So you’d see people like Deborah Sussman, Jeannine Oppewall, Gordon Ashby, who are go-getters, tough cookies, funny and engaging in their own right and have stellar careers in their own right. And John Neuhart who sadly passed away last year, he was a much quieter figure, much more soft-spoken, but had a tremendous sense of humor and I think everybody just adored him. He’s one of our favorite interviews.
[DA] Did your experience tell you that PBS was the right choice or did that require a bit of research and was your film an easy sell to them?
[JC] Susan Lacy, the executive producer of American Masters actually knew Charles and Ray very well on a personal level and she in fact had been thinking about making a film for American Masters about them. When we approached her with this film that was largely funded and she knew my directing partner Bill Jersey, she was very comfortable with us.
[DA] Can you tell us the challenges you experienced making the film?
[JC] I think there were two different kind of challenges. One was more technical, the other more storytelling. The storytelling was really about finding the narrative thread to a story that is not about one person but two, and that encompasses more than four decades. It was a question of how to distill out of so much information a narrative that feels true to life.
[DA] What was that thread exactly?
[JC] It’s not just one thread, it’s several threads and they’re interwoven. On one level it’s a love story about two people who had a very modern kind of marriage that was not at all perfect. Their work was deeply interwoven into their life. Where their work relationship probably outlasted their romantic relationship to some extent. And it’s also the story of their work and the enormous changes in the world of architecture and design that they lived through. Charles and Ray rode the crest of many waves in contemporary American history. They rode through the Depression and the rise of Modernism, a shift from the U.S. being an East Coast-centric nation, to a nation where the West Coast really mattered. The shift from being a manufacturing based economy to being a more Information and Communications based society. They were in the middle of the Cold War, with the 12-screen film they did in Moscow in 1959. Charles and Ray were really in the mix of all of this.
[DA] And the technical challenges making the film?
[JC] It had to do with the sheer tyranny of numbers, as my partner Bill Jersey likes to say. The Eameses were incredibly prolific designers, the office incredibly productive. And they documented the hell out of everything they did. The archives have anywhere from 800,000 to a million slides and photographs of their work and tens of thousands photographs of them and people in the office. There are probably more than 100 short films which are laying around in various states of neglect in the Library of Congress. We had tremendous cooperation with the Library of Congress but it’s so big and not fully organized. It was a nightmare, a great nightmare, much better than the more typical documentary filmmaking challenge, where you are trying to make a film about Abraham Lincoln and you have the three daguerreotype photos that Matthew Brady did in 1863. Having theoretical access to items held in cold storage at the Library of Congress in Virginia is not the same as getting your hands on it to see it and know what it is and putting it in a digital format so you can use it. We did get a hold of images and quite a few films that people haven’t seen before and those are the ones we’re most proud of. But we will go to our graves knowing that at the bottom of a box somewhere there’s this great photograph or film that would have told our story better.
[DA] Now that the creative dust has settled, in hindsight do you feel that you missed anything or misrepresented anything?
[JC] I feel that we told one of any number of stories you could have told about Charles and Ray. We made a really good film that I’m proud of. People have complimented the film saying it’s so comprehensive. I want to laugh hearing that as it’s anything but comprehensive. For example, we only told the story of developing one single line of furniture, that’s the plywood chairs for Herman Miller. Anyone who knows anything about the Eames knows that after they did the plywood group they went on to do the fiberglass reinforced plastic group of chairs, then the aluminum group of chairs, the famous leather lounge chair and ottoman which is one of the most famous pieces of furniture in the world. And within each of these groups there’s different iterations, different bases, and different color and models. Then there are sofas and storage units, and the tables. But there wasn’t enough time within an 84-minute film format that fits into the 90-minute PBS time slot. In hindsight, maybe we were a little insecure about whether people might be willing to stick around and hear a story about people making furniture. But the main thing is that we felt there were other things that might be more interesting to the mass audience, like filmmaking or communications, computers, exhibitions. There are really so many stories we didn’t get around to telling. Mathematica is one of the great exhibitions ever designed and we barely talked about it! But I think our movie is a great introduction to the Eames. And people who are big fans of them have told me they saw many things that they didn’t know, films and images that they hadn’t seen, stories and perspectives that they hadn’t heard.
[DA] What’s next?
[JC] I’m developing several projects but not sure which one will be next in terms of funding. I’m interested in several things that are design related as well as political, cultural, and also music. My wife is a filmmaker who produces and directs documentaries and in fact she co-produced this film. We are still talking to each other. We had a great experience working on this project together and I think we’d like to make another film together.
[ photos ]
>as seen in jason cohn and bill jersey’s documentary – eamses: the architect and the painter. photo 6) courtesy of first run features. photos 1-5) 7-8) courtesy of ©2011 eamses office, llc.
1) photographing ibm exhibition model – mathematica: a world of numbers… 1960
2) posing on a 1948 velocette
3) inspecting prototype of the herman miller aluminum group lounge chair, 1957
4) selecting slides for exhibition – photography & the city, 1968
5) at home, 1970
6) the eames house in pacific palisades, california
7) dcw chair, herman miller, 1946
9) peter belanger, vicente franco, arwen curry, jason cohn, doug dunderdale
[ eames office ] ] first run features ] [ trailer ]