Husband-and-wife designers Charles and Ray Eames rose to prominence in the middle of the 20th century, at a time when art and philosophy were more closely linked, and some aesthetes believed modernism could uplift and secure civilization. The Eameses made their money in molded plywood furniture, and made their corporate contacts working for the military during World War II. By the '50s, they'd become a financially independent two-person think tank, supplementing their furniture business with toy designs, museum installations, history books, fine-art exhibits, and short films—all geared toward making people wiser, more creative, and more appreciative of the beauty in the everyday.
The six-disc DVD set The Films Of Charles & Ray Eames collects more than 30 of the couple's 100-plus shorts—some abstract, some educational, and some enchantingly kid-friendly. It's hard to know where to slot the Eameses in cinema history, since they had resources and ambitions beyond struggling experimental filmmakers or even most industrial film houses. Few art-school dropouts with Super 8s have been invited to submit their personal papers to the Smithsonian. But though the Eameses could afford to get Elmer Bernstein as a composer and Orson Welles as a narrator, at heart they were real artists, striving to leave a part of themselves on the cultural record.
So The Films Of Charles & Ray Eames probably shouldn't be judged by its slick, science-class-ready efforts (like "Powers Of Ten," which moves from the farthest reaches of the universe to the cellular structure of a man's hand), or its commercial efforts (like "The Expanding Airport," which explains how Dulles can become more passenger-friendly), or even its more avant-garde efforts (like the entrancing "Blacktop," which makes the washing of a playground into a sublime example of accidental art). The films must be considered as a complete set, and as the multi-faceted expression of two people's shared vision of how life is.
In that context, the Eameses' obsession with animated timelines and illustrated mathematical principles—which render the world's mysteries plain and explicable—becomes of a piece with their fascination with mechanical devices at work, and the spectacular patterns of the natural world. Everything the Eameses encountered was a potential element of design, and every element of design was a potential piece in a larger universal puzzle. When Charles Eames gets asked to chart the future of industrial design in the short "Design Q&A," he answers with an impeccably composed still photograph of a flower, standing high in a field and waiting to reveal its structure to the curious and enlightened.