Film stills of a friendship

A new exhibition shows us how the American director Billy Wilder and the designers Charles and Ray Eames mutually inspired each other to create both film classics and furniture.

Sometimes the theme of an exhibition can be both interesting and inspiring, even if the exhibition itself is not. On the outskirts of Brussels, near the Atonium – the DNA-like building that has become a city landmark – a new museum opened before Christmas. The ADAM Art & Design Atonium Museum is mainly built around the huge collection of plastic design objects owned by the Belgian engineer and artist Philippe Decelle, which also constitutes the permanent exhibition at the museum. But it was another exhibition that lured me out here, telling the story of the friendship between the designers Charles and Ray Eames and film director Billy Wilder. You didn’t know they were friends? Me neither.

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Billy Wilder often sat on a stepladder on location to get the full overview. Copyright: Eames Office

I’m not going to judge a newly opened museum to harshly, especially not one in a city that was recently bombed by terrorists. Having said that, I was all alone at ADAM this Thursday afternoon, where not even a cup of coffee was obtainable after having trawled through the exhibitions. A bustling, living museum it was not. The exhibition Eames & Hollywood didn’t quite fulfill my expectations either, which had been building up during the tram ride here. This is mainly a photo exhibition – the Eameses, who were married and worked together for nearly 40 years – were avid photographers and left behind a collection of over 750,000 photographs that are now managed by their Foundation. 240 of these are exhibited at ADAM, images that were taken when the couple visited their friend Billy Wilder on the set of films such as Ace in the Hole, Sabrina and The Spirit of St. Louis.

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From the making of Sabrina in 1954, starring Audrey Hepburn in the title role. The Eames didn’t really care about Hollywood stars and were mostly interested in what went on behind the camera. Copyright: Eames Office

The photographs are exhibited in luminous boxes that do not actually reproduce the images in any good way – I actually took greater pleasure in seeing them on my own computer screen after downloading them here. In addition, the exhibit says very little about the friendship between the Eameses and Wilder, how it started and how they mutually influenced each other. So let me tell you a little bit about what I discovered later (the exhibition did make me curious):

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Billy Wilder (left) with Charles og Ray Eames. Copyright: Eames Office.

In the late 1940s Billy Wilder let out his garage to a young graphic designer who needed a place to work. This graphic designer presented Wilder to Charles Eames and later his wife Ray, who served as best man and maid of honor when Billy Wilder got married for the second time in 1949. The Eameses also designed a house for the newlyweds, not unlike their own, which was never built because Mrs. Wilder thought it would be too much work to clean all the windows. But the Eameses did help Wilder with an even more pressing problem: the director often complained that he had no comfortable chair to rest on in between takes on location. Instead he took a nap on a wooden plank between two saw horses in his office. The couple solved the problem by designing a lounge chair that is still in production today.

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Charles and Ray Eames left a legacy that has proved to be forever relevant, both through the objects they designed, many of which are still in production, but also in the context of the museum. The exhibition The World of Charles and Ray Eames, which was shown at the Barbican in London last year, recently opened at Bild Museet in Umeå in Sweden. It will travel to Lisbon this fall. ADAMs Eames & Hollywood is far more modest, but does have some interest beyond the fact that the couple loved to photograph – an aspect of their work which not surprisingly have been overshadowed by almost everything else they did. It shows us what they were actually looking at – not Hollywood stars and actors, but everything that was happening behind the camera. A scaffolding was apparently far more fascinating than Kirk Douglas. “‘You do not go to watch Billy shoot two learn how make a picture,” Charles Eames once said, “but two learn how to write an editorial, how to make a chair, how to make a piece of furniture.”

Eames & Hollywood at ADAM Art & Design Atonium Museum until September 9th.

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