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Preserving the Charles and Ray Eames/Herman Miller Films

The following is a guest post by Amy Gallick, a Preservation Specialist in the Moving Image Section.

Charles and Ray Eames

I’m a Preservation Specialist in the Moving Image Section, which means I have responsibility for ensuring the physical integrity of our film and video collections. I also manage many of the contracts we have with vendors for things like equipment maintenance, and I’m also involved with various preservation projects, particularly films in the Charles and Ray Eames Collection. The Eameses worked with many companies over the course of their long career, but are most closely associated with the furniture manufacturer Herman Miller, manufacturers of the iconic Eames Lounge Chair and Ottoman among other Eames designs. Charles and Ray also made films about their Herman Miller designs, and recently the company has been funding restorations of those films by the Library of Congress, where we hold all the original elements. Today an article was published in Herman Miller’s online magazine, “WHY,” about these preservations, but I want to provide a little more background on the collection and my involvement with it.

On November 19, 1982, Ray Eames signed a deed of gift to bequeath the Eames Collection to the Library of Congress. The donation included paper, photographs, and motion pictures. Due to a number of delays, the relocation of the moving image materials from the Eames Office to the Library’s Landover, Maryland, facility was not finished until 2004. Because the Library was busy planning and moving all of its audiovisual collections to the Packard Campus in Culpeper, Virginia, not long after that, the collection was not accessible for a number of years. I got involved in 2011 when filmmakers working on the documentary The Architect and the Painter visited the Packard Campus. In order to find footage to use in their film, they worked with us to sort the collection by title. This allowed me to begin investigating titles and creating a preservation plan. Powers of Ten (1978), the couple’s most well-known film and which was named to the National Film Registry in 1998, was the first film we preserved. We then started on their Technicolor films, because the Eameses had made protection masters for those films specifically for future duplication and they were in very good condition. The National Film Preservation Foundation awarded a grant to the Library in 2013 for preservation of one of these Technicolor titles, Day of The Dead (1957). To date we have preserved 20 films, either photochemically or digitally, including two of their multiscreen exhibitions: Glimpses of the U.S.A., shown at the American Exhibition in Moscow in 1958, and Think, shown at the 1964 World’s Fair.

For a variety of reasons, a number of the Eames works were preserved by digital methods only, without creating new film elements. For example, the multi-screen works would be too costly to preserve on film, and no current exhibitors have the means to show them in their original form (the 1964/65 World’s Fair used two projection booths and seven projectors to show Think). However, there are many benefits to having new film negatives and prints made. Polyester film stock is a very stable medium for long-term storage and preservation, and can be inspected without any equipment if necessary. Many venues still request 35mm prints of the Eames Collection for screenings. Having new film elements allows for quick re-scanning as digital imaging technologies reach higher resolutions over time. This prevents going back and re-scanning the fragile originals time and again. Herman Miller staff members understood these benefits, and included the creation of new film negatives and prints in their preservation funding to help the Library preserve the legacy of the Eames and Herman Miller collaboration.

Herman Miller staff contacted us in 2017 to borrow some Eames films for a screening in New York, particularly ones that featured Eames-designed furniture sold by the company: S-73 (Sofa Compact) (1954), Eames Lounge Chair (1956), Soft Pad (1970), and The Fiberglass Chairs — Something of How They Get the Way They Are (1970). The Library had already preserved Eames Lounge Chair, and had digital and 35mm film copies available for loan, but no work had been done on the other three films at that point. I spoke with Herman Miller archivist Amy Auscherman, explaining our in-house photochemical limitations (we can process black-and-white film, but not color) and our need for funding to outsource external laboratory work. After this conversation, Herman Miller generously offered to donate money to the Library for photochemical preservation of Soft Pad and The Fiberglass Chairs. There was money remaining after these titles were completed, so the Moving Image Section added appropriated funds and also preserved S-73 (Sofa Compact).

My job was to investigate what materials we had, inspect them, determine a plan for preservation, and write and execute a contract for outside lab work. For a number of the Eames films, there are minimal elements available for preservation—possibly one complete picture negative and one track negative. Because those items are often showing signs of deterioration, it is imperative to have them preserved because once those originals are lost, there may not be enough material to piece them back together at a later date.

Soft Pad was preserved from a 35mm color negative, 35mm track negative and 35mm color print (one of the Eameses’ personal “house prints” that they showed to friends and visitors). Colorlab, in Rockville, Maryland, won a competitive contract for the lab work. Once they started looking at the film, they felt unsure about the color correction. In addition to the faded color in the original elements, Charles and Ray shot a portion of the Soft Pad slides on infrared film (you can see it in the clip embedded in the Herman Miller article at 3:50). This made the bowl of fruit in the shots a terrible reference point. I sent them another scanned 16mm print, but we still were unsure we were accurately representing the original chair colors. I contacted Amy Auscherman again, and she sent over this photo of leather colors used in the original furniture.

The swatches listed under “Best Aucht Leather” were used for the original Soft Pad chairs. After we received this image, I was able to visit AJ Rohner, Film Preservation Manager, at Colorlab. We used the swatches to match up, as closely as possible, the images in the film with the leather colors of the chairs.

Another issue we encountered with the preservation work was with the soundtrack of S-73 (Sofa Compact). When Colorlab sent the audio files they had transferred, they sounded, well, awful. This was not Colorlab’s fault; the problems were inherent in the track element. Once again, there were not many other track elements to use. I was concerned we would need to go back to unmixed magnetic tracks, which would have been time-consuming and costly. Trying to avoid this, I requested any sound files the Eames Office had available, and they luckily had one. I then contacted the Library’s Audio Lab Supervisor Rob Friedrich, hoping he could perform some magic. He assured me that he could make an improved file from what we had available, so I breathed a sigh of relief. He cleaned up the track enough to remove the flaws that overpowered the viewing experience.

(Photo courtesy of Herman Miller Archives)

Luckily, The Fiberglass Chairs was an easier preservation. Colorlab used a combination of 16mm and 35mm picture elements. See if you can identify when one ends and one begins in the clip embedded in the article. It’s very hard to tell; they are so closely matched. The magnetic track featuring Buddy Collette’s score was transferred at Audio Mechanics in Burbank, California.

Now that these three works are finished, we hope to work with Herman Miller on preserving additional Eames/Herman Miller films. Amy Auscherman and some colleagues visited the Packard Campus last month. They now have a better understanding of the film preservation process, while I gained new insight into their corporate archives and the company’s long relationship with Charles and Ray Eames. I was disappointed when they told me that buyers of the Eames sofa compact are no longer required to assemble it, like the couples in the film. After watching it so many times, I was confident I could earn some extra money putting them together for people.

 

 

One Comment

  1. Carl ?Fleischhauer
    February 19, 2020 at 3:05 pm

    Fascinating story and it is terrific to know that you are keeping the Eames contributions alive and well! Your blog uses the word “restoration” and also the word “preservation.” Many of your readers will be familiar with archiving semantics, where some specialists distinguish between making a copy with few (or no) adjustments–often called preservation–and the more elaborate fixing that gets us closer to an original look and sound, when supported by reasonable evidence–often called restoration. Your use of both terms as you recount the path you followed is a nice reminder that it can sometimes be tough to make that distinction: you navigated the realms of preservation and restoration in a complex way.

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