A Book Review by Thomas Puhr.
Film scholars don’t seem to be the primary audience here; as such, they may find the text more confounding than captivating. However, adventurous readers as well as film enthusiasts wishing to understand the medium in a much-wider context will find a veritable treasure trove of information.”
A scene from Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road kept coming to mind while I read Justus Nieland’s Happiness by Design: Modernism and Media in the Eames Era (University of Minnesota Press). Protagonist Frank Wheeler, sleepwalking through his job at Knox Business Machines, is tasked with writing an informational printout for the company’s latest product: the Knox ‘500’ Electronic Computer. There’s only one problem: He has no idea what the machine actually does. The resulting advertisement, “Speaking of Production Control,” is a feat of marketing circumlocution, peppered with meaningless phrases like, “Production control is…nothing more or less than the job of putting the right materials in the right place at the right time.” Frank sends it to his boss and promptly gets a raise. “No one could have told that he didn’t quite know what he was talking about” Yates’ wry narrator observes.
Though fictional, the novel taps into the postwar American idealism of the ‘50s, when artistic modernism, the exploding field of communications, and mass consumption intersected in what Nieland terms the “Eames Era,” named after its central figures: designers Charles and Ray Eames. Not only could happiness be bought, but it could also be designed, manufactured, and sold on a scale unimaginable just a few years prior: “Eamesian happiness, circulating through both images and objects, comprised a particular midcentury product that linked the ‘goodness’ of the American good life…to the ‘goodness’ of so-called good design” (12). While many readers may associate the name with office and lounge chairs, Nieland illustrates a creative power couple with far loftier – even utopian – ambitions, ones steeped in “a wide-ranging domain of creative production scaling vertiginously from toys to game theory, 16mm films and kites to the emerging computational infrastructure of postindustrial society” (23). Frank Wheeler would have been quite comfortable writing their brochures, which include exciting updates about how “there’s a world of aluminum in the wonderful world of tomorrow.”
The first chapter, “Happy Furniture,” addresses how both the promotional films (which were often experimental artworks in and of themselves) made for said furniture and the products themselves “offer a kind of pedagogy of midcentury lifestyle” (39). These shorts, directed by the Eames, include 1954’s S-73 (a visual aid for assembling a compact couch), 1955’s House: After Five Years of Living (a playful tour of the couple’s famous home), and 1959’s Kaleidoscope Shop (a similar tour of their office). Those skeptical of the artistic value of what are essentially furniture advertisements should take particular note of the latter, which surprised audiences with its avant-garde aesthetics: “Art students who saw Kaleidoscope Shop during Eames’s lecture would later describe the experience as feeling ‘more like the beginning of the “swinging sixties” than a presentation by the world’s most “serious” industrial designer’” (72). Such films illustrate the era’s triangulation of technology, architecture, and domesticity, all of which were thought to generate the good life.
This intersectionality guided the Eameses’ central role in education, which is the focus of Nieland’s second chapter, “The Scale is the World.” As the title suggests, their aims – “moving from revolutionary chair design to blueprints for postcolonial nationhood” (94) – were nothing if not lofty. Indeed, they sought to change the world. And though their utopian goals may cause contemporary readers to roll their eyes, one must admire their focus on civic-minded, interdisciplinary education: “The designers purported to train students in what [George] Nelson called ‘an awareness of relationships. …The idea was to develop high-speed techniques for exposing relationships between seemingly unrelated phenomena. This meant films, slides, sounds, music, narration…’” (108-109).
Happiness by Design’s midsection documents the rise and (semi) fall of the so-called international conference, which epitomized “the midcentury merger of the corporation, the designer, and a late-Bauhaus aesthetic retooled for American-style democratic liberalism” (146). It was during this time that film began to be analyzed as a mode of communication, one which played an integral role in fusing the liberal arts with liberal-democratic values; the 1959 International Design Conference in Aspen – analyzed at length in the third chapter, “Management Cinema” – was dedicated entirely to cinema (161-162). Such critical analyses arguably led to what we would today consider film studies (195). It was in the ‘60s, though, that the various conferences’ blind spots faced closer scrutiny, a shift Nieland addresses in “Memories of Overdevelopment.” The Vision conferences, for example, “rarely offered any sustained analysis of the categories of class, race, or gender fueling the new social movements of the 1960s” (242). Furthermore, it was not until Vision ’65 (the 1965 iteration of the conference) that any African countries were even invited (223).
The final chapters, “Designer Film Theory” and “Designer Film Theory II,” trace the “contested categories of ‘man’ and ‘nature’ – their innate capacities and limitations, their transformations within the new landscape of postwar technoscience, and their mediation by the redemptive medium of film” (304). Designer film theory, Nieland claims, both predated and established the groundwork for film theory and auteur theory; unlike such schools of thought, however, it blossomed when critical cinema studies were not their own discrete movement but part of a holistic web of communicative studies (248). This heterogeneity may explain how the Eameses’ world crossed paths with Maya Deren, Billy Wilder, and even Andy Warhol. Even so, this era seems marked by a peculiar utilitarianism; the central concern to which all of these disparate artists, designers, business executives, and philosophers returned was what constitutes a happy life and how it can be achieved in a flourishing democratic society.
For clarity’s sake, I’ve here focused on the Eameses. Nieland’s discussion of their contemporaries – from Buckminster Fuller, to Rudolf Arnheim and Lionel Trilling – can occasionally be overwhelming. Because of his seeming desire to name-check every key player of the era – however tangential to the titular duo – his essays tend to feel crammed; paradoxically so, since most of them hover around the 50-page mark. Its intended (and quite specialized) audiences – presumably graphic designers, architects, and communications experts – will surely relish these interconnections. Film scholars don’t seem to be the primary audience here; as such, they may find the text more confounding than captivating. However, adventurous readers as well as film enthusiasts wishing to understand the medium in a much-wider context will find a veritable treasure trove of information.
N.B. The physical book is an aesthetic joy in and of itself, featuring 20 vivid color plates. You’d hope a design book would feature, well, good design, and Nieland’s latest surpasses this expectation. It is, quite literally, a beautiful text.
 Richard Yates, Revolutionary Road. New York, Vintage Contemporaries, 2009.
Thomas Puhr lives in Chicago, where he teaches English and language arts. A regular contributor to Bright Lights Film Journal, he has published “‘Mysterious Appearances’ in Jonathan Glazer’s Identity Trilogy: Sexy Beast, Birth and Under the Skin” in issue 15.2 of Film International.