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A Short Eames Film Shows Our Place in the Universe

Made in 1977, Powers of Ten explores the world, both from great heights and microscopically close.

You are here, somewhere.
You are here, somewhere.

Furniture design proved wildly successful for husband-and-wife design team Charles and Ray Eames. Eames is probably one of the first names you’d come up with during a round of “Name That Mid-Century Modern Designer.” But furniture was never their only talent. Together, the two had a huge impact (either together or separately) throughout the design world, with their architecture, textiles, and product designs.

The pair also delved into films, making “more than 125 between 1950 and 1982.” As Charles told Film Quarterly in 1970, “They’re not experimental films, they’re not really films. They’re just attempts to get across an idea.” Those ideas could be as straightforward as promotion for the proposed National Fisheries Center and Aquarium in Washington D.C., or as complex as visualizing scale, as seen in the 1977 short film Powers of Ten.

Inspired by the 1957 book Cosmic View: The Universe in Forty Jumps by Kees Boeke, the Eameses created the short film as a remake of an earlier work of theirs from 1968. Like the book, the film illustrates what our world looks like, first from a distance, moving further away in meters at the rate of one factor of 10 per 10 seconds. The film’s subjects—a relaxed couple on a picnic—gradually get smaller and smaller and finally become tiny specks on a vast planet. The view then reverses and zooms in at the rate of 10 times more magnification per 10 seconds, bringing us closer to the subjects, now less people than collections of microscopic cells and intertwined DNA.

The Eameses wanted “the effect of adding another zero” to make us think, not just about scale and how it relates to art, but how it relates to our place in the universe.

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