Eileen Gray, Systems Thinker
I propose to show how Eileen Gray is an exemplar of Systems Thinking, and in so doing articulate how Systems Thinking can and should be integral to design on multiple levels from the conceptual/aesthetic to the pragmatic. After years of near-obscurity, Eileen Gray (1878-1976) has secured her place as a thinker and designer who contributed significantly to Modernism at its inception. Scholars Peter Adam, Caroline Constant, Wilfried Wang and Jennifer Goff have detailed the depth of her knowledge and the sophistication of her working processes and innovation, both in the decorative arts/interiors and in her architecture—with the consensus that Eileen Gray had an unusually detailed and dynamic way of thinking about climate and site, functionality in daily life, and materiality and material processes—above and beyond many of her contemporaries. Systems Thinking—which emerged a half-century ago as a fundamental framework for environmental and economic sciences—enacts the notion that objects, forces, ideas, and especially people—interact and are mutually influenced in both somewhat predictable but startlingly dynamic ways. In architecture, we tend to attach the notion of systems to either the technical or the holistic/societal, but more clarity is needed about how it impacts the act of design itself, at the moment when multiple and competing interests are made manifest in matter and form. By outlining how Gray brought a kind of “operational thinking” to multiple aspects of her work, I will demonstrate through logical argumentation how she exemplifies Systems Thinking as enacted in design. A corollary motivation for this thesis is to take Eileen Gray out of relative—albeit admiring—isolation and place her in a framework that can further emphasize the nature of her contribution. Enriching the discourse on the design-specific implications of Systems Thinking also offers a potent bridge between theory and practice.