Celebrating Ray Eames on Her Birthday Posted December 15, 2016 by Marlow Hoffman

December 15, 2016, Ray Eames would have turned 104 years old. In celebration of her birthday, we remember her many talents and highlight the forward-thinking ideas she shared during a rare 1978 lecture.

Ray Eames was known for her exquisite and critical eye, a rare gift for color, and meticulous attention to detail. She also had a technical aptitude for structure, leading to the creation of elegant, intuitive forms—both graphically and sculpturally. She first began developing these skills as early as age three when she started making paper dolls and fashion drawings.

As a young adult, Ray became a respected painter, studying with renowned artist Hans Hofmann, and co-founding the American Abstract Artists. The group members provided exhibition opportunities, lectures, panel discussions, and publications. Their work helped propel abstract art forward, bring it greater acceptance across the United States, and pave the way for Abstract Expressionism as an art movement.

ray-painting-vertical-1930s-webRay brought all these skills and more into her partnership with husband Charles Eames, with whom she worked for nearly 40 years. In many respects, the couple’s collaboration was so interwoven that it is difficult to suss out where their individual talents started and stopped. Even so, Charles generally served as the face and spokesman for their work and philosophies, which is one reason why he sometimes seems to be at the forefront of a partnership that was, no doubt, a wholly collaborative process.

There were, however, instances in which Ray took center stage at the podium. In 1978, she gave a talk to the Japan American Cultural Association in Tokyo. The subject of her presentation, The Cultural Implications of Limited Resources, proved to be both relevant and prescient: The United States experienced its first energy crisis just one year later and, even today, continues to see headlines of a similar nature.

The notes Ray drafted for her July 1978 lecture are below:

One of the by-products of a new awareness of limits
is that we begin to be more prudent about the nature of our inventions.

We begin to watch our new innovations for their possible irreversible side-effects.        

The same sort of caution applies to what we’re doing here.       

We’re talking about contributions to a culture that could tie a global unit together (which doesn’t mean a unified global culture.)

Common to all, like math, a common elegance.

An overall view of aesthetics.

We cannot take it for granted that such a culture would be based on anything like the fine arts as we or any other traditional society think of them now.      

Steps toward an appropriate culture for spaceship earth are going to involve many TRANSFORMATIONS; and most of them look quite difficult from here.     

One of the transformations is a transformation of the idea of craftsmanship.

A few years ago, at a meeting of a large crafts society, we heard members decrying the fact that there was not a sufficient demand for their work—that the need for craftsmen was disappearing.        

On the contrary; this is a time when the need for a real, effective sense of craft in all our production has never been greater.      

It requires a transformation of the idea of craftsmanship.       

A transformation which will embrace every manufactured object—every artifact on the landscape—every process and every system we devise.      

This is a tragedy which we can’t afford if people who have a grasp of tradition turn their backs on these new levels of responsibility.      

There is a transformation in the idea of hospitality—so that the well-being of individuals is really anticipated in public structures—and above all to counteract the spirit of “don’t look at me—I only work here;” so that more people would begin to act as hosts—act as if they really owned the place.        

And there’s also a transformation in the idea of goods: from an emphasis on things purchased with money to an emphasis on skills and knowledge bought with personal time and attention (which says Charles is the real coin of the realm).       

In a situation of universal expectancy it helps to think of Information as a key resource, in relation to needs as well as pleasures.

– Because it makes low energy demands, and
– because once you have it, it works like the loaves and fishes: you can distribute it without diminishing it.

But (by the same token) you can’t just order new information from a catalog.       

It isn’t information unless it’s informative to all the people concerned.       

Right now, we have tremendous capacity for gathering and storing data; but our skills at modelling data—making it mean something, are way behind.        

We need a whole new visual language using the existing communications hardware much more effectively.

In universities, the language of vision—even the art of diagrams and charts—is still neglected in favour of the written word.  

But for any study of process one needs the resources of graphics, and color, and the third dimension of time, to convey a direct understanding, however abstract.

Find this speech and more in the book An Eames Anthology.