Homehaus | 11th November 2013 |
Eileen Gray was an influential Irish architect and designer whose iconic modernist work is among the most valuable and sought after in the world today.
Although Gray was not a trained architect, her contribution to design and architecture is incredibly significant. Her E1027 house, nestled within a rocky coastline in the south of France, was famously coveted by her contemporary Le Corbusier, while her ‘dragon’ armchair - made between 1917 and 1919 - sold at a Paris auction for almost 22 million euros in 2009, setting a record for 20th century decorative art.
(The E-1027 table above is just one of Gray's many iconic creations)
Gray was born in 1878, near Enniscorthy, Wexford. Her father was a painter who encouraged her artistic interests and in 1898, she enrolled at the Slade School of Fine Art, London, to study painting.
In 1900 she made her first visit to Paris – the city in which she was to spend much of her life. Moving there shortly after the trip, Gray continued her studies at the Académie Julian and the Académie Colarossi for around five years before returning to London and the Slade school in 1905.
It was while back in the English capital that Gray chanced upon a Soho lacquer repair shop where she asked to be trained in the art of lacquer work. In 1906 she returned to Paris and began working with a contact of the Soho shop owner, a Japanese artist called Seizo Sugawara, whom she worked with for four years, despite developing lacquer disease on her hands.
(Seizo Sugawara at work in the studio: photograph by Eileen Gray)
It was this training however, that paved the way for her future career. In 1913, at the age of 35, Gray first exhibited her lacquer work and recently a black lacquered screen, made by the designer between 1923 and 1925, sold for 1.3 million euro at auction.
Her first major foray into furniture and interior design came at the end of the first World War, when Gray was tasked with decorating the apartment of a successful female milliner in the rue de Lota. It was during this period that she designed her famous ‘Bibendum’ chair, as well as carpets with modern geometric patterns and lamps, including the ‘tube’ style lamp for which she is also known.
(Interior of the rue de Lota apartment featuring Gray's Bibendum Chair and Serpent Chair)
Several art critics at the time hailed the work as innovative and in light of this positive response, Gray opened what was to prove a hugely successful shop in Paris - Jean Desert - to exhibit and sell her work and that of her artist friends.
In 1924, with her then partner, the Romanian architectural critic Jean Badovici, Gray’s interests turned to house design. That year she began work on ‘E-1027’ (the name of the building being a code for the couple’s initials - E for Eileen, 10 for J, the tenth letter of the alphabet, 2 for B and 7 for G).
The sharp clean lines, flat roof and ribbon windows that featured throughout the Cote d’Azur house helped make it an icon of modernist architecture. As well as collaborating with Badovici on the structural elements of the house, Gray also designed the interior and furniture – creating another design classic in the circular glass and steel E-1027 table.
Her friend and professional contemporary, Le Corbusier was said to be greatly impressed by the house and built his own summer home nearby. However, in what is believed by some critics to have been an act of jealous vandalism, he covered large areas of the white painted walls with somewhat gaudy and explicit murals, much to Gray’s distaste (they were apparently created at Badovici's behest in her absence.) It is perhaps ironic that Le Corbusier died in 1965, while swimming in the sea directly in front of E-1027, a building thought to have stirred such professional envy in him.
The house itself has been tarred by misfortune over the years – it was looted in the evacuation of the French coast during World War II, and in 1996 the then owner was murdered in the building. For years E-1027 fell into a bad state of disrepair, but it is currently being restored as part of plans by the French government, who designated it a French National Cultural Monument. The national agency, Conservatoire du Littoral, bought the villa in 1999 to secure it provisionally and it is hoped the house will be ready and open to the public again by 2015.
After the war, Gray returned to Paris and led a reclusive life, almost forgotten by the design industry. Then, in 1968, she agreed to the further production of her Bibendum chair, E-1027 table and other works with renowned London based retailer Zeev Aram – leading to the pieces becoming the modern classics they are today.
In 1973, she was recognised by her home country in the Bank of Ireland exhibition: Eileen Gray, Pioneer of Design. The event was organised by the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland (RIAI) which later presented her with a honourary fellowship.
Eileen Gray died in her Paris apartment in 1976. In the following four decades her legacy lives on - her style still heavily influences modern design and the value and collectability of her work continues to grow.
The National Museum of Ireland purchased her archive in 2002 and a permanent exhibition based on Eileen Gray’s life and work is on public display at Collins Barracks in Dublin. Check the National Museum of Ireland website: www.museum.ie for further details.
The Museum of Modern Art at the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham, Dublin, is currently hosting an exhibition until January 19th 2014 entitled: Eileen Gray: Architect Designer Painter, which is well worth a visit if you are looking for design inspiration. See www.imma.ie for more information, or watch an introductory video on the exhibition here.
The E-1027 table: Grey was one of the first designers to work in chrome and steel, preceding such acclaimed names as Le Corbusier and Mies Van der Rohe. This height adjustable table, made of tubular stainless steel and tempered glass, remains an icon of furniture design.
E-1027: The house which established Gray’s reputation as an accomplished and respected architect.
The Bibendum chair: One of the 20th century’s most recognizable furniture designs, its back and arm rests are fashioned of two semi-circular padded tubes encased in soft leather. The legs are made of polished, chromium plated, stainless steel tube.