The most recent attempts to shed light on an often overlooked, but greatly important pioneer of the Modern movement have brought Eileen Gray back to the spotlight. A 2014 documentary “Gray Matters” tastefully focuses on the career and legacy of the architect and designer. The 2015 film “The Price of Desire” dramatizes her private life – namely her bisexuality, as well as her relationship with Jean Badovici and rivalry with Le Corbusier. 

But who actually was the woman whose work paralleled that of Le Corbusier and Marcel Breuer, yet who managed to remain in the shadows of her male colleagues for the better part of a century? 

Eileen Gray was born in 1879 in Ireland to an aristocratic Irish-Scottish family. Though she described herself as being “without roots” later in life, she stated that if she did have any, they were in Ireland.  She split her early years between Ireland and London, before enrolling in the Slade School in 1900 to earn a formal education in the fine arts. During Gray’s time at Slade, a decisive turning point in her life set out the course of her career. One day, while walking through the streets of Soho, she came across the shop of D. Charles, furniture restorer. Interested in the process of making oriental lacquer, she stayed on to learn the trade which ultimately became the focus of her work in the following decades. 

An Artist in Lacquer 

Moving to Paris in 1902, Eileen Gray continued both her formal art education and her lacquer training with a Japanese master of lacquer, Sugawara. With her teacher, she explored the complex and often trying process of applying layer upon layer of resin to a wooden surface, resulting in a lustrous waterproof finish. Gray was a patient and hard-working student and soon enough became a master of the medium herself, oftentimes straying from the traditional approach to add her own, original touch. 

Gray opened up a workshop with Sugawara, becoming a successful designer of decorative panels and earning the attention of art collector, Jacques Doucet, for whom she designed her famous four-panel screen, ‘Le Destin’. This only known signed and dated work was made of red lacquer – one side portrays two-dimensional figures in blue and grey, while the other stands in complete contrast, depicting a curved abstract design. A 1917 edition of Vogue featured an article on Grey’s designs titled “An Artist in Lacquer”. 

In 1919, Gray received the most important commission of her career until then: an interior redesign of the rue de Lota apartment for socialite Madame Lévy. Described as “the epitome of Art Deco”, it marked the beginning of her transition from the decorative to the modern. The apartment was furnished with several of Gray’s best known pieces of furniture including the Bibendum Chair. The rounded shape was inspired by the Michelin man, while the idea for the modern design was also considered a feminist response to Le Corbusier’s cubic ‘Grand Confort’.

Perhaps the most remarkable piece was the “Dragons” armchair. The chair, sculpted as the bodies of two intertwined dragons, is more a work of art than an element of furniture. The piece initially designed for Madame Lévy was later acquired by Yves Saint Laurent, before being put up for auction in 2009 where it was sold for a staggering $28 million.

An Unacknowledged Talent

Following the success of the project, Eileen Gray opened her own shop in 1922 which she named Jéan Desert. At this time, she was primarily selling her lacquer furniture and screens, but she had also begun to design carpets. The growing influence of avant-garde movements on Gray’s output were evident in her linear, abstract carpet designs. Her furniture, too, was beginning to steer away from Art Deco only to embrace a more austere, modern expression. The following year, she exhibited her work at the Salon de la Société des artistes décorateurs which brought her much negative criticism from the French press. The “room-boudoir for Monte Carlo” was a highly unconventional set-up, completely differing from the standard bedrooms of the time. Perhaps for this reason members of De Stijl – particularly Oud – were highly impressed with her display. 

Nevertheless, despite her pioneering designs – Gray worked with tubular steel at the same time as Marcel Breuer – she was far less successful than her male counterparts. She corresponded with the likes of Oud, Le Corbusier, Jan Wils – finding their admiration for her work encouraging. Yet, in 1930, she was forced to close Jéan Desert due to slow sales. Doing away with decoration, she instead turned to architecture, inspired by the architects who’d noticed her potential. 

E-1027

The modernist house in Roquebrune was Gray’s first architectural project. Jean Badovici, an architect and Gray’s lover at the time, was the greatest influence on her career shift, persuading her to take up studying architecture. In collaboration with Badovici, she designed the house known as E-1027, a code for their names. It was an inherently modern design devoid of ornament with a flat roof and open plan overlooking the sea. Yet at the same time it challenged Le Corbusier’s notion of a “machine for living”. Gray thought of “a dwelling as a living organism”, approaching design with great consideration for the user and the senses. 

Le Corbusier himself greatly admired the house, visiting it many times and staying for prolonged periods of time. He even built a series of holiday cabins next to the house. The architect’s name is strongly linked to E-1027; it was beneath the rocks upon which it was built that he drowned in 1965. But mostly, Le Corbusier’s name is linked to a series of murals he painted on the walls of the house during one of his stays, explicitly violating Gray’s vision for it to be free of decoration. Critic Rowan Moore wrote that Le Corbusier was “seemingly affronted that a woman could create such a fine work of modernism” so he “asserted his dominion, like a urinating dog, over the territory”. However, Le Corbusier’s true intentions with the murals remain unclear.

In 1932, Eileen Gray began to work on a second house, Tempe à Pailla, where she lived until the Second World War. Upon her return after the war, she found it badly damaged and she took upon herself her last major project – the rebuilding of the house. Due to her deteriorating eyesight she never finished the project, instead returning to Paris where she all but retired. 

A New Appreciation for Eileen Gray

Eileen Gray was already in her nineties when a renewed interest in her work sparked. The 1973 was the year when Yves Saint Laurent purchased her Dragons Armchair. It was also the year Gray met Zeev Aram, owner of the Aram Store and official manufacturer of her designs. In an interview with Dezeen, Aram spoke fondly of his collaboration with the underappreciated artist towards the end of her life. 

“…in the late sixties there was a very interesting article written by Joseph Rykwert in Domus magazine about her and that triggered my curiosity about this particular artist that nobody wrote about, nobody talked about, nobody had seen her work.” 

It is a sad thought that the designer for the Parisian elite at the turn of the century, who managed to gain the attention of the Dutch avant-garde art scene, who rivaled Le Corbusier, was dismissed only years later. Shortly before her death in 1976, her work was featured in the exhibition “1925” at the Museé des Arts Decoratifs in Paris, which was just one of the attempts of reinstating Gray’s rightful place in the vanguard of modernity. 

Too free-thinking to be pinned down by the rules society imposed upon women, Gray’s controversial private life perhaps partially inhibited her success. Withdrawing from public life, she yearned to be remembered solely for her work. The story of Eileen Gray is one of a bohemian, forward-thinking designer navigating through a male dominated industry in the first half of the twentieth century. It is a story of perseverance and disappointment – as has been the case with many ground-breaking artists forgotten during their lifetime, unrecognized for their genius. And as the world has finally begun to explore and celebrate the life and work of Eileen Gray, it ultimately becomes a story of acceptance and acknowledgement, if slightly late.

Featured image: Eileen Grey circa 1910. [Public domain]

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