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Eileen Gray

Kathleen Eileen Moray Gray (August 9, 1878 – October 31, 1976) was an Irish furniture designer and architect and a pioneer of the Modern Movement in architecture.

Contents

Biography

Eileen Gray was born on 20 August 1878, into an aristocratic family near Enniscorthy, a small market town in south-eastern Ireland. Gray was the youngest of five children. Her parents, Eveleen Pounden Gray and James Maclaren Gray were of Scottish/Irish descent. Gray’s father, James, was a painter who encouraged his daughter's artistic interests. He took his daughter on painting tours of Italy and Switzerland which and encouraged her independent spirit. Gray spent most of her childhood living in family homes, either in Ireland or South Kensington in London.

In 1898 at the age of twenty, Gray attended classes at the Slade School of Fine Art, where she studied painting. Whilst enrolling, she made acquaintances with Jessie Gavin and Kathleen Bruce.

In 1900 (the year of her father’s death), Eileen Gray and her mother went to Paris to visit the Exposition Universelle; this was Eileen’s first visit to Paris. The Exposition Universelle was a world’s fair that celebrated the achievements of the past century in hopes of encouraging new work in the next. The main style there was Art Nouveau. Gray was a fan of the work that Charles Rennie Mackintosh had exhibited there.

Soon after, Gray moved to Paris along with her friends from the Slade School, Gavin and Bruce. Eileen Gray continued her studies at the Académie Julian and the Académie Colarossi. For some four of five years after the move, Gray moved back and forth from Paris to Ireland to London, and then in 1905, she settled back in London as her mother took ill. Eileen Gray made use of her time in London and rejoined the Slade, but found that her drawing and painting courses were becoming less satisfying.

Gray came across a lacquer repair shop in Soho where she asked the shop owner whether he could show her the fundamentals of lacquer work as it had taken her fancy. The owner had many contacts from the lacquer industry and when Gray moved back to Paris in 1906, to an apartment where she remained for much of her working life, she met one of them; Seizo Sugawara (or Sugawara-san). He originated from an area of Japan that was known for its decorative lacquer work and emigrated to Paris to repair the lacquer work exhibited in the Exposition Universelle. She found after working with Sugawara for four years that she had developed the lacquer disease on her hands, however she persisted in her work and it was not until she was thirty-five that she exhibited her work. When she did, however, it was a success.

In 1914, when World War I broke out, Gray moved back to London, taking Sugawara with her. At the end of the war, they returned to Paris and Gray was given the job of decorating an apartment in the rue de Lota. She designed most of its furniture, carpets and lamps, and installed lacquered panels on the walls. The result was favorably reviewed by several art critics who saw it as innovative.

Given a boost from the success of the apartment on rue de Lota, Gray opened up a small shop in Paris, Jean Desert, to exhibit and sell her work and that of her artist friends.

E1027 table by Eileen Gray

In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Gray was involved with the Union des Artistes Modernes which had well-known members. She designed and furnished herself a new home, Tempe à Pailla outside Menton. This is another icon of Modernist architecture, a space designed for her to dwell and work, it was a living/working machine as she wanted it, a space which can be constantly changed such as furniture having multi-purpose. Eileen loved a challenge, it is believed that was why she chose such a difficult site. She built on existing structures which anchored the house, she was into ship architecture, this would explain why her house was long and narrow with many decks for views and levels for storage, and the flag on top. Eileen was very social, she took advantage of the entertaining space for her guests and incorporated views of the city and the sea with balconies and large windows. However, she was also in a way private and enjoyed her space, this can be viewed on the plans of Tempe a Pailla on her choice of where she positioned her rooms, as the bedrooms, service rooms and courtyard were tucked away at the back, revealing a tranquil view of the distant mountains. It was almost like the house can be split in half, one side public and the other private. Eileen treated the outside space the same way as she treated the inside space, she did this by having the same tiles, the same material inside and out. She liked to take advantage of the sunlight, in fact she designed each room regarding to were she would receive the most sunlight or the least, she even incorporated a way in which she could control the light in certain rooms, in the bedroom a medium sized circle could be moved according to the amount of light she wanted to enter the room, almost like an eclipse, like she had her own sun to play with.

In 1937, she agreed to exhibit her design for a holiday center in Le Corbusier's Esprit Nouveau pavilion at the Paris Exposition.

During World War II Gray, along with all other foreigners, was forced to evacuate the coast of France and move inland. After the war discovered that her flat in Saint-Tropez had been blown up and that E.1027 had been looted.

Gray returned to Paris and led a reclusive life. She continued to work on new projects, but was almost forgotten by the design industry. When she was around seventy, she started to lose her sight and hearing, yet when she was eighty, she transformed a dilapidated agricultural shed outside Saint-Tropez into a summer home; she soon moved there and continued to work.

Shortly before her death, Gray’s work was shown in an exhibition in London and her work was remembered fondly by the public. At the age of ninety-eight, Kathleen Eileen Moray Gray died in her apartment on rue Bonaparte in Paris. Throughout her career she had been independent and did not often work alongside others. She was quite unusual in her life as there were very few female designers around. It was not until after her death that her work was truly appreciated. She is now regarded as the most important female designer/architect of the 20th century, if not of all time.

Increased Notoriety

signboard signalizing restoration works, June 2008
signboard (detail) signalizing restoration works, June 2008

Shortly thereafter, persuaded by Jean Badovici, she turned her interests to architecture. In 1924 Gray and Badovici began work on the house E-1027 in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin in southern France (near Monaco). The codename stands for the names of the couple: E for Eileen, 10 for Jean (the tenth letter of the alphabet), 2 for Badovici and 7 for Gray. Rectilinear and flat-roofed with floor-to-ceiling and ribbon windows and a spiral stairway descending to a guest room, E-1027 was both compact and open. Gray designed the furniture as well as collaborating with Badovici on its structure. Her circular glass E-1027 table and rotund Bibendum armchair were inspired by the recent tubular steel experiments of Marcel Breuer at the Bauhaus (who had been inspired, in turn, by Mart Stam). Le Corbusier was quite impressed by the house, and built a summer house nearby. Le Corbusier left his mark on the building in the form of several colourful wall murals. Gray vehemently disapproved of the murals, created at Badovici's behest, as they destroyed the integrity of the wall planes. When Le Corbusier died in 1965 he was swimming in the sea directly in front of E-1027.

The house has been in poor repair for years, but plans for its renovation are being prepared by the French government, who have designated it a French National Cultural Monument. As a result the state of France and the city of Roquebrune Cap Martin - through the national agency "Conservatoire du Littoral").[1] - bought the villa in 1999 and made it secure provisionally. Visiting E.1027 in the early month of 2008 it seems the devastated condition will be history in the near future. The building is surrounded by a scaffold, the property is gated with a fence recently installed and building worker are busy in- and outside the building. A signboard informs that E.1027 will be restored: the restoration is an initiative of the state of France, the department „Alpes Maritimes“ and the city of Roquebrune (bearing 50% / 10% / 40% of the expenses).

In 1968, a complimentary magazine article drew attention to her accomplishments, and Gray agreed to production of her Bibendum chair and E-1027 table as well as numerous other pieces with Zeev Aram. They were soon to become modern furniture classics. Following the purchase of her archive in 2002, the National Museum of Ireland[2] at Collins Barracks, Dublin opened a permanent exhibition of her work. On 8 November 1972, the Doucet sale added to the interest which continues to this day in the 'antiques' of the twentieth century. Gray's 'Le Destin' screen was featured in the sale and went for $36,000. Collectors entered the chase, and Yves Saint Laurent's interest completed the mythification of her image.

In February 2009, a "Dragons" armchair made by Gray between 1917-1919 (acquired by her early patron Suzanne Talbot and later part of the Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé collection) was sold at auction in Paris for 21.9 million euros (US$28.3 million), setting an auction record for 20th century decorative art.[3][4][5]

Personal life

Gray was bisexual. She mixed in the lesbian circles of the time, to include associations with Romaine Brooks, Gabrielle Bloch, Loie Fuller, the singer Damia, and Natalie Barney.[6] Gray's intermittent relationship between Damia (or Marie-Louise Damien) ended in 1938, after which they never saw each other again, although both lived into their nineties in the same city. Gray also, for some time had an intermittent relationship with Jean Badovici, the Romanian architect and writer.[7] He had written about her design work in 1924 and encouraged her interest in architecture. Their romantic involvement ended in 1932.[8]

The Bibendum Chair

Eileen Gray’s innovative Bibendum Chair was one of the 20th century’s most recognizable furniture designs. The chair is very much for lounging in and socializing. Its back/arm rest consists of two semi-circular, padded tubes encased in soft leather. The name that Gray chose for the chair, Bibendum, originates from the character created by Michelin to sell tyres.


The chair was designed for a millioner; Madame Mathieu Lévy who was a highly successful boutique owner which sold stylish hats. Lévy had commissioned Gray to re-design her apartment on rue de Lota in Paris. It was hoped to be new and original, with innovative designs. The process took four, painstaking years; from 1917 to 1921. During this time, Eileen Gray created the Bibendum chair along with the interior walls, furnishings, rugs and lamps. With Gray’s disapproval of the moulded walls that had previously been installed, she put up lacquered panels instead. She wanted to create the apartment so that it fulfilled aspirations, suited Lévy’s lifestyle and would go along with any particular mood. The Bibendum Chair was relatively large; its depth approximately 840mm and its height 740 mm tall.

The visible part of the frame of the Bibendum i.e. the legs, were made of a polished, chromium plated, stainless steel tube. The framing of the actual seat was made of beechwood and there was rubber webbing that was inter-woven across the base of the seat to provide added comfort. The seat, back and arm rests encased in soft, pale leather. Gray made a point of using plain coverings for this particular chair as well as another, the Serpent Chair which was simple, plain red. She also designed the Pirogue Boat Bed which was also completely plain. This was so that the apartment would not look too cluttered or messy and so that the eye would be drawn, first of all, to the tribal art on display. The furniture in the apartment on rue de Lota, in particular the Bibendum Chair, was all extremely comfortable.

Today, a full grain leather coated Bibendum Chair would sell for an approximate price of £2300. The chair was designed for the room so that it looked inviting and made you want to sit down in it. As the apartment was being designed for a trendy, modern, young woman, Eileen Gray’s wish was to make it quite alternative and daring. The Bibendum Chair in itself was hardly like anything ever seen before and its originality was quite amazing at the time.

The Bibendum Chair was designed as part of the modernist movement which was completely different from her earlier, more traditional work. She decided to make the change in style to simply make “progress”. The art critics loved the chair and reviews in papers and magazines exclaimed that it was a “triumph of modern living”. Thanks to her great achievement with the Bibendum chair and the other furnishings designed at the apartment on rue de Lota, Gray was given a huge moral boost, so she made the decision of opening up her own gallery in 1922 (see biography). Madame Mathieu Lévy’s commission provided a great financial success for Gray, and thanks to this, she did no longer need to rely on her family's financial support.

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