Forgotten for many decades, the architect Eileen Gray was a visionary whose designs engaged with the senses and offered wellbeing. Lindsay Baker looks back at her life and work.
Eileen Gray was a fabulously glamorous figure, at the epicentre of the Parisian beau monde of the Roaring ’20s. She was elegantly dressed by the haute-couture designers of the era, Poiret and Lanvin, and she met many of the starry figures of the times, from Pablo Picasso to Frida Kahlo and James Joyce. Born into a well-to-do Irish family, she was an adventurous, independent soul, who at the age of 20 enrolled at the bohemian Slade School of Art in London. From there she moved to Paris, and proceeded to live in France for the rest of her life, dividing her time between Paris and the Côte d’Azur. She had relationships with notable, creative people – both women and men – and was the first woman in Paris to attain a driving licence; later she took flying lessons too.
More like this:
– The homes that reflect their owners
– The radical, unsung heroine of design
– Case study houses: California dreaming
However the most extraordinary thing about Gray was her talent. She was a visionary, pioneering designer, and uniquely successful in what was then the wholly male-dominated world of architecture and design. Originally a purveyor of Art Deco style, by the mid 1920s she became an architect, and a keen advocate of Modernism. Her achievements were completely – scandalously – overlooked for decades. She was rediscovered in the 1970s, and since then her work has been widely acclaimed. It is hugely sought after – in 2009, her Dragons armchair was sold at auction in Paris for $28.3m, a record for 20th-Century decorative art.
View image of (Credit: NMI Collection)
She was recently the subject of a retrospective at New York’s Bard Graduate Center (temporarily closed) in collaboration with the Pompidou Centre, Paris. The exhibition’s curator Cloé Pitiot is clear about Gray’s significance. “In terms of art history,” she tells BBC Designed, “Eileen Gray is the one and only designer of her time to have such a varied practice in the creation of furniture and objects… Her very vision of design, beyond the pieces she actually created, was innovative.”
When she moved to Paris, Gray become the first western practitioner of Japanese lacquer, having studied the challenging craft under Japanese master Seizo Sugawara. By the 1920s she was creating original and distinctive lacquered screens and architectural panelling, as well as deluxe Parisian Art Deco furniture. It was highly unusual at the time for a woman designer to be operating on her own, and in 1910, she set up a workshop for furniture-making and weaving of rugs and carpets. By 1919 she was being commissioned to design home interiors, including the apartments of the Maharajah of Indore, and society hostess Juliette Levy, in Rue de Lota. “Her style is thoroughly modern,” said Harper’s Bazaar magazine.
View image of Credit: Courtesy of Robert and Cheska Vallois, Paris)
The furniture in the Rue de Lota apartment included some of the designs that remain her best-known, including the Bibendum Chair – a take on the famous Michelin Man mascot, with tyre-like shapes on a chromed steel frame – and the Pirogue day bed, gondola-shaped, with a patinated bronze lacquer finish. As Pitiot puts it: “Her furniture, whether in lacquer, parchment, burnt pine, metal tube or cork, has always appeared to be avant-garde. The great designers of her time, such as Jean Dunand or Armand-Albert Rateau, worked strictly in their chosen fields to become experts, while Eileen Gray constantly stepped out of her comfort zone to innovate, experiment, and develop new shapes, lines, and functions for her designs.”
View image of (Credit: Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris/ MAD, Paris / Christophe Dellière)
Gray always maintained an interest in the feel and effect of materials, and her furniture engaged directly with the senses
Around this time, Gray was in a “discreet relationship” with the nightclub singer Marisa Damia, according to the biography Eileen Gray: Her Work and Her World by Jennifer Goff, who is also curator of the Gray collection at the National Museum of Ireland. Gray had by then opened a shop, named Jean Desert, on the city’s most fashionable street, Faubourg Saint-Honoré. The boutique offered a range of her work, from furniture and rugs, to paintings and graphics, and became a meeting place for the artistic beau monde – the Rothschilds, Nancy Cunard, Elsa Schiaparelli and writers including James Joyce and Ezra Pound all gathered there. The Chicago Tribune described the shop as “an adventure, an experience with the unheard of, a sojourn into the never-before-seen”.
View image of (Credit: Centre Pompidou, Bibliothèque Kandinsky, Paris. Fond Eileen Gray)
In the mid-to-late 1920s, Gray became a keen advocate of pared-back Modernism, and became interested in architecture, learning technical drawing. She began work on several projects with her mentor, the Romanian architect Jean Badovici, who became her lover. And next came her most extraordinary achievement, the first of several architectural projects, the villa, named E-1027, in Roquebrune Cap-Martin in the south of France. It is a stunning creation, a white cuboid, perched high on a cliff overlooking the sea. It was formulated on the principles of new architecture that had been set out by Le Corbusier – open-plan, the house is raised on pillars and has horizontal windows, an open façade and a roof accessible by stairs. The villa E-1027 is described by Goff in her book as “a masterpiece of 20th-Century architecture”. When it was finished, Gray presented it to Badovici as a gift.
View image of (Credit: Alamy)
In her book, Goff argues that the villa was Gray’s own creation, rather than a collaboration. “Significantly,” she writes, “all the extant plans are solely in Gray’s hand.” And the villa at Roquebrune Cap-Martin is a remarkable achievement as much on the inside as the outside – unlike many Modernists of the era, Gray saw both as equally important. She wrote at the time: “The interior plan should not be the incidental result of the façade; it should lead to a complete harmonious, and logical life.”
Eileen Gray’s architecture breathes, and offers the inhabitant an open space where both body and soul can rest – Cloé Pitiot
When Gray designed her own Modernist house, she put into practice her expressed belief that a designer should be guided by “human needs” and that “the art of the engineer” was not enough. “A house is not a machine” is the most frequently quoted remark by Gray, a comment that was in direct opposition to Le Corbusier’s famous phrase in his 1927 manifesto: “A house is a machine for living in”. So what did Gray mean by her remark? As Pitiot puts it: “Architecture for her is a form of journey, an accompaniment for the body and mind of its inhabitant. Through her architectural proposals, she sought to achieve a form of symbiosis between the landscape, space, furniture, body, and soul. Her architecture, in this sense, is elastic, and we see this in elements of her designs. For example, window screens she designed specifically for E-1027 open and close using a system of sliding shutters so they could be adjusted throughout the day depending on sunlight. In this way, Eileen Gray’s architecture breathes and offers the inhabitant an open space where both body and soul can rest.”
View image of (Credit: Alamy)
Badovici himself wrote in 1924 in l’Architecture Vivante, that Gray’s designs revealed “an atmosphere of boundless plasticity, where different perspectives meld, where each object is subsumed into a mysterious, living unity. Space itself is for Eileen Gray just another material that can be transformed and molded depending on the needs of the décor; she allows herself an infinite number of possibilities.”
Gray was clearly boundary-breaking and adventurous, and her life story certainly suggests a glamorous figure, at the centre of Parisian social life. Yet for all the stunning outfits and famous acquaintances, Gray was much more than a fashionable flapper or social butterfly. There was a bravery, resilience and complexity about her – and, interestingly, in her book Goff describes her as a “shy” person. Certainly her life was not always easy. During World War Two, Gray was interned as a foreign national, her houses were looted, and many of her drawings and models were destroyed by bombing. Nazi soldiers used the walls of the E-1027 villa for target practice.
So how did Gray’s life experiences and personality feed into her work? “She had a very independent, free, and elastic personality,” says Pitiot. “Gray faced many difficult periods throughout her life… She persisted, however, and each time went on to create with ever-greater freedom. Gray was open-minded and sincere. She was passionate about other cultures and other ways of life, and this conscientiousness, curiosity, and humanity is evident in all her projects, from the socially-driven designs like the Camping Tent, which was an economical and demountable home, to her proposals for workers’ housing.”
View image of (Credit: Musée des Arts décoratifs Paris/ MAD Paris / Jean Tholance)
Gray was a designer who defied convention and easy categorisation, but always maintained an interest in the feel and effect of materials, and her furniture engaged directly with the senses, in a way that set her apart. As Pitiot says: “She was not afraid to be herself and to embrace and realise her ideas… She creates peaceful spaces that conform to the needs of the people using them, with designs for fixed and mobile furniture that glides, slides, pivots, and serves many purposes simultaneously. In her interiors, this furniture becomes another sort of living being that responds and adapts to serve both the physical and spiritual needs of its user.”
View image of (Credit: Courtesy Galerie Vallois, Paris. Photographed by Arnaud Capentie)
‘Human needs’ to Gray signify both material and spiritual needs – Cloé Pitiot
And the designer’s equal focus on a building’s interior was central to her thinking. She wrote: “The interior plan should not be the incidental result of the façade; it should lead to a complete harmonious, and logical life.” Her ‘camping’ style furniture was functional and lightweight, her elegant armchairs geometric but luxuriously comfortable.
“’Human needs’ to Gray signify both material and spiritual needs,” says Pitiot. “She was one of the few designers during the period to design with the physical and material needs of the user in mind, while also reflecting on psychological needs. For Gray, each object is a considered design that responds to a unique need and, beyond its function, serves to promote the well-being of its human user.”
View image of (Credit: Phillips Auctioneers LLC)
By 1930 Gray more or less stopped creating work, and was almost completely forgotten. As head of furniture, textiles and fashion at London’s V&A Museum, Christopher Wilk, puts it: “She really was a figure who was lost to history and to the design community until relatively recently. Now, that’s clearly because she was a woman. She said that she was a no-one as far as the French architectural world was concerned. And the story of Eileen Gray is really the story of retrieval. You look at her work, and you think, how could a woman of this talent ever have been forgotten? How come decades went by when essentially nobody knew about her?”
View image of (Credit: Getty Images)
Gray lived quietly in the seaside town of Menton, high in the mountains, in her small two-bedroomed house with a large terrace and panoramic view, and disappeared from the public consciousness. Until, that is, the late 1960s, when an essay appeared about her work in the Italian design magazine Domus. At an auction in Paris in 1972 Yves Saint Laurent acquired one of her pieces, and an exhibition in London soon followed, then one in Dublin. At the Dublin event, the 95-year-old Gray was given an honorary fellowship by the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland. She died in Paris in 1976 at the age of 98, and though she is buried at Père Lachaise cemetery, because her family omitted to pay the licence fee, her grave is not identifiable.
View image of (Credit: Alamy)
But Gray’s vision is very much still alive. The British architect and furniture designer Amanda Levete is among Gray’s many fans, and has said. “The [Transat] chair is very expressive of a direct relationship between architecture and design. In a sense it’s like architecture in miniature.” The E1027 villa, says Levete, was “an opportunity to create a total environment,” and the Transat chair “was named after the deck chair you would find on a transatlantic cruise liner. The very form of the chair is suggestive of a kind of sensualism and a relaxation, and a kind of lying back and observing or reading. This house she designed was like a beached liner that was slung across the rocks, and the form of the chair makes you think of a languid afternoon in the Mediterranean looking out to sea.”
For more information about Eileen Gray, visit the Bard Graduate Center Gallery website.
If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.
And if you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called The Essential List, a handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Worklife and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.