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Eileen Gray

Eileen Gray

Eileen Gray

Eileen Gray was always ahead of her time. Thirty years after her death, she is still considered to be the very essence of the Modern. Everyone has seen her furniture, her famous Adjustable Table, the Lota Sofa, the Tube Light – but most people don’t really know the designer and architect behind them.

Eileen Gray was born on 9 August 1878 into an aristocratic family of Irish-Scottish heritage, in the family home of Brownswood near Enniscorthy, a small market town in south-eastern Ireland. Gray was the youngest of five children. Her parents were Lady Eveleen Pounden Gray and James Maclaren Gray. From her mother Eileen had inherited her taste for decoration and from her father her independent and adventurous spirit. Eileen’s father was a painter who encouraged his daughter's artistic interests. He took his daughter on painting tours of Italy and Switzerland and encouraged her independence. Gray spent most of her childhood living in family homes in Ireland and South Kensington, London.

As so many of the women of her social class and time, Eileen received a formal education. She spent some time in a boarding school in Dresden, Germany where she engaged in an education as a school teacher. In 1898 at the age of twenty, Gray enrolled into the Slade School of Fine Art in London, where she studied painting. During her numerous visits to the Victoria and Albert Museum she discovered her interest in Asian lacquer works.

In 1900 (the year of her father’s death), Eileen Gray and her mother went to Paris to visit the Exposition Universelle, a world’s fair that celebrated the achievements of the past century, encouraging work in the new. Eileen was fascinated by this city and the work of the designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh, who was very influential in the Arts and Crafts movement and the main exponent of Art Nouveau, the style most predominant during the world’s fair in Paris.

After the death of her father, Eileen decided to move to Paris. Her friends from the Slade School, Jessie Gavin and Kathleen Bruce, a Sculptor went with her. The 3 of them moved into a hostel at rue Barras 7 in Montparnasse, which was the artistic center of Paris at the time. Eileen Gray continued her studies at the Ecole Colarossi and then the Académie Julien at rue du Dragon, preparing for the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. During the summer of 1902, Eileen Gray also followed painting courses in Caudebec-en-Caux, Normandy with Frances Hodgkin, a New Zealand painter. During several years Eileen moved back and forth between Paris, London and Ireland.

In 1905, she settled back in London for a while as her mother took ill. Eileen Gray made use of her time in London to rejoin the Slade School of Fine Art, but found that the drawing and painting courses there didn’t really satisfy her any longer.

Her curiosity and a chance encounter led to her choice of the exacting craft of lacquer. Working at Slade she saw a notice that in Charles’ workshop in Dean Street they repaired screens & things in lacquer. Approaching Charles, he allowed her to come and work in his workshop. He mostly used colored European varnishes to repair the old screens but also real lacquer form China. Charles also provided Gray with contacts in the lacquer industry in Paris. In 1906 Eileen Gray definitively established herself in Paris, in the apartment on rue Bonaparte 21, close to the church of Saint-Germain des Prés, which she occupied the rest of her life. There she met Seizo Sougawara (Sougawara-san) a Japanese specialist in decorative lacquer work. Sougawara originated from an area of Japan that was known for its decorative lacquer work and immigrated to Paris to restore the lacquer work exhibited at the Exposition Universelle.

Together they started a workshop and from him she learned the lacquer techniques that she successfully applied to her later work.
Until then lacquer was not used in contemporary furniture; it was a craft that was only kept alive for restoration work.

The following is important to understand the context in which Eileen Gray developed her craft and evolved her talent.

In France the fashion was for the organic forms of Art Nouveau. These were soon outmoded and French applied arts entered a brief period of uncertainty. This contrasted with the evident sense of unity in the work of the Munich Artists later known as Bauhaus, and which was presented during the Salon d’Automne in 1910. In the vacuum left by the demise of Art Nouveau, the Artistes Décorateurs turned toward the past, echoing the best of French traditions. There was a revival of eighteenth and early nineteenth-century styles. The result: a gracious potpourri of motifs that ultimately culminated in the repertoire of Art Deco.

The 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes was the high point of this style. Where the Germans were suggesting a practical, forward looking, democratic approach to design, the French seemed reluctant to acknowledge that twentieth-century design needed to confront questions of industrial production. Through Art Deco they hid behind the sumptuous veneers of outdated elitism. This was the backdrop against which Gray refined her skills, keen to explore her precious craft but feeling no kinship with Art Deco designers. In spirit she opposed the decorative retrospective style of the majority of her contemporaries.

After working with Sougawara for four years she had developed the lacquer disease on her hands, but nevertheless persisted in her work. Lacquer, the medium which so intrigued her, is a resin drawn from a variety of trees only to be found in the Far East. In its natural state, once filtered of impurities, it is a dense translucent liquid which hardens slowly to form a hard, impermeable surface which can be buffeted to a deeply lustrous finish. Gray applied it to a wood base. The wood had to be smoothed, the grain filled, then concealed with a layer of fine silk pasted with rice gum. At this point started the long process of building up layer after layer of the twenty or so coats of lacquer that were needed to achieve the desired result.

Each layer had to be left to dry for several days in a damp room, then pumiced smooth before the next application. Color would be introduced in the last layers. For the most part Gray worked towards a smooth plain surface within the limited palette which the medium allowed, notably black and variations of orange-red and brown. Her virtuosity is evidenced in the large areas of undecorated lacquer, faultless surfaces of deep, impenetrable luster. It is equally evident in her experimentation with surface textures, effects achieved with metallic leaf, inlays of mother-of-pearl, and incised or sculpted low relief decoration. Gray also successfully extended the small range of colors to include deep blue and greens.

By 1913 she had acquired sufficient mastery to feel ready to exhibit. She did so in the Salon des Artistes Décorateurs and presented a decorative panel of figures holding a lotus flower inlaid in mother-of-pearl that she called ”Om Mani Padme Hum”. Her participation attracted the attention of society hostess, the Duchess of Clermont-Tonnerre, whose circle included Gertrude Stein and Natalie Barney and who was able to provide her with useful introductions. The Duchess was to publish, in 1922, the first French-language article about Gray’s work in Lucien Vogel’s Les Feuillets d’Art. This salon also caught the attention of Jacques Doucet, couturier and art collector, who was to become Gray’s first important patron. Doucet is also credited as having funded the birth of the Surrealist movement.

Doucet, a collector of ancient Chinese art, was deeply inspired by Gray’s panel and lost no time to visit her at her Rue Bonaparte apartment. He was shown the ambitious four-panel screen she was just finishing”Le Destin”. Doucet bought the screen which Gray signed and dated”Gray 1914” for him. Commissions and important introductions followed. Gray created for Doucet the”Lotus” table, the smaller”Bilboquet table and a small red lacquer table. There is evidence for a red and blue cabinet, but no visual records. Her works also played an important part in the complex installations in Ducet’s Studio St. James at Neuilly.

Between 1909 and 1912, Eileen Gray visited many places, mainly in North Africa, where she learned about leather work and wool weaving techniques. Later she travelled to the USA and took the train from New York to San Francisco, with stops at the Gran Canon, the Rocky Mountains, Monterey, California and Seattle.

In 1914, World War I broke out and disrupted Gray’s work for Doucet and other clients. During the first months of 1915, Eileen Gray drove an ambulance in Paris together with Evelyn Wyld, under the supervision of the Duchess of Clermont-Tonnere. However by 1915, she closed her apartment and atelier and moved back to London, taking Sougawara with her. She tried to practice her art in London, but without commercial success. Nevertheless, a flattering article about her and her lacquer work appeared in the British Vogue in August 1917.

In 1917, both Eileen Gray and Sougawara returned to Paris, where she enjoyed leading the bohemian lifestyle of an independent woman. She loved men and women, fast cars, airplanes, ships and traveling –she lived the life of a modern woman several decades earlier.

In 1919, Gray was given the job of decorating an apartment in the rue de Lota for Madame Mathieu Lévy, owner of a celebrated salon de modiste, an assignment which she obtained through connections of Jacques Doucet. She designed most of the furniture, carpets and lamps, and installed lacquered panels on the walls to conceal the original moldings. Gray created a dark, intimate and exotic setting for the mix of lacquered furniture and tribal and ancient art with which the apartment was to be filled.

Gray’s cleverest innovation lay in her solution for the long hall. Here she used hundreds of small rectangular veined and textured lacquered panels, set like bricks against the walls. Halfway down the hall these opened out, perpendicular to the wall, into screens which broke up the otherwise over-long space. From this was born her most striking invention, the block screen that bridged the gaps between furniture, architecture and sculpture. These screens served as articulated moveable walls, preserving a visual and sculptural lightness through their clever play of solid and void, mass and light.

The apartment attracted considerable attention. Baron de Meyer photographed Mme Lévy on the sofa as a promotional image. Harper’s Bazar published a feature on the design well before the work was completed. Further press attention included The Times and The Daily Mail in England, The New York Herald and The Chicago Tribune in America. Together this must have strengthened Gray’s resolve to open a retail gallery for her work. Although family funds provided a safety net and a measure of security, Eileen Gray showed considerable courage in devising a career for herself in a foreign country in the hitherto male-dominated bastion of design.

The rue de Lota assignment was to be Gray’s step into full independence, as it also gave her financial independence.

In May 1922, Eileen Gray opened up a small shop on 217, rue du Faubourg Saint Honoré, in Paris. The gallery Jean Désert, was to exhibit and sell her furniture and carpets and some of the work of her artist friends. A printed card invited to see lacquer screens and furniture, hangings, lamps, sofas, mirrors and carpets, and advertised the decoration and installation of apartments.”A visit to Jean Désert”, suggested the card,”is an adventure: an experience with the unheard-of, a sojourn into the never-before-seen. Quoting The New York Times, it continued:”Eileen Gray’s designs neither adhere to the rules established by the creators of classic periods nor attempt to achieve sensational novelty by invitation of the primitive.”

For her gallery, Gray designed a simple but striking façade: beneath elaborate sculptured baroque stonework that was part of the original building, she drew a very simple grid incorporating large windows and doors with checkered panels in a strict geometric design; very modern looking even for today’s eyes.

Commercial success of the gallery was limited, except for her carpets. Gray had her carpets produced in Rue Visconti by a small team of weavers. Her designs were influenced by tribal art, Cubism and the flat geometric vernacular of the Dutch De Stijl group.

Her first contacts with the Dutch avant-garde came in 1922. During her contacts with Jan Wils, and in homage to the De Stijl ideals, Gray designed a remarkable table, which reflected some of the vertical and horizontal planes that were to dominate her later architectural style. Dominated by the rigorous geometry of the De Stijl group, it shows affinities with the furniture of Gerrit Rietveld. As with her block screens, the effect of her design was greater than the sum of the parts. Gray had an intuitive ability to add an extra dimension to an overtly straightforward design.

In 1923, after an interval of 10 years, Gray designed the Bedroom-Boudoir for the Monte-Carlo, which she exhibited at the Salon des Artistes Décorateurs. Her design was luxurious but stark and quite out of key with the prevailing tenor of French decorative artists. The reviews where dismal: Gray’s design was derided by the French press. Her design did however attract favorable attention from the Dutch architect Jacobus J.P. Oud and was in parts praised by the architects Le Corbusier and Robert Mallet-Stevens. Oud was an important stimulus in Gray’s development into a new direction. She was acutely aware that if her creative career was to develop, it would be in the field of architecture. She had taken her passion for lacquer and luxurious decoration to its limits.

Gray’s exchange of ideas with Oud helped her redefine her priorities. In 1924 an article in the contemporary periodical Wendingen, devoted to her work was published by Wils and the Paris-based Romanian architectural critic, Jean Badovici. Gray had known Badovici for several years, though it would appear they developed a much closer rapport around this date. It was Badovici who gave Gray the final impetus to put her ideas into effect: to plan, refine, build and equip a house in the forward looking spirit of the Modern Movement. Badovici brought his technical knowledge to the project which was to occupy them from 1924 to 1929.

Gray created one of the most famous homes of the twentieth century, the E.1027. 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. Gray showed a meticulous concern for detail, but what fascinated her now was not the fine finish of lacquer but the fine-tuned concern for the processes of living. She analyzed the functions of the body and the mind – sitting, relaxing, reading, eating, conversing, entertaining, washing, dressing and sleeping – and devised novel solutions in furniture and fittings which exploited compactness, versatility, respect for function, practicality, and what might be called later”user-friendliness”. Her table designs are a good illustration of her new interest, she always tried to incorporate the needs of the user. Her tables could transform and extend up or horizontally on the principle of the trombone.

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). Gray’s designs for tubular steel chairs displayed a humor and a lightness of touch which was very different from the earnest sense of purpose of the designs by her contemporaries at the Bauhaus.

Gray also incorporated miscellaneous industrial materials in her designs with a boldness that anticipated the later”High-Tech” furniture. Typical was the adaptation of perforated sheet metal for partition screens and shelf units and transparent celluloid for the front of cupboards. Certain of the furniture designs conceived for E-1027 were produced in small numbers for sale through Jean Désert, however, most designs remained prototypes.

Badovici devoted a special issue of his periodical”L'Architecture Vivante” to E.1027 and stated:”Eileen Gray occupies the centre of the modern movement”; she was slowly starting to become recognized as an established designer and architect.

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. The house mesmerized Le Corbusier from the moment he saw it until he died – his obsession for the building ended up destroying his friendship with Eileen Gray.

When Le Corbusier died in 1965 he was swimming in the sea directly in front of E-1027.

Gray was also active in the Union des Artistes Modernes, a French group of architects and designers founded in Paris in 1929. Founder-members included Charlotte Perriand, Robert Mallet-Stevens, Francis Jourdain, René Herbst and Jean Puiforcat. Between 1929 and 1939 the group represented a centre of activity for a broad range of tendencies within the French avant-garde, from advanced technology to fine craftsmanship.

The group was essentially devoted to the idea of the unity of the arts common to the ideology of applied arts reform from the mid-19th century. Gray and Badovici presented their plans of E-1027 during the first exhibition of the movement in 1930. The following year Gray presented storage units for modern apartments, confirming a commitment to democratic functionalist ideals.

With her success in architecture commitment to Jean Désert waned and in 1930 she closed the gallery.

In 1932 Eileen Gray developed the design for her summer house in the south of France, in the vicinity of Menton, which she called Tempe a Pailla. The house was finished in 1934 and from thereon she spent many summers there. Tempe a Pailla echoed many of the features of E-1027. Here again was the clean- uncluttered linearity, with flat overhanging roofs, simple column structures and tubular balustrades, terraces and walkways and long picture windows. Inside was the built-in furniture, light fittings, storage units including an ingenious sliding metal wardrobe.

Many of her best furniture designs after 1925 have the ability to serve and to satisfy without shouting their presence. They delight discreetly. Gray’s strength was her ability to create a sense of lightness and transparency.

Gray also bought an apartment with a view in the port of Saint Tropez, from where she loved to watch the growing crowds that flocked to the Côte d’Azur. Despite the increasing popularity of the city she continued visiting it on numerous occasions, constructing her last house, Lou Pérou (1954-61) in the vineyards of Chappelle-Ste-Anne. However, Paris always remained her principal residence.

In 1937, Gray agreed to exhibit her design for a holiday center in Le Corbusier's Esprit Nouveau pavilion at the Paris Exposition. Gray worked on several further projects but they were never to be built.

During World War II Gray, along with all other foreigners, was forced to evacuate the coast of France and moved inland to Lourmarin in the Vaucluse. From there she designed a house in Casablanca for Badovici. After the war she discovered that her apartment in Saint-Tropez had been looted and her house in Tempe a Pailla had been blown up by the Nazis.

Gray returned to Paris. She went into retirement, leading a quiet life between Paris and the South of France. 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 and soon moved there to continue her work.

Around 1970, a new generation started to appreciate her strength and her vision. In 1968, a complimentary magazine article drew attention to her accomplishments, and Gray agreed to the production of her Bibendum chair and E-1027 table as well as numerous other pieces with Zeev Aram. They were soon to become modern classics. A permanent exhibition of her work can be seen in the National Museum of Ireland, which bought her archives in 2002.

On 8 November 1972, much of the surviving furniture from the Doucet studio was sold at auction in Paris. The Doucet sale established the interest in the antiques of the twentieth century, which continues to this day. Gray's”Le Destin” screen was featured in this sale and achieved $36,000, setting a record for twentieth century furniture. Yves Saint Laurent’s interest in her work helped to further mystify her image. Gray was able to enjoy this belated recognition with a bemused detachment.

On October, 31, 1976, at the age of 98, Kathleen Eileen Moray Gray died in her apartment on rue Bonaparte in Paris, alone and virtually forgotten. Her ashes are buried in the cemetery of Père Lachaise, Paris.

In 1991 her”Transat” armchair was declared by the Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris as an item of national and historical importance. 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.

Throughout her career Eileen Gray 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. Replicas of her pieces are still considered avant-garde eighty years after their creation. Eileen Gray remains an icon of the Modern, and one of the twentieth century’s most fascinating women.

The Bibendum Chair

Eileen Gray’s innovative Bibendum Chair was one of the 20th century’s most recognizable furniture designs. 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 famous Michelin tire character.

The chair was designed for the apartment on rue de Lota. The Bibendum Chair was relatively large; approximately 840mm deep and its 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 beech wood and there was rubber webbing that was inter-woven across the base of the seat to provide added comfort. 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.

The Bibendum Chair in itself was like nothing ever seen before and its originality was quite amazing at the time. It 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”

Eileen Grey’s Work

There is no complete list of Eileen Gray’s work, much of it having been destroyed during World War II. Those we have knowledge of are listed below. For each project Eileen Gray designed and produced a large amount of furniture, panels, lacquer screens, cupboards, tables, wardrobes, fixturesw, carpets, which, with the exception of the furniture she developed for E-1024, were produced as prototypes.

  • Apartment rue de Lota, 1919-24, Paris
  • Vacation house, 1921-24, Samois-sur-Seine
  • Jean Desert, 1922, Paris
  • Villa Moissi of Adolf Loos (Project), 1923
  • House for an Engineer (Project) 1926
  • House for Battachon/Renaudin, 1926-32, Vézelay
  • House for Badovici, 1927-31, Vézelay
  • House for an Artiste, 1927-32, Vézelay
  • Zervos House, (1927-31), Vézelay
  • E.1027 (together with Badovici), 1926-29, Roquebrune/Cap Martin, Alpes Maritimes
  • Apartment for herself, 1930, Paris
  • Apartment for Badovici, 1929-31, rue Chateaubriand, Paris
  • House Tempe a Pailla, 1931-34, Castellar, Alpes maritimes
  • Farmhouse (Project), 1933-34
  • House on Boulevard des Madeleines (Project), 1930, Nice
  • Vacation and Leisure Center (Project), 1936-37
  • Beach house (Project), 1940, Casablanca
  • Garage in the Tuilleries (Project), 1940, Paris
  • Lou Pérou, 1954-61, Saint-Tropez

  • Lacquer panel”Le Magicien de la Nuit”, 1912
  • “Sirène” armchair, ca. 1912
  • Lacquer screen”Le Destin”, 1914
  • “Bilboquet” table, 1915
  • “Lotus” table, 1915
  • Small red table, 1915
  • Satelite Lamp, 1919, Apartment rue Bonaparte, Paris
  • “Pirogue” daybed, (1920), Apartment rue de Lota, Paris
  • “Serpent” chair (also called”Dragon chair”), rue de Lota, Paris, 1920-22
  • Occasional table, ca. 1920-22
  • Black lacquer desk, ca. 1920-22
  • Bedroom-boudoir for Monte Carlo, presented at the 1923 Salon des Artistes Décorateurs, 1923
  • “De Stijl” Table, ca. 1923
  • Several Lacquer screens, 1922 – 25
  • “Bobadilla” rug, 1925
  • Dressing table, ca. 1925
  • “Japanese” lantern, ca. 1925 - 30
  • Architect’s cabinet, 1925, Apartment rue Bonaparte, Paris and Henry Pacon
  • “Block” screen, ca. 1925
  • “Nonconformist” armchair, ca. 1926 – 29, for E-1027, Roquebrune/Cap Martin, Alpes Maritimes
  • “E-1027” table, ca. 1926 – 29, for E-1027, Roquebrune/Cap Martin, Alpes Maritimes
  • “Bibendum” chair, ca. 1926 – 29 for E-1027, Roquebrune/Cap Martin, Alpes Maritimes
  • “Transat” Chair, 1927-29, for E-1027, Roquebrune/Cap Martin, Alpes Maritimes
  • “Centimètre” rug for E-1027, Roquebrune/Cap Martin, Alpes Maritime
  • Night Table, (1927-29), for E-1027, Roquebrune/Cap Martin, Alpes Maritimes
  • “Satelite” Mirror, (1926-29), for E-1027, Roquebrune/Cap Martin, Alpes Maritimes
  • Low cabinet with pivot drawers for E-1027, Roquebrune/Cap Martin, Alpes Maritimes
  • Metal screens 1926 to 29
  • Perforated Metal Screen, (1930-31), Aparment Badovici, Paris
  • Celluloid screen, 1931
  • “S” chair, ca. 1932, Tempe a Pailla, Castellar (Alpes Maritimes)
  • Stool, (1934)
  • Coffee Table, (1932), Tempe a Pailla, Castellar (Alpes Maritimes)
  • Extendable cupboard, (1932), Tempe a Pailla, Castellar (Alpes Maritimes)

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