How do you write a blog article about someone who lived to be almost 100 years old, having been born over forty years before women in Britain and Ireland had the right to vote and having died in the same decade that saw the rise of Feminism?
Where do you begin with the life of someone who was described by the Irish Times as Ireland’s most famous furniture designer; who broke records by designing the world’s most expensive chair; who managed to disturb the delicate sensibilities of the Société des Artistes Français with her Avant Garde designs; who mixed with Paris’ wealthy and intellectual set during Les Années Folles; who flouted gender norms and was openly bi-sexual; who became a designer, architect and business woman, despite having no formal training, and… also had her work defaced by the oh so famous architect, Le Corbusier?
The short answer is, you keep it to less than 2000 words (we failed, massively) and let you, our audience, check out the rest in one of the many books and websites dedicated to Eileen Gray’s life.
Where to Begin?
2020 is a good year to start if you’re new to Eileen Gray’s work.
Perhaps you were one of the lucky ones who managed to see the Eileen Gray exhibition that opened in February at the Bard Graduate Center Gallery in New York, before it closed due to Covid-19 lockdowns? If you did miss it, the good people at the gallery have placed resources online for us all to peruse at leisure.
The exhibition featured approximately 200 works, including original drawings, furniture, lacquer work and archive material accompanied by a book, Eileen Gray, Designer and Architect (edited by Cloe Pitiot and Nina Stritzler-Levine ).
Now, about that Chair
In February 2009, over forty years after her death, Eileen Gray became the designer behind the most expensive chair ever to sell at auction. Fauteuil aux Dragons (1917-1919) sold as part of Christie’s ‘Collection Yves Saint Laurent et Pierre Bergé’ in Paris. Fauteuil aux Dragons (armchair with dragons) surpassed its estimated value of 2 to 3 million euros and actually realised 22 million euros, or EUR 21, 905, 000 to be precise.
Apparently refurbished by Saint Laurent, the chair has a rotund shape of rich brown leather, framed on either side by dark lacquer curving wood arms with carved serpent or dragon heads.
Having once belonged to Suzanne Talbot, the chair had been sold to Yves Saint Laurent in 1973 by the art dealer Cheska Vallois, who would later buy it back on behalf of an anonymous buyer. Gray originally named it the Serpent Chair and it makes you wonder if the latest owner retained the reupholstered leather version created by Saint Laurent and Bergé or took it back to its original, if that’s even possible, of light wood and fabric upholstery.
Eileen Gray was actually born Kathleen Eileen Moray Smith on the 9th August 1878 at her family home, Brownswood House in County Wexford, Ireland.
Her father was the painter James Maclaren Smith and her mother was Eveleen Pounden. In the late 1800s Eveleen inherited a family peerage from her Scottish uncle and became Baroness Gray (the 19th Lady Gray), hence how we came to Eileen Gray.
Women of her class were often encouraged to take up artistic hobbies but Gray wanted more than this. She was one of the first Irish women to be born during a time when women’s voices were starting to be heard. In 1871, six years before she was born, the North of Ireland Women’s Suffrage Committee was organised by Isabella Tod and in 1876 Anna and Thomas Haslam founded the Dublin Women’s Suffrage Association. Up until this period, Irish women could not vote, their education was often seen as pointless as they were not expected to earn their own living and their property became their husband’s once married. Gray really was born at a time when exciting political and social changes were afoot.
A Life in Design
1900 seems to have been the year that changed Gray’s life. It was the year both her father and brother died, the latter in the Boer war. It was also the year she visited Paris and was overawed by the installations of L’Exposition Universelle. This was only 11 years after the Eiffel Tower had been constructed as the gateway to the 1889 World fair. The 1900 fair featured the latest in electricity, motor vehicles, aeronautics and encompassed the summer Olympics in its timetable. The World Fairs from this era were monumental and we heartily recommend looking them up.
It’s often noted that the Parisian trip inspired Gray to study painting, which she did at the Slade School of Fine Art and later in Paris, but the influence of her father and also his untimely death surely must have been pivotal in this? Not so long after this Gray and her mother moved to the family’s South Kensington home, 169 S.W. Cromwell Road, placing her within walking distance of the V&A Museum. Fascinated by the Asian lacquer work displays, she became an apprentice to Mr Charles at 92 Dean Street in London’s Soho.
Two years after her first visit to Paris, she returned there to live, accompanied by Kathleen Bruce and Jessie Gavin, both from the Slade. Sharing rooms at 3 Rue Joseph-Bara, Gray studied drawing at the Académie Colarossie and the Académie Julian before being called back to London in 1905. Although resuming her studies she was restless and this period was fraught with her mother’s illness and she herself became seriously ill with typhoid. After a short spell in Algeria to convalesce, she returned to Paris. This time Gray intended to settle there and in 1907, now in her late twenties, she rented and then later purchased an apartment at 21 Rue Bonaparte, which she retained as a home for the rest of her life.
Once back in France, she began to collaborate with Seizo Sugawara, the Japanese lacquer specialist with whom she opened a workshop at 11 Rue Guénégaud. She had also learned artisan weaving and dying techniques whilst on a visit to the Atlas Mountains in 1908 with Evelyn Wyld and together they opened a weaving workshop two years later at 17-19 Rue Visconti.
A spirit of adventure and joie de vivre springs to mind when we read about Eileen Gray, not only was she living independently in a foreign country she also travelled extensively. A year after the first mass produced motor vehicle (the Ford Model T) was produced in 1908, Gray bought her first car, a French Chenard and Walcker. She was also one of the first to fly a plane, and her love of new modes of travel was evidenced in her later design, Aéroplane.
Now instead of exhibiting her paintings, Gray began exhibiting objects. Om Mani Padme Hum, a lacquered over mantle, also called Le Magicien de la Nuit (The Magician of the Night), was placed on display for the first time at the 8th Salon de la Société des Artistes Décorateurs, Paris (1913). Om Mani Padme Hum is a Buddhist prayer meaning Hail the Jewel in the Lotus, a title that likely throws back to her relationship with Aleister Crowley who finished his 1903 book Berashith an Essay in Ontology and Ceremonial Magic with the very same words.
Fashion designer Jacques Doucet attended the exhibition and later purchased Le Destin (Destiny), a lacquered screen, and Table auxLotus before commissioning her to design more pieces for his apartment at 46 Avenue du Bois. He would go on to patronise Gray’s work, which he later displayed at his studio in la Rue Saint-James in Neuilly.
During the first World War Gray became involved in the war effort, which included time spent as an ambulance driver in Paris, before setting up a workshop with Sugawara in London’s Cheyne walk in 1917. Despite having displayed her lacquered furniture in Paris and at the San Francisco Panama Pacific International Exposition (1915), she struggled in London to gain clients for her work and after two years returned to Paris. Ironically it was in 2017 that her lacquer work was featured in the English edition of Vogue.
It was during this time that her eldest brother was killed at war, and her mother passed away in 1918.
In 1919, Gray exhibited La Nuit, a lacquer screen, at the 10th Salon de la Société des Artistes Décorateurs and began work on her first full interiors commission for Juliette Lévy (Madame Mathieu Lévy), owner of the brand J. Suzanne Talbot. It would take her until 1924 to complete the project, which involved the restoration of an apartment at 9 Rue de Lota and featured her signature lacquered block screens. Towards the end of the assignment, Kichizo Inagaki was hired to help with lacquering the hall.
Le Salon de Verre for Juliette Lévy by Paul Ruaud with furniture by Eileen Gray
Paravent en Briques
The black lacquered screen consisted of forty rectangular pieces on seven articulated columns and was originally designed circa 1919 - 1923. This is one of Gray’s most recognisable pieces. With its Japanese inspired elegance, the mobile screen could be adjusted to create a play of light and shadow and is beautiful in its simplicity, belying the labour intensive work behind its construction.
Looking at photographs of Eileen Gray from the early 1900s into the 1920s, she had undergone quite a transformation. The romantic Edwardian style of coiffed tresses and feminine attire replaced with cropped hair à la mode and gentlemen’s suits. The life she was said to have led could have been one of many at the time to have inspired Victor Margueritte’s La Garçonne, published in 1922, and his tale of Monique.
In 1920’s Paris she expanded her professional design empire and although often noted as quite a private, retiring person she is also regarded for the company she kept, much of which intertwined with her work. She had a significant romantic relationship with the singer Damia (Marie-Louise Damien) to whom she dedicated her Sirène Chair (Damia owned the chair until her death). She also had close friendships with other notable women, including the painter Romaine Brooks and her lover the playwright, poet and novelist Natalie Clifford Barney (who hosted a legendary salon within her Temple d'Amitié on the Left Bank), and Loïe Fuller, the innovative actress and dancer who held patents on her theatrical lighting techniques and was a pioneer of modern dance. One friendship that was formed in the twenties was to last a lifetime and that was with Louise Dany, who was her housekeeper, assistant and constant companion until Gray’s death some fifty years later.
In 1921 she bought a house on Rue du Bas-Samois, Samois-sur-Seine and expanded it to include a neighbouring property, which she converted into a lacquer workshop for Sugawara.
And on 17th May 1922, Eileen Gray opened her first public space under the joint name of Eileen Gray and Jean Désert (a fictional name). Galerie Jean Désert opened at 217 Rue du Faubourg-Saint-Honoré and was a showcase for handcrafted lacquered furniture and textiles, including woven and knotted carpets and wall hangings, attracting wealthy patrons and fellow artists.
The Shock of the New
No more than a year following the gallery opening, Gray exhibited Boudoir de Monte Carlo, an interior scheme that received less than favourable French reviews when she showed it at the 14th Salon de la Société.
The overall design was abstract and outlandish for its time, featuring solid blocks of colour in the form of an abstract red, white and gold lacquered panel, a lit de repos, a pair of white brick screens, a round occasional table with an octagonal base, a black lacquered desk with carved ivory handles, two carpets, and various lighting elements. It may not have gained French acclaim but it did attract the attentions of De Stijl architect Sybold van Ravesteyn, J. J. P. Oud and Jan Wils as well as Albert Boeken.
Gray was, in turn, inspired by the Modernist movement and De Stijl. In 1924 the Dutch magazine, Wendingen (an Avante Garde art and architecture journal) dedicated a whole edition to her work with an introduction by Jan Wils and article by Romanian architect Jean Badovici. Badovici encouraged Grey’s interest in architecture and together they went on to collaborate on several personal and professional projects.
Fauteuil Transatlantique / The Transatlantic Chair
Designed in 1924, the Transat chair was handcrafted in series, each one was individually tailored with its new owner in mind, making them a rare and unique find for collectors. With its blend of a slender but boxy sycamore frame, within which was a suspended organic synthetic leather seat and an ingenious tilting headrest, the chair feels reminiscent of a gymnast swinging between parallel bars. It was actually inspired, unsurprisingly given its name, by deckchairs on transatlantic steam ships.
Held together with nickel plated steel components, Transat flouted furniture design conventions of the time due to its stark appearance and even nowadays looks fairly Avant Garde. Various editions were made, sycamore and faux black leather and black lacquered wood with celadon green canvas or natural brown faux leather – the latter being the most dramatic in, our opinion.
E1027 Table and Transat Chair with lacquer panel in background (Credit: The Design Council Slide Collection at Manchester Metropolitan University Special Collections)
One of Eileen Gray’s most iconic pieces, the circular chrome and glass E1027 adjustable occasional table has inspired many copies. Multi-functional design was an important part of Gray’s philosophy and this particular table was designed for her own needs as an over the knee table. Designed in the mid 1920s, the table was another piece designed for the villa she was working on of the same name and is one of several pieces still in production now.
Together Gray and Badovici would use their combined names and numerology to decide on a title. In this case, E stood for Eileen, the 10 for Jean (J being the 10th letter of the alphabet), the 2 for Badovici and the 7 for Gray. Although their romantic relationship would later run aground, their friendship remained and in the early 1950’s Badovici utilised this same alphanumeric system to name a boat after Eileen, the E7.
In 1926 Gray began plans for a piece of land she had bought along the coast at Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, designing a vacation home for Badovici that she planned to share. She also designed the interiors of Badovici’s apartment at 7 Rue Chateaubriand, Paris, later in 1930.
Her first fully realised piece of architecture, the Modernist house was named E1027 and became her most recognised architectural project. The final build was featured in a special edition of L’Architecture Vivante: E1027 Maison en Bord de Mer.
E1027 (Above images credit: Manuel Bougot with thanks)
E1027 was built in partnership with Badovici and completed in 1929, not long after this she left him. Perhaps it was the failing relationship between Gray and Badovici (which is said to have ended in 1932) and an aggrieved Le Corbusier (said to have accused Gray of stealing his designs) that inspired the painting of the ‘offending’ murals on the building’s interior walls during the years 1938 and 1939.
There are plenty of articles online which favour this position but the truth of the matter is probably somewhat less gossipy.
Le Corbusier (and also Fernand Léger) had previously created a mural at Badovici’s home in Vézelay in 1934 and Le Corbusier was alleged to have said he was ‘dying to dirty the walls’ of E1027 with his designs. The pair would later fall out and Badovici wanted them removing. As it was, Le Corbusier actually returned to complete his work in 1949 and 1962, even after they suffered war damage (apparently there are still bullet holes in the walls) and Badovici had died.
Gray was said to be unimpressed by the sexually charged murals, which have been described as an act of vandalism, and, although fascinating in their own right, they are overtly jarring within their serene setting. Given Le Corbusier’s desire to see his work protected it seems he coveted his work more highly than one would expect if he had painted them purely as an act of revenge and misogyny. He even went as far as to encourage one Madame Schelbert to buy E1027 and save it from disrepair, which she did before selling it to her gynaecologist, Dr Kaegi (more on him later).
Much has been said about this spat but the truth always falls somewhere in the middle. One of Gray's very last interviews was with Maeve Binchy for the Irish Times who met with her in her Parisian home a few months before she died. You can still read the piece, dated 16th February 1976, on the newspaper's website. Binchy recalls Gray speaking in terms of a close friendship with Le Corbusier who had encouraged her work and spoken of how her Transat chairs had preceded his famous chaise longue by two years.
E1027 fell into disrepair (Image credit: Manuel Bougot)
Having fallen into appalling ruin and decay, E1027 has recently undergone a major renovation and although much was lost, including the original furniture sold by Dr Kaegi (who was later found murdered there), this stunning structure will soon be open to visitors.
Beautifully restored with mural intact and a discreet screen placed in front (Image credit: Manuel Bougot)
Now owned by the Conservatoire du Littoral, France’s coastal protection agency, the site is under the daily care of Association Cap Moderne (to whom we extend our grateful thanks for help with our research and imagery). The Association is a non-profit set up in 2014 to restore, and open up to visitors, the Cap Moderne site in Roquebrune Cap Martin. The site was granted Unesco World Heritage status in July 2016 and includes E1027, Le Corbusier’s les Unités de Camping plus his Cabanon which linked to the bar l’Etoile de Mer in which he spent many hours and undertook several murals for its owner.
Although, historically undergoing some unwanted modernisations, E1027’s restoration is back on track due to the work of the Association. The final restoration was due to be revealed in June 2020 but, due to winter storms and Covid-19, work has been delayed and fundraising is needed more than ever. The Association are now hoping to raise the final €275,000 to complete everything by Spring 2021, and anyone wishing to donate can do so by visiting the Association Cap Moderne website.
We also discovered this lush article Iconic Riviera about Cap Martin and its artistic connections, if you ever fancy a visit.
A New Era
As the end of the Roaring Twenties came to a close so did Jean Désert and the lacquer workshop at 11 Rue Guénégaud but Eileen Gray, quite the workaholic, was always juggling new projects.
From 1930 to 1935 she designed a vacation home of her own overlooking the sea, Tempe a Pailla at Castellar, and continued to exhibit her furniture, interior and architectural designs.
Modern modes of travel had clearly excited Gray from an early age, and we did read that she once flew over the Channel and also participated in the first flight of the postal service to Acapulco in 1920. This area of her life definitely deserves further research.
Created circa 1930, Aéroplane is an homage to her love affair with flight. The ceiling light was produced in rubber, blue and white glass and chrome. To suggest its angular form and technological construction was ahead of its time is an understatement, even by today’s standards.
In additional to her collaborations with Badovici, she continued with client commissions, including a further interior scheme in Boulevard Suchet for Madame Lévy for whom she created a series of furniture. The interior scheme included white Bibendum chairs and a white sofa. And was featured in L’Illustration, which neglected to credit her work.
Initially constructed from ivory coloured canvas upholstery and later white leather, the curvaceous Bibendum chair design was formed from two stacked rolls stitched together to form the back and armrests, set upon a u shaped seat with chromed tubular metal base. Gray’s sense of humour is evident in the chair’s name, which has the same name as the Michelin Man.
Later reproduction of the Bibendum chair (Credit: The Design Council Slide Collection at Manchester Metropolitan University Special Collections)
The Ones that Got Away
In 1937 Gray exhibited her work at Le Corbusier’s Pavilion de Temps Nouveaux and presented a proposal for a Centre de Vacances, which included holiday homes, campsite and leisure facilities. The scheme was never realised, as unfortunately was the case with many architectural plans she designed, including House for Two Sculptures, Small House for an Engineer, a Cultural and Social Centre, and a streamlined prefab build of modular sections entitled Ellipse House, designed to be easily transported and built.
During the second World War Gray left her seaside home and moved to Lourmarin, Vaucluse. Sadly, many of her possessions within Tempe a Pailla were stolen and vandalised, which meant the post war period was spent restoring her house.
In 1955 Tempe a Pailla was sold to Graham Sutherland and future summers would be spent at Lou Pérou, whilst 21 Rue Bonaparte remained Gray’s home the remainder of the year.
Having bought a vineyard with a crumbling farm house (just south of St Tropez near Chapelle Sainte-Anne) in 1939, by the mid 1950s plans to build and renovate came to fruition. Gray was assisted by Guiccardi Henquez, a local engineer, who drew the initial plans but she later took over the project, despite not being in the best of health. The site retained its original building but featured an extension and would have further modifications into the early 1960s. The overall appearance merged the modern with the traditional rustic environment.
The 1960s and 1970s brought Grey financial and legal problems. She looked at selling her homes with the proviso that she could continue to use them until her death, she also looked at selling Lou Pérou outright but eventually neither happened. Instead, she sold part ownership of her vineyard to a local wine cooperative. She would be plagued up until her death with legal issues relating to Lou Pérou, mainly relating to road access to her neighbour’s property and an electricity company issue regarding cables running through her land. In 1976 she was actually taken to court over access by a neighbour, a terrible situation given how old and frail she was.
In 1972, Eileen Gray was named Royal Designer for Industry by the British Society of Arts.
Collectors, including Robert Walker, were also buying her work - including from the estates of those she had originally designed for. Items from Jacques Doucet’s Studio Saint-James in Neuilly were auctioned, including Le Destin, Table aux Lotus and Table au Bilboquet.
In 1973, Gray was elected as an honorary member of the Royal Institute of Irish Architects - despite having no formal training in this field.
All of these events combined to widen interest in her designs and a retrospective of her work, ‘Eileen Gray. Pioneer of Design’, was held at the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) London.
Eileen Gray died on 31st October 1976 in her Paris home. According to Wiki (!) her grave in Pére Lachaise cemetery is unidentifiable because her family omitted to pay the licence fee but her friend and biographer Peter Adam is claimed to have said the gravesite was accidently destroyed a few months after her funeral (attended only by himself and another two) and her remains placed in a communal grave. A sorry state of affairs for anyone but particularly in light of that Irish Times headline we mentioned earlier.
Eileen Gray is one of our favourite designers and if we had a time machine we would zip back to the 1960s and invite her for a café noir with a spoonful of conversation on the side. If you could do the same, who would you choose?
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