Neglected for most of her career, Eileen Gray (1878–1976) is now regarded as one of the most important furniture designers and architects of the early 20th century and the most influential woman in those fields. Her work inspired both modernism and Art Deco.
In the August 1917 issue of British Vogue magazine, a writer described the work of Miss Gray, a lacquer artist who had fled her home in Paris to seek refuge in London during World War I. ‘Influenced by the modernists is Miss Gray’s art, so they say’ it began. ‘But is it not rather that she stands alone, unique, the champion of a singularly free method of expression.’
Eileen Gray was to ‘stand alone’ throughout her career first as a lacquer artist, then a furniture designer and finally as an architect. At a time when other leading designers were almost all male and mostly members of one movement or another – whether a loose grouping like De Stijl in the Netherlands, or a formal one such as the Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne – she remained stalwartly independent.
Her design style was as distinctive as her way of working, and Gray developed an opulent, luxuriant take on the geometric forms and industrially produced materials used by the International Style designers, such as Le Corbusier, Charlotte Perriand and Mies Van Der Rohe, who shared many of her ideals. Her voluptuous leather and tubular steel Bibendum Chair and clinically chic E-1027 glass and tubular steel table are now as familiar as icons of the International Style as Le Corbusier and Perriand’s classic Grand Confort club chairs, yet for most of her career she was relegated to obscurity by the same proud singularity that makes her work so prized today.
As a woman, Eileen Gray was denied access to the supportive networks from which her male contemporaries benefited. Neither did she have the advantage of working with a powerful male mentor, like most of the other women who made an impact on early 20th century design – such as Charlotte Perriand with Le Corbusier, then Jean Prouvé; Anni Albers with her husband Josef; or Lilly Reich with Mies Van Der Röhe – nor did Gray share a trajectory with other designers, either by studying at the same schools such as the Bauhaus in Germany, or as an apprentice in a studio like Le Corbusier’s in Paris. Instead, her privileged background, like her gender, left her isolated.
The youngest of five children in a wealthy Scottish-Irish family, Eileen Gray was born in 1878 near the Irish market town of Enniscorthy, County Wexford. Her childhood was divided between the family’s houses there and in London’s South Kensington. Gray's father, James Maclaren Gray, was a keen amateur artist who encouraged her creative talent by taking her with him on painting tours of Italy and Switzerland. He also allowed Gray to enrol at the Slade School of Art in London to study painting. After her father’s death in 1900, Gray moved to Paris with two friends from the Slade, Jessie Gavin and Kathleen Bruce, and continued her studies at the Académie Julian and the École Colarossi. For the next few years she shuttled between Paris and the family’s homes in London and Ireland, but moved back to London in 1905 when her mother became ill.
During her stay in London, Gray returned to the Slade but found drawing and painting less and less satisfying. One day she came across a lacquer repair shop run by a Mr Charles on Dean Street in Soho. Allured by the antique Chinese and Japanese lacquer screens in the shop, Eileen asked if she could learn the rudiments of lacquer working. By the time she returned to Paris in 1906, she was obsessed by the art of lacquer and, thanks to Mr Charles’ contacts, had an introduction to a young lacquer craftsman, Sugawara. He came from Jahoji, a village in northern Japan famous for its lacquer work and agreed to teach her. In 1907, Gray found a spacious first floor apartment at 21 rue Bonaparte where she could live and work, and persuaded her mother to increase her allowance so that she could afford the rent. Three years later, Gray bought the apartment outright and thereafter it became her main home.
Gray studied with Sugiwara for four years. Lacquer work was not only painstaking, but perilous. Like many people who come into close contact with it, she contracted a painful ‘lacquer disease’ on her hands. Slowly she refined her technique to create stark forms with simple geometric decorations. This simplicity was, however, as much a product of the complexity of the process as of Gray's aesthetic preferences. It was not until 1913 that she felt confident enough to exhibit her work by showing some decorative panels at the Salon des Artistes Décorateurs. They attracted the attention of the Duchess of Clermont-Tonnerre and the couturier Jacques Doucet, who bought one of her panels at the Salon and commissioned other pieces of lacquer work from Eileen for his Paris apartment.
When World War I broke out, Gray returned to London taking Sugawara with her. Except for the sympathetic Vogue article, their work made little impact. Without her family’s financial support, both Gray and Sugawara would have been destitute. Instead, they were able to return to Paris towards the end of the War in 1917 and Gray was commissioned to decorate an apartment on Rue de Lota. She facaded the intricately moulded walls with lacquered panels to create a dramatic backdrop for the lacquered furniture and tribal art with which she furnished the apartment. Lining the hall walls were hundreds of small rectangular lacquered panels from which she was to develop one of her best-known lacquer pieces the Block Screen. Gray also designed lamps for the apartment and rugs using her favourite geometric patterns. The pièce de résistance was the spectacular Pirogue bed, a canoe-shaped daybed in brown lacquer and silver leaf. In the many newspaper and magazine articles on the apartment, it was hailed as a triumph of de luxe modern living.
Buoyed by the praise for her work at Rue de Lota, Gray opened a space in 1922 – Galerie Jean Désert, named after a fictitious male ‘owner’ and a trip to the desert – at 217 Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré to exhibit and sell her work. Too shy and introspective to serve there, Gray fussed over every other aspect of it down to details of window displays. The gallery boasted a chic clientèle including Vicomte de Noailles and the couturière Elsa Schiaparelli. It offered an opportunity for her to work collaboratively with friends such as Sugawara and the weaver Evelyn Wyld, who made rugs and carpets from a studio on nearby rue Visconti. In 1923, she created a room set, the Bedroom-Boudoir for Monte-Carlo, at the Salon des Artistes Décorateurs. By combining plain pale walls with dark carpeting and abstract patterned lacquer panels and geometric rugs, it struck a dramatic, decadent contrast to the Art Deco interiors then becoming popular in France. The French critics hated it – one dismissed it as suitable for ‘the daughter of Dr Caligari’ – but Gray was encouraged by an admiring postcard from J.P. Oud, the Dutch architect.
Similarly, her contribution to the 1923 Salon d’Automne was praised by fellow exhibitors including Le Corbusier and architect Robert Mallet Stevens. By then though, Gray had decided to concentrate on architecture, encouraged by the Romanian-born architecture critic Jean Badovici. ‘Eileen Gray occupies the centre of the modern movement’, he wrote at the time. ‘She knows that our time, with its new possibilities of living, necessitates new ways of feeling.’ In 1924 they began work on the construction of a house E-1027 on a steep cliff overlooking the Mediterranean at Roquebrune near Monaco. L-shaped and flat-roofed with floor-to-ceiling windows facing the sea and a spiral stairway to the guest room, E-1027 was both open and compact. Gray designed the furniture as well as working with Badovici on its structure. Her circular glass E-1027 table (originally designed to enable one of her sisters to indulge her love of eating breakfast in bed) and rotund Bibendum armchair were inspired by the recent tubular steel experiments of Marcel Breuer at the Bauhaus.
In a series of photographs taken by Berenice Abbott during this period, Gray emerges as a vigorous woman with a purposefully bobbed hair and a vital expression. After completing work on E-1027 in 1929, she refined many of the ideas developed there in the studio she furnished for Badovici in Paris and in Tempe à Pailla – a smaller house she built for herself in the early 1930s further along the coast at Castellar. Faced with the challenge of designing – and living in – such a compact home, she developed space-saving devices such as the foldable S-Chair and a double-sided chest of drawers later cited as an inspiration for Joe Colombo’s 1970 Boby Trolley.
During this period Gray had links with the Union des Artistes Modernes, which numbered Mallet-Stevens and René Herbst among its members. She and Badovici exhibited the plans for E-1027 in the 1930 UAM exhibition. In 1937 she accepted an invitation from Le Corbusier to participate in his pavilion at the 1937 Paris Exposition by exhibiting her plan for a holiday centre. But by then Gray was leading an increasingly reclusive life at Tempe à Pailla and did not turn up for the opening of the pavilion.
Gray remained at Tempe à Pailla for the first year of World War II but was then forced to move inland. When the war ended, she discovered that the flat in Saint-Tropez where she had stored most of her possessions had been blown up by the retreating Germans and that Tempe à Pailla had been looted. She retreated to rue Bonaparte, which was mercifully intact and led as quiet a life there – rarely seeing anyone outside her tiny circle of close women friends – as she had from Tempe à Pailla before the war. From time to time, she began work on a new project – such as the barn above Saint-Tropez that she slowly converted into a new coastal home – but she was largely forgotten by the design and architecture establishment at a time when one-time peers such as Le Corbusier and Mallet-Stevens were lionised as visionaries.
It was not until 1968 that the name Eileen Gray returned to the public domain when the critic Joseph Rykwert published an appreciation of her career in Domus magazine. Her work then featured in a few small exhibitions and was the unexpected hit of a 1972 auction of the contents of Jean Doucet’s apartment. Aram, a London-based furniture company, put some of Gray's archive designs – notably the Bibendum Chair and E-1027 table – back into production. The owner of the company Zeev Aram remembered how exacting she was in analysing every element of the reproductions.
Then in her 80s, Gray regarded her ‘revival’ with thinly disguised ambiguity. She was quick to complain when she spotted restored pieces in exhibitions or if she felt that her work was poorly displayed, but she confided to her biographer Peter Adam: ‘One must be grateful to all those people who bother to unearth us and at least to preserve some of our work. Otherwise it might have been destroyed like the rest.’ Her reputation was restored sufficiently so that her death on 31 October 1976 was deemed worthy of an announcement on French national radio. It was the first time that the name Eileen Gray had ever been mentioned in a radio broadcast.
Rolling Table c.1929, Tube metal frame and painted wood table-top, Collection: Paris, muse national d’Art Moderne – Centre Georges Pompidou. Copyright: RMN / © Jean-Claude Planchet
Shutters at Tempe à Pailla, 1932-34. Courtesy: V&A Images / © National Museum of Ireland
E.1027 table, 1927-1929, Lacquered tube steel, with transparent table-top, Collection: Muse national d’Art Moderne – Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris. Copyright: RMN/ © Jean-Claude Planchet
Tempe à Pailla, with chrome chair, 1931-34, Chemin de Belvessasa, Castellar, France. © National Museum of Ireland
Armchair, Sycamore, leather upholstery, chromium-plated metal mounts. ©V&A Images/National Museum of Ireland
Born Kathleen Eileen Moray, the youngest of five children, at Brownswood, near Enniscorthy in County Wexford, Ireland. The children are later renamed Gray after their mother’s wealthy, aristocratic family
Studies at the Slade School of Art in London and visits the International Exposition in Paris with her mother
Moves to Paris with friends from the Slade to continue her painting studies
Returns to London to care for her mother during an illness
Begins studying lacquer technique at a workshop in Soho
Back in Paris she studies with the Japanese lacquer craftsman, Seizo Sugawara
The following year she moves into an apartment on rue Bonaparte
Exhibits lacquer work at the Salon des Artistes Décorateurs and is commissioned by her first important client, the couturier Jacques Doucet
Spends World War I in London with Sugawara working from a studio in Chelsea
Returning to Paris, Gray creates her first complete interior for an apartment on rue de Lota, which leads to other commissions for lacquerwork and interiors
Opens Galerie Jean Désert in collaboration with the architecture critic Jean Badovici to sell rugs, furniture and lighting
Introduces tubular steel to her furniture
Exhibits the Boudoir-bedroom de Monte-Carlo at the Salon des Artistes Décorateurs
Encouraged by favourable press comment, she begins small-scale architecture studies
Collaborates with Jean Badovici on the design of E-1027, a house on the cliffs at Roquebrune near Monaco
Galerie Jean Désert closes
Eileen and Badovici present plans for the now completed E-1027 at the first Union des Artistes Modernes exhibition
Begins construction of her second house, Tempe à Pailla
At Le Corbusier’s invitation, exhibits her plans for a Vacation Centre in his Pavilion des Temps Nouveaux at the Paris Exposition. Gray does not attend the opening and begins a long period of reclusion
During World War II Tempe à Pailla is looted and the flat in Saint-Tropez where Gray stored many of her posessions is bombed. Isolated in Provence, Gray’s wartime work is limited to gouaches, unrealised architectural schemes and revisions of her furniture
Begins construction of her third house, Lou Pérou, near Saint-Tropez
After years of neglect, Gray’s work is the subject of an article by Joseph Rykwert in Domus magazine
Exhibitions of Gray’s architecture are organised in Graz and Vienna
The revival of interest in Gray is enhanced by an auction in Paris of the contents of Jacques Doucet’s apartment and an exhibition at the Royal Institute of British Architects in London
Zeev Aram, a London furniture maker, reproduces three pieces of her furniture
Eileen Gray dies in her apartment on rue Bonaparte in Paris