top of page

Eileen Gray - Designer / Architect

Eileen Gray
Portrait of Eileen Gray in 1914 • Credits: George C. Beresford / Hulton Archive - Getty
Eileen Gray Paravent Brick

Brick screen, design Eileen Gray, 1922-1925. This creation marks Gray's passage from decorative art to modernism, from figuration to abstraction. The black lacquered wood squares are independent and modular units, they create contrasts, between shadow and light, with a certain geometric rigor.
© designhome

Eileen Gray, born Kathleen Eileen Moray Smith on August 9, 1878 in Enniscorthy in the south-east of Ireland (which was then attached to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland ), and died on October 31, 1976 (in the former Broussais hospital, in the 14th arrondissement of Paris 1 ) is an Irish designer and architect. She is best known for incorporating luxurious lacquered finishes on Art Deco aesthetic furniture and then evolved into International Style tubular steel frame furniture in the 1920s.

In the architectural field, she is famous for having created Villa E-1027 with Jean Badovici , a free interpretation of modernist architecture . After having been largely neglected by the architectural body for many years, it experienced a resurgence in popularity at the end of its life. Today, it is part of the “Pantheon” of architects and designers who have left their mark on this discipline. This is evidenced by the posthumous exhibitions and the classifications as historical monuments of some of his works.

Biography :

Childhood and training

Kathleen Eileen Moray Smith was born on August 9, 1878 in Enniscorthy , now in the Republic of Ireland 2 . Her parents are Eveleen Pounden and James Maclaren Smith. In 1893, the family took the name Gray after her mother inherited a title of Peerage of Scotland 3 (she became Eveleen Smith-Gray, 19th Lady Gray).

In 1900, she discovered Paris on the occasion of the Universal Exhibition held in the French capital. She began studying painting at the Slade School of Fine Art (art section of University College London ) in 1901 3 , where she met Kathleen Bruce (future Mrs. Scott) and Jessie Gavin. In 1902, "les 3 Anglaises" were in Paris to take courses at the Académie Colarossi and the Académie Julian . Eileen Gray will experience a romantic relationship with Jessie Gavin there. Two years later, Gray returned to London to continue his training in lacquer techniques and resumed classes at Slade School. She settled permanently in Paris in 1907 and left painting to study lacquering under the direction of the lacquer craftsman Seizo Sugawara . She bought an apartment in a private mansion at 21 rue Bonaparte , which she would keep throughout her life 4 .

In 1908-1909, Gray learned to dye and weave woolen threads with his friend Evelyn Wyld in the foothills of the Atlas . In 1910, she opened two workshops, one dedicated to lacquer, 11 rue Guénégaud in which the cabinet maker Kichizo Inagaki also collaborated and the other in carpet weaving, 17-19, rue Visconti.

His beginnings in art

In 1913, she presented her first exhibition, with decorative panels, at the Salon des Artistes Décorateurs . She combines lacquers and rare woods, geometric abstractions and Japanese-inspired patterns in her work. This attracts the attention of couturier Jacques Doucet , an art lover and collector 5 . He ordered a few works from him, including the “Destiny” screen and the “Lotus” 6 table, which were the only signed and dated creations, as well as the “Table aux chars” and the “Table au bilboquet”. In London, after the outbreak of World War I , Gray had to rely on the financial support of his family. From 1919 to 1924, Gray was responsible for decorating the apartment of Madame Mathieu Lévy ( Suzanne Talbot ), rue de Lota in Paris, a celebrity in the world of fashion whose elegance was celebrated in The New York Times in a review. illustrated from March 5, 1914 N 1 . It is for this project that she produced the "Armchair with dragons" and a lacquered wood lounge chair that she baptized "Pirogue", with lines with African influences popular in the 1920s 5 , or its brick screens and the more Japanese-influenced “Lota Sofa”. Photographed by Baron de Meyer from 1922, his interior design aroused an avalanche of praise in the press. The apartment of Suzanne Talbot, now Mrs Mathieu Lévy, was considered one of the examples most exceptional decoration of the early 1920s Eileen Gray had five years to refine into the decor 7 .

Gray opened in 1922 the Galerie Jean Désert at no 217, rue du Faubourg-Saint-Honoré with the help of Jean Badovici , Romanian architect and critic, whom she had met the previous year 4 , N 2 . The couple will maintain a professional and intimate relationship 8 . This gallery is the opportunity for Gray to promote and market his creations "lacquer screens, wooden furniture, wall hangings, lamps, sofas, mirrors, rugs" according to the gallery's advertising. The gallery itself attracts the attention of the creative world; Badovici's influence is felt there. The facade made of steel and glass imagined by the Romanian architect, in the tradition of René Herbst , contrasts sharply with the stone facade of building 9 . Although it is not a financial success, the gallery seduces a chic clientele ( Marie-Laure de Noailles , James Joyce or Elsa Schiaparelli ) but also a lesbian clientele 10 : the singer Damia (lover of Eileen Gray), Romaine Brooks , Loïe Fuller , Gabrielle Bloch, alias Gab Sorère or Élisabeth de Gramont (Duchess of Clermont-Tonnerre).

Gray then obtains orders for which she collaborates with Sugawara as well as with the weaver Evelyn Wyld. In 1923, she designed the “Boudoir de Monte-Carlo” for the 14th Salon of Decorative Artists in Paris, where a “Pirogue” type bed and “Afro-Cubist” bedside lamps and floor lamps in ivory, parchment and lacquered wood 11 , 12 , considered extravagant, this time focus the criticism 13 , 14 . This project, which also presented its carpets and brick screens, however, attracted the attention of the De Stijl movement , a group whose theories and achievements would later inspire it.

Towards modernism

Turning :

She was thus noticed in 1923 by Sybold van Ravesteyn and JJP Oud of the De Stijl movement , whose exhibition she visited the same year at the Galerie de L'Effort moderne in Paris. Admiring the designer and architect Gerrit Rietveld , to whom she pays homage with her "Table De Stijl" from 1924 and whose house she visited Schröder 15 in 1925, following the International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts where the Pavilion appears. of the New Spirit 16 , it reacts by renouncing the “monstrosities of Art Deco” 17 and renounces its lamps and lacquered wood to capture these new trends. Also inspired by recent achievements in tubular steel by Marcel Breuer , such as his "  Wassily chair  »From 1925, she created furniture focused on functionality. Already in 1925-1926 with her prototype of "Adjustable table" she began to use the metal tube for furniture, first lacquered, then nickel-plated or chrome-plated from 1927 18 , 19 , after having experimented with it on lamps . With these new pieces of furniture, also symbolized by her round Bibendum armchair, made around 1930, which was then bought by Suzanne Talbot for her new Parisian apartment on Boulevard Suchet, fitted out in 1933 under the direction of architect Paul Ruaud, she began her modernist turn. . She is with Marcel Breuer, René Herbst , Charlotte Perriand or Gerrit Rietveld, one of the forerunners of furniture with tubular steel structure 20 .

Persuaded by Jean Badovici , she then moved towards architecture from 1924. She learned this discipline late with the help of Badovici, who wanted to build on the Côte d'Azur , and a young architect named Adrienne Gorska , who teaches him the basics of architecture and its practice 21 . The same year, “Maison avec petite fabrique”, a wood that hesitates between sculpture and model, perhaps expresses its first way of approaching architecture. In 1926, his “House for an engineer” project was still part of his simply planned work. It was in Cap Martin, in Roquebrune , that she chose and bought land in 1926 in the name and on behalf of Badovici, and that they began to work on Villa E-1027 from models and plans. , whose sketches were made with Badovici in 1926, then finalized by Gray in 1927 in conjunction with the interior layout. The name of house 22 is a code for Eileen Gray and Jean Badovici: E for Eileen, 10 for J of Jean, 2 for B of Badovici, 7 for G of Gray 23 .

 

Villa E-1027 in Roquebrune-Cap Martin

The E-1027 combines openness and compactness. It forms an L, the roof is flat, with bay windows lengthwise, pilings on the ground floor and a helical staircase for the guest room. Gray, who collaborates on the structure of the house with Badovici, who notably patents the prototype of the sliding windows, also creates all the furniture, with in particular the circular “adjustable table” in E-1027 glass and the “Transat” armchairs and “Non-Conformist” 24 .

At the same time, in the special autumn-winter 1929 issue of Living Architecture , the recently completed villa E1027 is also published by Badovici, in the form of a dialogue with Gray, which makes Moreover, it is difficult to precisely date the manufacture of his furniture between 1926 and 1929, in this crucial period of the appearance of so - called modern furniture. With the villa E-1027, the couple of architects Gray and Badovici, while taking up externally the five points of modern architecture set out in 1927 by Le Corbusier, begins a critique of the first reflections proposed in parallel by the latter for the interior design of a standardized collective modern habitat. This criticism is introduced in particular by the idea that the internal layout must remain intimate and is not only the result of the external structure. The villa will also be presented in 1930 in the very first issue of the review L'Architecture moderne 25 , in which their friend Le Corbusier participates, who however appreciates its originality.

The villa E.1027, is a work of maturity, it is the first architectural construction of Eileen Gray. Active until the end of her life, she established a link between the older generation of artists who were part of the pioneering era of modernity and the generation of the 80s.

Le Corbusier, who, with his Monegasque wife, then regularly frequented Badovici in the latter's summer residence, painted nine murals there in 1938, encouraged by the Romanian critic, after having already adorned one of his paintings in 1936. houses in Vezelay with the painter Fernand Léger . However, these become a point of contention between Gray and Le Corbusier, the Irish artist considering that these frescoes do not fit into his architectural approach N 3 , 26 . But Le Corbusier finally convinced Badovici to keep them. After Badovici's death in 1956 , the villa was auctioned off to a friend of Le Corbusier, who wanted to ensure its preservation, including the frescoes. After a second change of owner in 1974, the house was emptied by the latter of its furniture, sold at auction in 1992, and abandoned following his assassination in 1996. The villa, classified and acquired in 2000 by the Coastal Conservatory , was rehabilitated 27 and then opened to the public in 2015.

In 1929, Eileen Gray was a founding member of the movement of interior decorators and architects, the Union des Artistes Modernes . In 1932 she started a new house called "  Villa Tempe in païa  »Located road from Castellar to Menton 28 . The name of the house, coming from the provencal saying "with time and straw, medlars ripen N 4  », Is directly linked to the evolution of Gray's work and life. Indeed, this architectural project is his most personal. Jean Badovici is not collaborating on this project. She continues her reinterpretation of the five points of modern architecture set out by Le Corbusier. It is, moreover, a place synonymous with rest and solitude. The land already has tank buildings that it transforms for two of them into a garage and guest bedroom, the third retaining its function as a water reservoir. Above it, she creates living spaces where the limit between private space and common space is clearly defined.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Towards a social architecture

The 1930s were a turning point for French society. The rise in unemployment followed by access to paid vacation pushes architects to rethink social and cultural facilities. Thus, Eileen Gray, who has a political sensibility of the left, is one of the precursors in the field, and makes social housing issues one of the characteristics of her work 30 , N 5 .

The first project in which it incorporated this social dimension was called “Camping tent” in 1930, where it incorporated a design resolutely turned towards mass leisure 31 , 32 . The same year, she imagined a concept of housing called "minimum house" where she developed the idea of a detached house with removable frames modulating according to the topography of the place 33 . The theme of the prefabricated detached house will be found occasionally in Gray's work, as in 1936 with the “ellipse house”. Exploring the impact of paid vacation on the social life of people, she imagines a vacation and recreation center in 1936-37. A complete project, it integrates administrative services, parking, different types of accommodation and equipment related to leisure and activities 34 . This project is presented at the International Exhibition "Arts and Techniques in Modern Life" of 1937 in the "Pavilion of new times" of the International Congress of Modern Architecture (CIAM) alongside Robert Mallet-Stevens and Le Corbusier

Forgetting and rebirth

Shortly before the opening of the exhibition, she began a long period of imprisonment. In 1940, during the Second World War , Menton was annexed by the Italian army and the French coasts were closed to foreigners, it then found refuge in the Vaucluse at Lourmarin then Cavaillon . During this period, many of his works which remained in Menton were looted 36 . After the war, it is largely forgotten by the architectural body. However, she continued her research on social town planning with the project of a "cultural and social center" from 1946 to 1947. In 1954 Gray began work on her new house, called "Lou Pérou", near Saint-Tropez which will be his last project 37 . On uninhabited land bought in 1939, where a farmhouse sits, she rehabilitates the place in the spirit initiated with Tempe a Pailla, that is to say a place of refuge. His projects were published until 1959, at the age of 81, with the presentation of his 1940s Cultural and Social Center in L'Architecture moderne .

In 1968, a flattering article by Joseph Rykwert, published in the unexpectedly successful Domus magazine, was enough to put the E-1027 table and the Bibendum armchair back into production. In France, gallery owners Robert and Cheska Vallois have been offering Gray furniture since 1971 38 . In 1972, the auction of the furniture of the great couturier and collector Jacques Doucet participated in the rediscovery of his work 20 . In 1973 , several retrospective exhibitions on Eileen Gray's work were organized by the Royal Institute of British Architects and the Architectural League of New York 39 .

On October 31, 1976, Eileen Gray died at the former Broussais hospital (96 rue Didot , 14th arrondissement of Paris), at the age of 98. His ashes were placed in the Père-Lachaise columbarium (box n ° 17616) before being transferred to the ossuary 40 , 41 . The architect and author, Michel Raynaud, said about him:

"Four years before his death, Eileen Gray, became famous 42 . "

In 1987 Peter Adam wrote the first biography of his friend: Eileen Gray: Eileen Gray, Architect and Designer.

Two films have been made on the life of Eileen Gray: the first, directed by Jörg Bundschuh and released in 2006, Invitation to a voyage, and a second, directed by Mary McGuckian , released in 2015 , The Price of Desire .

Eileen Gray E. 1027

Eileen Gray, E.1027, Roquebrune, Cap Martin, 1926-29

Eileen Gray exhibition at the Center Pompidou February 20, 2013 to May 20, 2013

bottom of page