The Unsung Eileen Gray

Here’s a little design pop quiz. See if you can identify the creator of the following piece of furniture.

Ring any bells?

How about this? It’s the tubular E1027 table, designed by Eileen Gray so her sister could have breakfast in bed, and it can be found at many retailers. On the other hand, the first item, also by Gray, is the $28 million Dragon chair, the highest priced piece of 20th century furniture ever sold at auction (it was once picked up for a song at $3,000 in the 70s, which goes to show how highly esteemed Gray’s work has become).

Designer Eileen Gray took a meticulous approach to everything she made, marked by obsessive attention to detail. Much like Van Gogh, the recognition of her talent came after her death. She was born to an aristocratic family in Ireland (she dropped the title “honourable” from her name), and fled to Paris to study art with two other well-connected English ex-pats.

Increasingly bored with painting, Gray became obsessed with lacquer in 1906 and studied for four years under a Japanese lacquer master based in Paris, Seizo Sugawara (left). When WWI broke out, Gray returned to London and took Sugawara with her where her family saved them from being destitute. Once the war ended, the pair returned to Paris where Gray was commissioned to decorate an apartment on Rue de Lota for a high-profile hatmaker. She used lacquered panels as a dramatic backdrop for lacquered furnishings of her own design, and tribal art.

Among the pieces she created for the apartment is the leather Bibendum Chair, named after the Michelin Tire man. The chair wasn’t like anything ever seen before, and magazines called the apartment a triumph of luxe modern living. Riding high on the buzz, Gray opened Galerie Jean Désert in 1922 — the name was a hybrid of a fictitious male owner and a trip to the desert — to exhibit and sell her work, which attracted chic clients like fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli.

She built her first home, E.1027 in 1929, as a retreat for a lover, architecture critic Jean Badovici on the Côte D’Azur, and it was the site of some major drama. Gray painstakingly oversaw every detail of the house, which resembled a ship beached on the cliffs (the name E-1027 is a numerical code for her and Badovici’s initials, E is for Eileen, 10 = J for Jean, 2 = B for Badovici, and 7 = G for Gray).

Gray spent months studying the effect of sunlight and wind on site, so she could design an open and spare house around the elements. Renown designer Le Corbusier would paint several colourful murals (some while in the nude) on the walls, spoiling Gray’s vision of a modern, minimalist refuge and prompting outrage: she called it an act of vandalism and never returned. Le Corbusier went on to build a wooden shack close to the grounds of E.1027 so that he could look at the building all the time; it was probably the last thing he saw when he drowned while swimming in front of the property in 1965.

Gray worked primarily as an architect after 1927, designing furniture for her own use or a few choice clients, and making the pieces herself in very small quantities so originals remain rare. She lead a reclusive life in France amidst a circle of close friends and was largely ignored until the 1970s when collector Robert Walker started buying her designs. In 1973, London-based furniture company Aram put Gray’s Bibendum Chair and E1027 table back into production, and they have been rightly recognized as icons of modern design. Gray told 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.” Eileen Gray is the subject of an upcoming film, The Price of Desire, starring Shannyn Sossamon and Alanis Morissette.

Photo credits:
1. Invaluable
2. Design Within Reach
3. Women’s Museum of Ireland
4. Il-Ne-Kore blog (Seizo Sugaware), Knoji (Eileen Gray)
5. Delux Deco
6. Ouno Design
7. Architectural Review
8. Misfits of Architecture

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