Eileen Gray

TO CREATE, QUESTION EVERYTHING

“A house is not a machine to live in. It is the shell of man, his extension, his release, his spiritual emanation. Not only its visual harmony but its organization as a whole, the whole work combined together, make it human in the most profound sense.” - Eileen Gray

A contemporary of Le Corbusier, Marcel Breuer and J.J.P. Oud, Eileen Gray was one of the most important and influential designers working in 20th century Paris. She took the lead in redefining architecture as a plausible profession for her sex; ahead of her time, Gray was a true forerunner of Zaha Hadid and Eva Jiřičná. One of the first women to be admitted to the avant-garde Slade School of Art, after completing her studies, Gray moved to Paris in 1906. There she became the first western practitioner of Japanese lacquer work, opening a workshop with her friend and mentor Seizo Sugawara, originally a maker of Buddhist lacquer shrines. Her submission to the Salon des Artistes Décorateurs in 1913 included an enigmatic figural panel Le Magicien de la Nuit, which attracted the attention of Jacques Doucet, a leading haute couturier and a famously adventurous art collector, who acquired several pieces, including a remarkable example of what was, at that time, her signature work: Le Destin (1913), a four fold screen in shocking red lacquer on which a mysterious allegorical scene is enacted (At the instance of Doucet, it’s the only piece signed and dated by Gray’s own hand.). Harper's Bazaar enthused: “When Miss Gray exhibited her first work in this difficult medium ... overnight, as it were, lacquer rooms became the rage.” Applying the traditional technique to her original designs, Gray produced high-end commissions for a panoply of cognoscenti clients, including the Rothschilds, James Joyce and Elsa Schiaparelli. Although in the Art Deco style, she eschewed its burly ornamentation and volumetric curves; Gray’s work was never lush or louche, but rather a rarefied, exotic, almost organic style.

After seeking refuge in London during World War I, Gray returned to Paris where she mixed with a fashionable lesbian circle; she was often seen driving around Paris in a Chenard-Walcker roadster with her celebrity girlfriend, Damia, a tragic chanson réaliste in the Piaf mould, and Damia’s pet panther. In 1922 she opened her gallery, Jean Désert (named after an imaginary male owner “Jean” and Gray's love of the North African desert) on the fashionable Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré and found steady work producing luxury objects for an elite clientele. As a designer and practitioner Gray was extremely unusual, not least because she was a woman operating on her own; strangely, she did not claim such a title, and simply wrote on her business card: “Lacquer screens, lacquer furniture, wood furniture, wall hangings, lamps, sofas, mirrors, rugs, apartment decoration and setup.” A figure of seeming contradictions, Gray was private, self-effacingly modest, yet tenacious, single-minded and demonstrating an extraordinary independence of spirit. Soon, however, she branched out to larger projects. Doucet introduced her to the famous modiste, Madame Mathieu-Lévy (better known as Suzanne Talbot), who commissioned Gray as an interior designer to refurbish and furnish her apartment on the rue de Lota. Executed around 1920-1922, it afforded Gray considerable creative freedom, with lacquer panelled rooms providing a backdrop for furniture of extraordinary refinement and inventiveness. Almost all of the furniture she designed for the apartment is now legendary, including the gondola-shaped Pirogue day bed, finished in silver leaf and patinated bronze lacquer, inspired by a dugout Polynesian canoe. “To create,” Gray once said, “one must first question everything.” Of course, the members of any avant-garde will have their detractors; Gray’s Somberly sophisticated, white lacquered Chambre à coucher boudoir pour Monte-Carlo for the 1923 Salon des Artistes Décorateurs was severely criticized by the French press, with one critic describing it as suitable for Dr Caligari's daughter.

The Maharaja of Indore's "Transat" chair, from Manik Bagh Palace, lacquered wood, nickel-plated metal, leather, fabric (1930) by Eileen Gray Photograph: ©Phillips

The Maharaja of Indore's "Transat" chair, from Manik Bagh Palace, lacquered wood, nickel-plated metal, leather, fabric (1930) by Eileen Gray Photograph: ©Phillips

Aéroplane ceiling light, chromium-plated metal, rubber, cobalt blue plate glass, white plate glass (c. 1930) by Eileen Gray Photograph: ©Phillips

Aéroplane ceiling light, chromium-plated metal, rubber, cobalt blue plate glass, white plate glass (c. 1930) by Eileen Gray Photograph: ©Phillips

Gray had become increasingly drawn to the Modernist ideas of the Dutch avant-garde group De Stjil and their abstract geometric works. Her display at the Salon d'Automne was praised by her fellow exhibitors Le Corbusier and Robert Mallet-Stevens. In 1924 the Dutch avant-garde magazine Wendingen referred to her as being “at the centre of the modern movement”. She was never a woman in the shadows, like Charlotte Perriand was with Le Corbusier or Lilly Reich with Mies van der Rohe; she exhibited chrome, steel tube and glass furniture in 1925 - the same year as Mies van der Rohe and Marcel Breuer and well before Le Corbusier. Gray was already in her forties, but encouraged by her then lover, the French-Romanian architect, critic, and editor of the influential magazine L’Architecture Vivante, Jean Badovici, she learned architectural drawing by studying the plans of Adolf Loos, Gerrit Rietveld, and Le Corbusier, whom she particularly admired, though she refuted his maxim that “the house is a machine for living”, stating: “A house is not a machine to live in. It is the shell of man, his extension, his release, his spiritual emanation. Not only its visual harmony but its organization as a whole, the whole work combined together, make it human in the most profound sense.” Badovici described Gray as designer who, through her work, set “an atmosphere of plastic infinity where plans are lost within one another, where each object is grasped only as one element of a mysterious and living unity that is beyond it. For Eileen Gray, space is only a plastic material that can be transformed and shaped according to the demands of decoration, and that grants the artist infinite possibilities.”

Eileen Gray E-1027 House interior

Eileen Gray E-1027 House interior

Completed in 1929, Villa E-1027 — a house of exquisite simplicity — built into a cliff at Roquebrune-Cap-Martin was the first major architecture project by Gray; even as she was building E-1027, the future architect Charlotte Perriand was being rejected by Le Corbusier’s studio with the words, “We don’t embroider cushions here”. Designed with input from Badovici, as a refuge for them both, the enigmatic name is a combination of their initials: “E” for Eileen, “10” for the tenth letter of the alphabet, “J” for Jean, “2” for Badovici, and “7” for Gray. Upon its completion in 1929, it would be acknowledged as one of the finest products of the modern movement. Gray as a foreigner in France, couldn’t wholly own property, so she bought the land in Badovici’s name, making him, in effect, her client. In payment for his generosity she she gave him credit as collaborator. Then, Badovici devoted an edition of his magazine to E-1027, announcing himself as its joint architect. This is extremely unlikely, all extant plan’s are in Gray’s hand alone, and at most, Badovici acted as consultant architect; Gray was understandably vexed when at an exhibition some years later the design was shown as the work of Badovici, with furnishings by Gray, the assumption being that women by nature were concerned solely with soft furnishings.

Overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, the property, white and ship-like, sits on columns, or pilotis, with a flat roof and reinforced-concrete structure. Despite the house’s compact size (1,400 square feet), Gray was meticulously efficient with space; there’s a sense of metamorphosis in her designs, beds fold into walls, a table becomes a desk, and a whole host of cupboards and other bespoke furnishings are either embedded or intrinsically in tune with the rest of the house; in the hallway, with a kind of gentle jokiness, instructions for visitors read entrez lentement and défense de rire. An early proponent of tubular steel, which she manipulated into expressive functionalist pieces, her adjustable E-1027 circular-glass table is perhaps the most prominent example of this ingenuity; it was designed for Gray’s sister so she could eat breakfast in bed without getting crumbs in the sheets. Of course, most of the furniture for which Gray is now famous — the Bibendum chair, the Transat chair — was also designed for the house. “One must build for the human being, that he might rediscover in the architectural construction the joys of self-fulfillment in a whole that extends and completes him,” Gray wrote in the 1929 issue of L’Architecture Vivante. “Even the furnishings should lose their individuality by blending in with the architectural ensemble.”

Gray and Badovici, and friends like the painter Fernand Léger, and architect Charlotte -Perriand spent summers sunbathing on the rooftop terrace. Le Corbusier visited the house several times during the 1930s and after the couple separated (due to Badovici’s alcoholism and philandering), he lived in the house for long periods during 1937 and 1938. During this time, to Gray’s great chagrin, Le Corbusier painted a series of lewd murals (in his characteristic sub-Picasso style) on many of the white walls of E-1027 (He did so, as one photograph records, in the nude), flouting Gray’s express wish that E-1027 be free of decoration. An angry exchange between the two ensued, with Gray calling the murals “an act of vandalism” that betrayed her principles and demanding their removal. “If not”, she wrote, “I will be forced to do it myself, thus to re-establish the original spirit of the house by the sea.” Le Corbusier refused to apologise, and instead photographed the murals for publication, so as to establish his imprimatur. Gray must have taken some pleasure in noting that when she returned after the war German soldiers had used the abstracted figures for target practice.

Eileen Gray -1027 House interior

Eileen Gray -1027 House interior

The architecture critic Rowan Moore said of the painting of the murals that “As an act of naked phallocracy, Corbusier's actions are hard to top...”, adding that “Le Corbusier was seemingly affronted that a woman could create such a fine work of modernism” so he “asserted his dominion, like a urinating dog, over the territory”. Then there was Gray’s sexuality; it has been suggested that Le Corbusier’s frescoes were triggered by a sexualised hostility to lesbianism. Failing to purchase E-1027 himself, Le Corbusier later acquired a plot of land alongside the villa, where he built his rustic Cabanon de vacances (1951); the only house he ever designed for himself. When he drowned while swimming at the beach below E-1027 in 1965, Gray’s house may very well have been the last thing he ever saw. Having fallen into disrepair the villa has now been restored (albeit somewhat inadequately, with the thickening of metal rails, original glazing and a clumsily mis-dimensioned stair), with Le Corbusier’s vulgar murals still dominating; the best thing would be to relocate them, but it’s unlikely.

Gray would later complete her own haven, the house Tempe à Pailla (1932) (a Mentonasc proverb meaning “time for yawning”) — a combination of modern and vernacular elements — above the nearby town of Menton, but except for Lou Pérou, a small but equally inventive villa she designed for herself near Saint-Tropez, little more was heard about her; even Ernö Goldfinger who stayed at E-1027, and studied a plan of her garden, was party to the assumption that it had been completed by Badovici, not Gray, writing, “I don’t think [Gray] had any architectural pretensions, certainly not that I know of.” Watching the world go by from her apartment at 21, rue Bonaparte, in Paris, Gray was so hard-up, she was forced to burn precious furniture during cold winters. Publicity-shy until her old age, Gray’s work was largely forgotten until 1968, when the architectural historian Joseph Rykwert praised her in an article for Domus; even then, another historian, Reyner Banham, argued though competent, Gray was never a major talent, that her oeuvre was given a brief moment of transcendence by Le Corbusier painting graffiti on her walls. In 1972 her first retrospective, “Eileen Gray: Pioneer of Design” was held in London, and that same year her lacquer screen Le Destin sold at Drouot, the Paris auction house, for a record $36,000, an enormous sum at the time; mentions in Le Figaro, Le Monde and the Herald Tribune led to a renewed interest in Gray.

Already in her 90’s, half-blind and suffering from the late stages of Parkinson’s, the furniture manufacturer and retailer Zeev Aram, recalls that Gray, whom he first met in 1973, was “a bit bemused that somebody was interested in her work.” Recognition — in the form of scholarship, exhibitions and collecting — has gained steady momentum ever since. As curator Jennifer Goff has written, “Collectors vie to own her furniture; historians compete to document her life.” When her Dragons chair (c. 1917) came up for sale at the Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé estate auction at Christies in 2009, it was expected to fetch €3m; it sold for a record-breaking $28.3 million, becoming the world’s most expensive piece of modern design. A woman of old-fashioned reticence, who viewed her late life success with a wry cynicism, Gray’s response to all this would surely have been: “Mais c'est absurde.” After Badovici’s death, Gray visited E-1027 — for the last time — along with her biographer Peter Adam, with a view to purchasing it; she couldn’t bring herself to enter. “It is too late, anyway,” she told him. “Look what they did to this place.”

Benjamin Weaver