The Irish Museum of Modern Art, only recently re-opened after refurbishment, now hosts an excellent exhibition on the life and work of Eileen Gray, one of the most fascinating and significant figures in European modernism, -an absolutely superb designer and architect, with her people-centred design philosophy and her deep commitment to craft and to technique, as opposed to dogma, bald principals and theory.
She was born in 1878, near Enniscorthy, County Wexford, into a wealthy and aristocratic, yet bohemian and unconventional family. Her mother would later inherit a Scottish peerage, but her parents would also get divorced, almost unheard of a that time, for their (or any) class. Her father, a painter, then went traveling, often bringing the young Eileen with him, meaning she was exposed to an extraordinary amount, and quality, of art, architecture and design across Europe, from a very early age.
In 1898, aged 20, she started attending the famous Slade School of Fine Art in London. Her drawings revel an excellent skills in draughtsmanship; her friendship with her fellow Slade student, the Vorticist Wyndham Lewis, also dates from this period. In 1900 her father died and Eileen travelled with her mother to Paris to see the Exposition Universalle, where she was very struck with the new style on show, Art Deco and – in particular- with the work of the great contemporary Scottish designer Charles Rennie Macintosh. Gray resolved to move to Paris, which she soon did, initially with a some of fellow students and friends, studying in two Académies. Soon however, family commitments, notably her mother’s illness, meant Eileen divided the next 5 years between Paris, London and Ireland, moving back to London full-time in 1905.
It was however during that last year in London that Gray first saw high quality laquer work, in a shop in Soho. She persuaded the store owner to teach her the fundamentals, of that deeply immersive, labour intensive, (occasionally even dangerous) art. It is a craft and technique that would become synonymous with her early and middle career work.
The following year she was able to return to Paris full time. She bought an apartment on the rue Bonaparte, where she would remain for most of her long working life, only really leaving Paris in the first world war. She also found a Japanese laquer artist, Seizo Sugawra, who she could learn from and collaborate with.
This laquer work they made together, including decorative panels, became part of her designs when Gray was asked to decorate an apartment on rue de Lota. Here also she designed and made beautiful new furniture from scratch, some of which – such as the Bidendum chair- have since become iconic.
above: the apartment at rue de lota by Eileen Gray, a revolutionary mix of art deco and high modernism. Noteto left the famous Bidendum chair, designed by Gray for this commission.
Grey’s taste, abilities and design sensibilities impressed almost everyone who experienced them. Before long, she was in demand as a designer from the discerning elite. Clients included music stars, french aristocracy and a fabulously wealthy Indian maharaja resident in Paris. At the same time, Gray became part of the artistic milieu of Paris, in those extraordinary years. Friends included the modernist Gertrude Stein, and the occultist Allister Crowley.
She also opened a small shop, called “Jean Desert” selling her designs. (storefront pictured above) Later, following a trip to the deserts of North Africa, she would learn the beber techniques of weaving, and expand into textiles, making many beautiful carpets and rugs. She chose a male name for her shop, - the fictitious “Jean Desert” – because of the near impossibility of a woman been taken seriously at this time. But the name also reveals her playful nature and love of puns. Jean was probably after her friend, mentor and sometimes lover, Jean Badovici, while Desert could signify her love of the African deserts; but also presumably, the idea of absence, someone not there, or who does not exist.
Badovici was a Romanian architect and theorist, long settled in Paris, who ran and edited the architectural journal, L’archieture Vivante” dedicated to the the new modernist movements, such as Bauhaus, Constructivism and Dutch De Stijl. He and Gray were lovers until 1932. It was he who introduced Grey to that doyen of modernism, le Corbusier, and Baldovici who also encouraged and urged Gray to try her hand at architecture- EI027.
above; ”Corb”; Eileen Gray and Baldovici.
Gray and Baldovici collaborated on her first major design, the superb EI027 at Cap Martin, a wonderful seaside location in the south of France. Again the name of the house E1027, which just sound like one of a long series, is in fact a kind of code. E is for Eileen, 10 is for J – the 10th letter of the alphabet, and therefore for Jean; 2 for B, (Badovici) and 7 for G (-Gray) – the 7th letter of the alphabet)
Name-games aside, the house is superb. In general, architectural historians agree that Gray takes most of the plaudits for the work and Badovici was more a facilitator, mentor and assistant on the project. The house is is extraordinary., both revolutionary- espousing the best principals of the new modernist style- yet also both deeply practical and humane.
Indeed this is what i love about Eileen Gray in general. On one hand, her work is beautiful, stark, simple, uncompromising and modern. Yet, crucially, it is never dogmatic. It is an architecture, and a whole design sensibility, that always considers, in original, insightful, sensitive ways, and takes account of the needs and desires of the people who will use the space, and use the objects she designs.
Add to this Gray’s endless, patient attention to detail, her feel for materials, her deep love and respect for tradition and craft (such as laquer, say, or traditional weaving) her touches of humour and her generosity of spirit, and undoubted style and flair, and you almost have the perfect designer. Design, at its very best, is not an imposition on the world. It is not a series of statements. It is a series of gifts.
Let me expand a little on the idea of originality, and her attention to detail, with a single example,. Look at this cork table.
I have to say i found it immediately appealing, its very ordinary, almost like something out of the nursery, its utter lack of pretention. But I attended a very good talk last sunday at IMMA, and our guide (who was excellent) was honest enough to admit that even though he was a huge fan of Gray in general, he had at first found this table slightly ugly. But then he told us why he’d changed his mind, and why she had made the table top of cork.
Cork is of course the ultimate sound absorber (think Marcel Proust) Now remember that she designed this table for a house by the sea, for the dining room. Where you might, possibly, wish to listen to the sound of the waves at dinner. And not say, the sound of glasses and cutlery clanking on a table top. Now does this table make sense? This is what i mean about originality, about generosity of spirit, and about a stylish, yet deeply practical, generous, and unpretentious architecture. Would that we had more like her.
I won’t go on more about it. There are many others, far more expert and qualified, far better equipped to guide you around her work than myself. I’ve attached a link later in this piece, to an exemplary article by one of those expets, the critic and conservationist, Shane O’Toole, writing for Archiseek
This is an important exhibition at IMMA . It is curated by the centre Georges Pompidou in Paris. (The V&A in London alsorecently held a major retrospective on Gray ) But this current exhibition at the Pompidou and IMMA in Dublin, propses a particular view, seeking to place Gray as a “total artist” - with the tacit sense that her practice offers the experieice of “a total work of art” (building, furniture and fittings and even the paintings on the walls)
Even though I revere this woman, and even though her paintings are certainly very good, (she could draw beautifully, and with great verve and style) I’m still not sure I can entirely concur yet that Gray is a significant painter, in the same way she is undoubtedly a hugely significant and influential (albeit even now under-appreciated) architect and designer.
The true measure of her importance as designer is the influence of her work one sees everywhere today, by followers both conscious and unknowing- the ultimate compliment for ay artist and the true test of greatness over time. But my quibble about the imprtance of her paintings is just that, a quibble. It could also well be that i just need to spend more time with her paintings of course. Judgements can change.
But I will tell you, finally, where paintings do loom large in the Eileen Gray story. It appears that her stunning architectural designs, including E1027, excited the jealousy of Le Corbusier himself. Originally, he had praised Gray, albeit between gritted teeth. Much later however, he seemed to have become obsessed with the house, and not necessarily in a healthy way. He did not manage to buy it but he built a small “cabin” beside it, which he used to swim from. He certainly managed to have frequent access to E1027, around 1937-39. And, once inside, he did something quite extraordinary, and not very nice.
Directly onto the walls of this beautiful, sleek and modern streamlined house, he painted a series of lurid rather garish murals. Some were merely garish and highly couloured. Other are more like mono-crome line-drawings, somewhat like Picasso pastiche perhaps. But specifically from that period where Picasso painted women “lying” with minotaurs. It has been suggested by more than one commentator, there is (was) something slightly misogynist, and vengeful about the action, something petty and spiteful. Have a look at this excellent piece on archiseek, by Shane O’Toole to see the murals and to read more about E1027 : We’ll let you decode / decide, for yourself ! But one thing is certain. Gray considered his actions a work of betrayal and of vandalism.
Eileen Gray only died in October, 1976. She was largely forgotten about by the time of her death, and for many years after, even though continued to experiment with new materials, designs and ideas almost to the very end of her life. E1027 in particular, even before her death was often attributed to Baldovici alone, or (with sickening irony) even to leCorbusier. The house had now long been empty, and ultimately became derelict. It could very easily have been demolished.
But this is, in one sense, a happy story. Because if Corbusier’s intention was to either demean, or even to appropriate her legacy, his tactics ultimately (I’m delighted to say) badly backfired. He drowned, in 1965, swimming in the sea just below the house. One takes no pleasure in that. But what happened next is interesting. Such was the awe in which “Corb” was held, that the whole small stretch of coast was declared a site of cultural importance. All of it including E1027 (which many thought he had designed, remember) was put under preservation order.
With a certain, twisted, yet elegant irony, this very possibly saved E1027 – now seen as one of Grays masterworks- from demolition, at a time when the world had more or less forgotten who shge was or what she had achived.
A few years after her own death, 11 year later than “Corb”, the process of her rehabilitation, and rescue from oblivion began. That process is now well underway, and continues apace. Original samples of her furniture now routinely sell for millions of dollars. Reproductions, imitations, and licensed editions are everywhere.
I’d urge anyone with a further interest to peruse Shane O’Toole’s piece and other reading.
After that, best of all, beat a path to IMMA and this fine exhibition.
Thank you for reading. Please note one small change, that all future Dublin content, on art, architecture and history is now posted on mt new blog Dublin Decoded. So if you like to follow that blog, please just go to any post there, and once you are on any individual post (although not the home page) please just hit the subscribe button at the top-right of each post. You’ll the receive notice of all future posts there, as well as notice of occasional specialist tours here in Dublin. This blog here in future will be used for more informal content, topical, travel, and so on. Many thanks for reading.
-Arran Q Henderson.