To mark the screening of the RTE documentary on Eileen Gray next Tuesday and the publication of an important new book on Gray’s Life and work by design historian Jennifer Gough, we re-visit this personal appraisal, written during October 2013 in response to the Eileen Grey retrospective at IMMA…
The Irish Museum of Modern Art, recently re-opened after refurbishment, currently hosts an excellent retrospective, (jointly curated with the Centre George Pompidou in Paris) on Irishwoman Eileen Gray, a superb designer and architect and now revealed as one of the most gifted and influential figures in European modernism.
Grey was fortunate in life, born in 1878 near Enniscorthy, County Wexford to a wealthy and aristocratic yet also a 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. Yet even this turned to her advantage as her father was a keen painter who went traveling, bringing Eileen with him, meaning she was exposed to an extraordinary amount and quality of art, architecture and design across Europe from a very young age.
In 1898, aged 20, she started attending the famous Slade School of Fine Art in London. Her drawings there reveal an excellent draughtsmanship. Her friendship with fellow Slade student Wyndham Lewis, founder of “Vorticism” also dates from this period.
In 1900 when her father died Eileen traveled with her mother to Paris to see the Exposition Universalle, where she saw new style on show, Art Deco. In particular she was struck with the work of the great contemporary Scottish designer, Charles Rennie Macintosh.
Having glimpsed creative life in the French capital, Gray resolved to move there, which she soon did (initially with handful of fellow students and friends) and continued her studies for a while, moving between in two private Parisian Académies or drawing schools.
However family commitments and notably her mother’s illness, meant she divided the next 5 years between Paris, London and Ireland. In 1905 she had to move back to London full-time for a couple of years. It was during the end of her time there that Gray had another of those momentous moments. One day, passing a small furniture shop in Soho, she saw high quality laquer work for the first time. Immediately fascinated, she entered, and was smitten. Later she persuaded the store owner to teach her the basics of Laquer; that deeply immersive, labour intensive, occasionally dangerous art. It’s a material which would become synonymous with her early and middle-career work.
The following year Grey was finally able to return to Paris full time. Using her inheritance she bought an apartment on the rue Bonaparte, where she remained for almost all of her long life. (Innterms of domicile, Gray only really left Paris briefly ever again, in the First World War).
To replace her earlier tutor in London, she now found a new Japanese lacquer artist, Seizo Sugawra, who she learned from and began to collaborate with.
above: Grey’s friend, teacher and collaborator Seizo Sugawra
Gray’s breakthrough to the public eye came when she was asked to decorate an expensive apartment on the rue de Lota. The laquer funiture and decorative panels she made with Sugawra became part of this commission and when the new apartment was revealed it caused a stir, becoming hugely admired and widely photographed. Just as significant as the laquer and more “deco-style work, Gray had also designed and made beautiful new steel frame furniture, entirely from scratch, including her radical, ultra-modern Bidendum chair
above: the apartment at rue de lota designed by Eileen Gray, a revolutionary mix of art deco and high modernism. Note to left th Bidendum chair designed by Gray for this commission, a now, without exaggeration, iconic piece of design, and immensely influential. If you think you’ve seen lots of things that look like it, you have.
Grey’s taste, abilities and design-sensibilities impressed almost everyone who experienced them. Before long she was in demand from the discerning elite. Her clients included music hall and early recording stars, several members of the French aristocracy, and a fabulously wealthy Indian maharaja living in Paris.
At the same time Gray became part of the artistic milieu of Paris in those extraordinary years. Friends included the modernist writer Gertrude Stein, the occultist Allister Crowley and architect Le Corbusier.
Grey next opened a small shop to sell her own designs. (above) Following a trip to the deserts of North Africa, she learned Beber techniques of weaving and expanded into textiles, making many beautiful carpets and rugs. She called her outlet “Jean Desert” significantly chosing a male – the fictitious “Jean Desert” – mostly because of the near-impossibility of being taken seriously as a woman artist/designer at the time.
But the name also reveals her playful nature and love of puns. Jean is almost certainly probably after her friend, mentor and sometimes lover, Jean Badovici, while Desert could signify her love of the African deserts. But presumably also the idea of absence, someone not there, or a fictional character, or name of one who does not really exist.
Badovici was a Romanian architect and theorist based in Paris, who ran and edited the architectural journal, L’archieture Vivante” It was dedicated to new modernist movements, such as Bauhaus, Constructivism and Dutch De Stijl. He and Gray were lovers until 1932 and it was he who introduced her to that doyen of modernism, le Corbusier, of whom more later.
above; “Corb”; Eileen Gray and Baldovici.
Significantly it was Baldovici, not Corbusier, who gave Gray the important push, encouraging and urging her to try her hand at architecture. The result was that extraordinary work known as EI027.
EI027 was, indeed is, sited at Cap Martin, a wonderful seaside location in the south of France. Officially, Gray and Baldovici let it be known that she and he had “collaborated” on the project, possibly to give Gray confidence, cover and “credibility”, among the more chauvinist critics of the time. But architectural historians today generally agree Gray did most if not all of the design, while Badovici was more of a facilitator, mentor and assistant.
Again, like her shop, the name of the house, E1027, which makes the house just sound like it’s 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, (2nd letter of alphabet (B =Badovici) and 7 for G (=Gray) – 7th letter of the alphabet)
Name-games aside, the house is is extraordinary. It is both revolutionary- espousing the best principals of the new modernist style- effortlessly stylish, yet at the same time also deeply practical and humane.
Indeed this is what I love about Gray in general. On one hand, her work is beautiful, stark, simple, uncompromising in its modernity. Yet, crucially, it’s never dogmatic. It’s an architecture, a design sensibility, that considers, and in original, insightful ways, the needs and desires of the people who use the spaces and objects she designs.
Add to this Gray’s attention to detail, her feel for materials, deep respect for tradition and craft such as lacquer or traditional weaving; her sly touches of humour, generosity of spirit, and undoubted style and flair, and you have an extraordinary designer. Because design at its best is not an imposition on the world, nor a series of statements. It is a series of gifts.
Let’s expand just a little on this idea of originality, and Grey’s endless attention to detail, her counter intuitive genius, with one example. Look at this cork table.
I found it immediately appealing. It’s very ordinary, almost like something out of the nursery in its utter lack of pretension. But I attended a very good talk one 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 ugly. Then he told us why he’d changed his mind, and why Grey made the table top from cork.
Cork is of course the ultimate sound absorber (think of Marcel Proust) Now remember she designed this table for a house by the sea, and for the dining room. Where you might, possibly, wish to listen to the sound of the waves at dinner, and indulge in some conversation. And not listen say, to the sound of glasses and cutlery clanking on a table top. The table makes complete sense. Yes, it sounds very simple. But then, that’s how genius always appears, after the fact. At the very least, the table is an example of originality and of generosity of spirit, of a stylish, but practical and unpretentious architecture.
This is an important exhibition at IMMA . It is curated by the centre Georges Pompidou in Paris. (The V&A in London also recently held a separate major retrospective on Gray ) But this current exhibition at the Pompidou and IMMA in Dublin proposes a particular view, seeking to place Gray as a “total artist” with the tacit implication that her practice offers the experience of “a total work of art” – building, furniture and fittings, even the paintings on the walls.
Even though I revere Grey and though her paintings are certainly very good, (she could draw beautifully, with great verve and style) I’m still not sure I can entirely concur yet that she is a major or significant painter, in the same way she’s undoubtedly a hugely significant influential designer and architect. The true measure of that importance (of her designer) is the influence of her work one sees everywhere today, by followers both conscious and unknowing. The unknowing immitators are perhaps the ultimate compliment for any artist, the true test of greatness over time.
Paintings do unfortunately loom large, in one place in the Eileen Gray story. It appears that her stunning design for E1027 excited the jealousy of Le Corbusier himself. Originally he’d praised Gray, albeit between gritted teeth. Later however he seemed to have become obsessed with the house, and not in a healthy way. He tried but did not manage to buy it but he did acquire a tiny plot of land nearby. There he built a small “cabin”, which he used to swim from. Around this time, around 1937-39 he thus managed to get frequent access to E1027. And, once inside le Corbusier 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 murals. Some were merely garish and highly coloured. Others are more like monochrome line-drawings, best described as Picasso-pastiche perhaps but significantly from that period when Picasso painted women, usually with their legs open, “lying” with minotaurs.
It’s been suggested by several commentator there’s something slightly misogynist and vengeful about his murals, something petty and spiteful. Shane O’Toole’s excellent piece on E1027 for the website archiseek has good reproductions of what he did. A link is attached at the foot of this article. There you can decide, or decode for yourself. But one thing is certain. When Gray found out what he’d done she hated it. She considered his actions vandalism and an act of betrayal.
Eileen Gray lived a long life. She experimented, including with new polymers, plastics and with perspex, to the very end of her life. She died only in October, 1976, obscure and largely forgotten for many years.
Nor did she receive the credit for earlier mid-career work which had been acclaimed at the time. E1027 in particular was now often attributed to Baldovici, even before her death. Or, with sickening irony, even to le Corbusier. It was a misunderstanding h had done little to dispel.
The house was now long empty. Ultimately it became derelict. It could very easily have been demolished.
But this is, in one sense, a happy story. Because whether le Corbusier’s intention was either to demean or appropriate her legacy, his tactics backfired on both counts. He drowned in 1965, swimming in the sea just below the house. One takes no pleasure in that of course. But what happened next was as instructive and ironic. Such was the awe in which “Corb” was held that the entire small stretch of coast was eventually declared a site of cultural importance. All of it, including E1027 (which many thought he had designed, remember) was now put under a preservation order. So with a certain twisted, elegant irony, his obsession, deceit and even his vandalism, probably saved E1027 from demolition, at a time when the world had forgotten who Eileen Gray was.
A few years after her own death the process of her rehabilitation and rescue from oblivion finally began. That process gathered speed, is now well underway, and her reputation grows apace. Original samples of her furniture now routinely sell for millions of dollars. Reproductions, imitations and licensed editions are everywhere.
Her influence on furniture- designers and (more laterly perhaps) on architects is also everywhere. Her reputation grows year on year. These days many design literate people name-check Gray, simply as an acknowledged “great”, in the same way they do Charles & Ray Eames, Alvar Aalto or Mies van der Rohe.
As I write, a team of German architects based at the famous School of Architecture in Stuttgart, are planning the ultimate homage, to build a perfect replica of her house, near her birthplace of Enniscorthy in County Wexford.
Even living as she did in an age of brilliant early-modern architects and designers, Grey still stood out. But why? What makes her a “great”?
I think there are many reasons. The first, obviously is the beauty and quality of her work. Another, not unique perhaps but important and distinctive none the less, is that deep, consistent commitment to craft and technique, typified by North African weaving or most dramatically perhaps by her obsession with lacquer. Allied to this, comes a highly original use of those same materials, again including unorthodox even impractical ones such as laquer (again) or simply unfashionable ones, like cork. These as we have seen she turned to brilliant use, practical and aesthetic.
The point here by the way, isn’t the individual materials themselves, no matter how banal or exotic. It’s the endless exploration, the turning to new uses, the mining of the possibilities of each new material, and of their various properties. The willingness to juxtapose, and to take risks.
But finally, what really really makes Eileen Grey stand out, is that generous spirited, people-centred design-philosophy, an approach focused on pleasure, utility, on beauty and crucially, on the end-user, as opposed to bald principals of theory or design dogma.
In a world where those who shout loudest often win arguments at least in the short term those very qualities- and (let’s not kid ourselves) her gender- led to decades of neglect.
But paradoxically, those same wonderful qualities are exactly why her legacy now, will prevail and endure.
Thank you for reading.
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Postscripts: Firstly, I’d urge anyone with a further interest in Eileen Grey and E1027 to read Shane O’Toole’s excellent piece, writing for Archiseek to see the murals and to read more about E1027 :
Secondly some may be interested in the architecture, design and art history walking tours we lead. Public tours are March – October each year. Tours for pre-booked private groups can be booked year-round. Reviews here on TripAdvisor. The tours themselves are on Dublin Decoded tour menu, (hit an individual “tile” there, to expand and see more information & pictures). Thanks again for reading. -Arran Q Henderson. / Dublin Decoded.