Eileen Gray: Decorative Functionalism

Retrospect

Eileen Gray's lavish lacquer pieces from the 1910s and '20s seem to situate her within the European Art Deco style, which was focused on exoticism and luxury. Much of Gray's other work, however, with economical geometric lines in industrial materials, is clearly part of the Functionalist movement. Gray herself never liked to be considered an Art Deco designer, preferring to think of herself simply as Modern.

Indeed, Gray's body of work reveals the permeable borders between these ostensibly divergent styles from the early twentieth century. Let's take a look at this fascinating designer who spanned the aesthetic range of high design, and whose work embodies the overlapping boundaries between Art Nouveau, Art Deco and Modernism.

Eileen Gray (image 2) was born in Ireland in 1878. After visiting the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1900, she moved to Paris in 1906, in part to study the ancient craft of lacquer-work with a young Japanese lacquer master, Sugawara Seizo, who was living there. Gray studied with Sugawara for years, and became an expert in the arduous process. Her lacquer work was inspired by the austere geometry of Japanese design, which contrasted nicely with the luxurious sheen of the material, especially when she used materials like silver leaf (image 3).

After World War I, the prominent hat designer Suzanne Talbot asked Gray to decorate her Paris apartment on the rue de Lota (images 4 & 5). Gray's design for Talbot used objects that directly referenced exotic cultures: in the living room, she used African-inspired stools and zebra hides, along with her Pirogue Day Bed, made of brown lacquer and silver leaf, whose form was inspired by Polynesian dugout canoes (image 4). This practice of taking exotic and 'primitive' forms and updating them through the use of opulent materials was typical of high-end French Art Deco. Designers like Gray, Jacques-Émile Ruhlmann and Jean Dunand created objects that were modern in their exoticism and in their luxury. It's interesting that the Talbot apartment looks so modern and clean despite such extraordinary decorations, because Gray furnished it sparsely, leaving much of it in solid (but shiny) white and black.

Two of Gray's other most famous designs were also created for the Talbot apartment. One is the Dragons chair, a fantastical sculptural armchair that is almost Gaudi-esque in its form, a visual link between Art Deco and the Art Nouveau style that had preceded it by a decade (image 6, also visible in image 5). When Christie's sold Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé's collection in 2009, this chair that broke the record for most expensive sale of 20th-century decorative art, garnering $28.3 million!

The other famous design is the Bibendum chair (image 7), aptly named for the Michelin Man. Gray most likely designed this chair in the mid-1920s, just when people like Marcel Breuer and Mart Stam were starting to produce tubular steel furniture for the first time. Despite the austerity of the metal base, Gray's armchair is almost comical in its cushy comfort, an indication of her desire to straddle the spectrum between expressive Art Deco and functionalist Modernism.

It was with her villa in the South of France, E-1027, that Gray more fully embraced a European Functionalist aesthetic. A white rectangular box with a flat roof and ribbon windows (image 8), E-1027 was built between 1926 and 1929 for Gray and her then-lover, the architect and critic Jean Badovici (Gray was openly bisexual, and was romantically linked to many prominent women; Badovici is the only man I've seen her associated with). While it shares many attributes in common with the architecture of Le Corbusier, Gray specifically distanced herself from Corbu's ideas, insisting that architecture should not be a one-size-fits-all assemblage of standard elements, but instead a flexible and personal space. Indeed, with stylized details like masts and sailcloth, the house less evoked a 'machine for living' than a cruise ship. At E-1027 (a numerical code for her and Badovici's initials, where 10 = J for Jean, 2 = B for Badovici, and 7 = G for Gray), Gray spent months studying how the sunlight and wind affected the site, so she could best design the house around the elements. She moved out of the villa in 1932, leaving it to Badovici.

Le Corbusier, friends with Badovici, was a frequent visitor, and loved the house. At Badovici's request he painted eight murals on the interior of the E-1027 in the late '30s (image 9), which understandably infuriated Gray. Later, Le Corbusier wrote, "The villa that I animated with my paintings was very beautiful, white on the interior, and it could have managed without my talents." But then he went on to say that his murals "burst out from dull, sad walls where nothing is happening . . . an immense transformation, a spiritual value introduced throughout." Decades later, in 1965, Le Corbusier suffered a fatal heart attack while swimming in the Mediterranean in front of E-1027, and design historians love to posit that the villa was the last thing he saw.

Gray designed her tubular steel and glass side table (images 1 & 10) for the guest room at E-1027, supposedly for her sister, who enjoyed breakfast in bed. A thoughtful fulfillment of this desire, the table's height is adjustable, and it cantilevers out over an open base. Despite its stark functionalism, the table is yet another illustration of Gray's interest in comfort and simple luxury. The architectural historian Giles Worsley pointed out that "A single piece of Gray's innovative tubular furniture might have as many as 20 separate welds, making it as much a work of luxury as the lacquered screens with which she made her name."

Although Gray disappeared from public for decades, and only regained public attention in the late 1960s, she is now considered one of the great 20th-century designers. Her career is especially interesting because she succeeded without the sponsorship of a more famous or established man (unlike most famous female designers of the era, like Lilly Reich, Charlotte Perriand, and, later, Ray Kaiser Eames). She died in Paris in 1976.


Sources: I recommend the Design Museum's page on Eileen Gray, which also has several rare images, and this Giles Worsley article about Gray, which gives interesting insight into some of the economic and aesthetic issues around Modernism. I got the Le Corbusier quote from the wonderful article on Gray from Ireland.archiseek.com. For more information and images of E-1027, visit the Friends of E-1027 website.

Images: 1 Interior with Eileen Gray's 1927 side table, photographed by Brandon Barré, via Desire to Inspire; 2 Eileen Gray, 1926 photo by Berenice Abbott, via Design Museum, London; 3 Lacquer screen by Eileen Gray, 1928, lacquer on wood with silver leaf veneer, in the Victoria & Albert Museum, London; 4 & 5Images from Suzanne Talbot's (aka Madame Lévy) apartment on the rue de Lota in Paris, decorated by Eileen Gray starting in 1917. Photos from 1933, via Design Museum; 6 Eileen Gray's 'Dragons' Chair (1917-1919), from Suzanne Talbot's apartment, recently sold by Christie's for about $28 million. Image via Antiques and the Arts Online; 7 Gray's Bibendum chair, image from Guide Studio; 8 Eileen Gray's villa in the South of France, E-1027 (built 1927-32), image via Design Museum; 9 Le Corbusier's mural at the entrance to E-1027 (1938-9), photo via Ireland.archiseek.com; 10 Eileen Gray's side table (1927) in situ in the guest bedroom of E-1027, via Design Museum.