The Modern Architectural Pioneer & Furniture Designer We Don’t Hear About Enough

published Apr 16, 2017
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(Image credit: Hive Modern)

Eileen Gray was a lot of things: an aristocrat but also a rebel, a talented designer, but one whose work went mostly unrecognized in her own time. Now her name is mentioned alongside other pioneers of Modernism, but that wasn’t always the case. This is the story of her early career, her fall into obscurity, and her rediscovery and recognition as one of the most accomplished designers of the 20th century.

Eileen Gray was born Katherine Eileen Moray Smith, in 1878, near Enniscorthy, Ireland. Her mother, who was the granddaughter of an earl, had made a bit of an unconventional choice by marrying a middle-class artist. When Eileen was 10, her parents separated; when she was 17, her mother became Baroness Gray upon the death of her own mother, and Eileen and all four of her siblings took the surname Gray.

At 20, Eileen enrolled in the Slade School of Art in London, where she studied painting. Four years later, she moved to Paris, along with two classmates, and continued to study painting and drawing at the Académie Julian and the Académie Colarossi. A few years later, she returned to London to be with her ailing mother and while in England, she came upon a lacquer workshop owned by Mr. D. Charles, becoming instantly entranced by the medium. When she returned to Paris, Charles connected her with Seizo Sugawara, a lacquer artist from Japan who had emigrated to France.

(Image credit: Zeeloft)

Eileen worked with Sugawara for four years, learning the fundamentals of the lacquer trade. In 1913, when she was 35, she exhibited her work for the first time, and began to attract the attention of wealthy clients. Her design for Madame Mathieu-Levy’s apartment on the Rue de Lota cemented her reputation, and in 1922 she opened a shop, called Jean Désert, to sell her work and that of her artist friends. Many of her friends and clients came from Paris’ fashionable lesbian set. Eileen was bisexual, and throughout her life had relationships with both men and women.

(Image credit: Victoria & Albert Museum)

In 1929, a relationship with Jean Badovici, the Romanian-born architecture critic, led to what is perhaps her greatest accomplishment: E-1027, the holiday home they built on a cliffside overlooking the Mediterranean, just east of Monaco. The effort was collaborative, but many people agree that most of the design input came from Eileen.

(Image credit: Friends of E.1027)

The house was a labor of love for her, reflecting the minimalist ideals of modernism but also an extraordinary attention to the natural beauty of the surroundings and the comfort of the occupants. Before the house was built, she explored the site on foot, looking for the perfect spot to situate the house to take advantage of light and views. She also designed all the furniture and interiors, taking into account details as small as the way natural light would illuminate the inside of a cabinet. Almost all of the home’s furniture was adjustable, designed to change with the needs of the home’s inhabitants. It was for this home that she designed what is now known simply as the E-1027 table, a glass side table of adjustable height that was designed so that her sister could eat breakfast in bed without getting crumbs all over the sheets.

The design of E-1027 marked a shift in Eileen’s style. Her earlier designs were more ornamental and luxurious, very much in keeping with the Art Deco style that was then popular in Europe. With E-1027, and the pieces she created for it, Eileen moved toward a more streamlined, modern style. Inspired by Modern architects like Le Corbusier, she embraced simple shapes and industrial materials like steel tubing — although her pieces were never without a touch of luxury. She was critical of what she saw as the excessive asceticism of modernism. “The poverty of modern architecture,” she said, “stems from the atrophy of sensuality.”

(Image credit: Friends of E.1027)

Unfortunately, the relationship did not turn out as well as the house. Shortly after it was completed, Eileen left Badovici, and built a home for herself, which she called Tempe à Pailla (meaning “Time for Yawning”), in Castellar. (You can see many photos of that house here.) Badovici continued to live at E-1027, where Le Corbusier, who had been a friend of the couple, was a frequent visitor. In the late ’30s, while staying as a guest at the home, Le Corbusier covered the walls with eight enormous and highly colorful murals depicting abstracted human forms. When Eileen found out, she was incensed.

It has been alleged that his motivation was jealousy — that he was galled by the idea that a woman could create such a perfect building in what he considered to be “his” style. Whatever the motivation, Eileen did not see the murals as an improvement. Le Corbusier, she felt, had vandalized the home she designed with so much care, and the friendship between the two designers was over.

Besides E-1027 and the house she created for herself, Eileen only built one other small residence. Her falling out with Le Corbusier meant she was excluded from many design circles, and as the years went on she worked less and fell into obscurity.

(Image credit: ARAM)

In 1967, her work was rediscovered by architectural historian Joseph Rykwert, who published an essay about her in the Italian design magazine Domus. In 1973, Zeev Aram, a designer and the founder of a namesake furniture store, approached her about producing some of her furniture designs, which were originally made in small quantities for individual projects. The company still manufactures and sells her designs today.

(Image credit: Christies)

When Eileen Gray died in 1976, she had already started to gain acclaim within the design world. Today, she is recognized as one of the pioneers of Modernism, the master of a style of design that marries minimalism with a touch of luxury, and an extraordinary sensitivity for the needs of its human users.

Further Reading about Eileen Gray: