This is the latest installment of our Designing Women series. Previously: Eight Things You Probably Didn't Know About Ray Eames
Eileen Gray was a tremendously influential 20th-century architect and furniture designer, but we're guessing that many of our readers know little about her life and career beyond her three most famous designs—those being her adjustable chrome side table from 1927 (now available from DWR), her tire-shaped 1929 Bibendum chair (named after the Michelin Man) and the E.1027 modernist villa on the Côte d'Azur (remarkably, her first house). So here are seven highlights from a career that helped to establish a place for women in modern design.
Portrait of Eileen Gray by Berenice Abbott, 1927. Photo via the National Museum of Ireland Gray's E.1027 table shares its name with her villa, where she used it as a bedside table. The tabletop height can be adjusted to accommodate different uses. Gray named her Bibendum chair after the Michelin Man, for its tire-shaped padding. Above, an original model from 1930.
1. After early success, her work was largely forgotten for decades
Although she found a receptive audience in the 1920's and '30s, Gray's reclusive nature kept her from championing her own work, admitting, "I was not a pusher and maybe that's the reason I did not get to the place I should have had." Gray was self-taught, and as a woman working in a predominately male field she was at an extreme disadvantage professionally. There was also a larger matter of misappropriation—with some of the credit for her E.1027 house bestowed upon the architect and critic Jean Badovici, her lover at the time. Although Badovici consulted on technical matters, it is clear that Gray designed and oversaw the construction of the house as well as the design of all the furniture and fixtures.
Quietly living and working alone for thirty years, Gray was slowly rediscovered by collectors and critics in the late 1960's and early 70's, and by the time of her death in 1976 at the robust age of 98, she had become a design sensation again.
The Transat armchair with a pivoting headrest, circa 1929. Above and below images via the Victoria and Albert Museum Folding hammock chair, 1938 Sketches for various types of chairs with tubular frames, circa 1965–70
2. She got her start as a lacquer artist
Gray left her native Ireland in 1902 to study art in Paris, ultimately finding an interest in the craft of lacquer and training under her Japanese mentor, Seizo Sugawara. Her biographer, Peter Adam, writes that Gray "mastered the medium to a perfection that assures her a place as one of the great lacquer artists in history." She translated her new skill into furniture design, lacquering luxurious Art Deco–inspired chairs, tables, screens and wall panels for wealthy clients. Later, after fully embracing the modernist design aesthetic of the 1920s, she would describe her earlier lacquer works as "the sins of my youth."
Gray's lacquer tools Gray's 1923 Blocks screen consists of 28 black-lacquered panels that pivot on rods
3. She created an alter ego to sell her work
In 1922, Gray opened a shop in Paris to sell her designs. Instead of naming it after herself, she called the store Jean Désert, in the hopes that a man's name would signal a seriousness that a feminine name couldn't provide at the time. Her ruse was too successful and ultimately she had to have letterhead printed for the imaginary business partners "Jean Désert et E. Gray."
Gray opened Jean Désert on the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré to showcase and sell her work. Image via the Victoria and Albert Museum
4. She choreographed “mechanical ballets”
Gray designed furniture and interior systems with a witty ingenuity that allowed for constant transformation, or as she put it, "obtaining several uses for the same object." Bathroom mirrors rotated, headboards revealed pivoting storage compartments, tabletops could be lowered and raised to the perfect height, terrace chairs could be folded up when not in use, and other chairs became stepladders. Adam wrote of her designs, "Nothing ever seems to be what it is … Everything is constantly in flux."
Gray's folding S chair, circa 1932–34, was designed to save space when not in use. A design for a wooden cube chest with pivoting drawers Gray's carpenter Andre-Joseph Roattino demonstrating her design for a metal chair that could also be used as a stepladder. Gray was also constantly refining her designs, and almost all of her pieces have a slight variation. Above are two versions of a barstool she designed for E.1027.
5. She was a hopeless romantic
Gray was known in Paris for her amorous affairs with men and women—most famously with the chanteuse Marisa Damia (whose pet panther would join them for rides about town in a Chenard-Walcker roadster) and later with the much younger Jean Badovici—and she would often memorialize her relationships by coding them into the titles of her work. A set of rugs became "D" and "E" for her and Damia's initials; her first house became E.1027, with the "E" for Eileen, the "10" for Jean ("J" being the tenth letter of the alphabet), "2" for Badovici, and "7" for Gray. She was also extremely generous with her money and talent—Badovici encouraged her to build him "a little refuge" in the south of France and she did just that, funding the entire structure and putting it solely in his name. After their breakup it was Gray who moved out.
The exterior of E.1027, Gray's first built house, which she designed for her lover Jean Badovici in the south of France, 1926–29. Photo via the National Museum of Ireland Image of the completed living room with Gray's custom furnishings. Photo via Friends of E.1027
6. She had a complicated relationship with Le Corbusier
Le Corbusier had a huge influence on Gray, and in return he praised her work, writing to her that E.1027 had a "rare spirit." However, their mutual admiration suffered when Le Corbusier, as a guest of Badovici's and without Gray's knowledge or approval, painted eight large Cubist frescoes on E.1027's pristine walls. Undoubtedly the master architect thought he was improving her design, but as biographer Peter Adam bluntly describes the event, "It was rape. A fellow architect, a man she admired, had without her consent defaced her design." Adding insult to injury, he painted the murals in the nude.
Later, Corb would build a structure overlooking E.1027, and ultimately his friend Marie-Louise Schelbert purchased the house at auction as his proxy, fueling the narrative that he had a chauvinistic desire to dominate Gray's achievement. Even worse, because of their tangle, the house and some of its furnishings were often incorrectly attributed to Le Corbusier in architecture publications even after Gray's death.
Le Corbusier at work on one of the eight murals he painted without Gray's permission at E.1027 during the late 1930s Corb relaxing in the living room of E.1027 under a completed mural
7. Her masterpiece was left to rot
Completed in 1929, E.1027 is now considered a masterpiece of modernist architecture, but for much the later half of the 20th century it was left to decay, passing through numerous neglectful hands. First it suffered damage when the Germans used it for target practice during World War II. A decade later, when Badovici passed away suddenly without a will, the house went to his sister, a Romanian nun, with little interest in its upkeep. Although it was better looked after by Schelbert, Le Corbusier had to stop her from throwing Gray's custom furniture into a bonfire. The villa then passed to Schelbert's physician, who let it deteriorate, sold all of Gray's furniture and was found murdered there in 1996; E.1027 was then vandalized by squatters. It wasn't until 1999 that the house was declared a historic monument and restorations became possible, with much of the work finally completed last year.
Exterior view of the restored E.1027. Photo via Friends of E.1027
Bonus: Check out this campy biopic based on Gray's life and filmed on site at E.1027