Hey, Hey! Really hoping that you are well and safe in these strange, strange times. As I write, there are moments of hope in our future – with more and more people around me receiving their vaccinations and government in discussion regarding opening up Ireland further. We have had one of the longest third wave lockdowns here.
Since I wrote last, I started and stopped a Masters. Ten weeks of very interesting and challenging study where I realised that I really wasn’t able for any (self imposed, might I add) pressure. I was researching an essay on one of Eileen Gray’s most famous chair designs and I thought I might share some of my findings on Ms. Gray over the years, as she has (and will continue to be) one of the most interesting and influential designers of our time. So, if you have always wanted to know a little bit more about one of our celebrated Irish designers…read on! Maybe make yourself a cuppa first.
Eileen Gray was a thoroughly modern Millie and way ahead of her time. She was born near Enniscorthy, Co. Wexford in 1878 to a wealthy family. I only mention this fact about her wealth as I feel, from what I’ve read that she battled against this. It was part of who she was and afforded her to do many things that others may not have been able to afford at the time but she seemed to have been extremely generous also.
Gray enrolled in the Slade School of Fine Art in London which was one of the few places that would accept women at the time and was a very accomplished artist. As far as I could see, she kept on creating her art until her late years. Paris was where Gray moved to in 1902 and she lived in France until her passing in 1976. Early on, an important encounter with a Japanese lacquer artist, Seizo Sugawara, resulted in Gray learning the extremely precise craft of lacquer work under his tutelidge. The lacquer itself would give Gray rashes on her hands and was difficult and painstakingly slow to work with but the results were incredible.
Gray was experimenting also with tubular steel and many different mediums and opened up a shop on the Rue du Fauburg St. Honoré, in the 8th Arrondissement, called ‘Jean Désert’ in order to sell her furniture, rugs…etc. She called it ‘Jean Désert’ to make it sound un-feminine, knowing full well that she had to get people in the door first, to be able to sell her creations.
Gray becomes more and more interested in architecture, yet never received any formal qualifications in her lifetime. A central figure in this architectural phase of Eileen’s life was the Romanian architect Jean Badovici. Eileen and Jean became romantically linked. He had set up an architectural publication L’Architecture Vivante and it seems Eileen would read this, also contribute (not always acknowledged) and come with Badovici while he visited architectural sites.
Gray’s name will forever be linked with a famous Swiss/French Architect: Charles – Éduard Jeaneret. He is known internationally as the self penned ‘Le Corbusier’ or the more familar, ‘Corbu’. Corbusier was a friend of Badovici’s and it seems for a time at least, this trio would exchange architectural ideas. When Eileen Gray designed a house for herself and Badovici in the south of France, this is where the friendships and relationships get a little fraught, to say the least.
From my readings and research over the years I’ve known about Eileen Gray, much has been said about this house. I’ve sifted through a lot and my conclusions are that Gray was influenced by the modernist architecture of Le Corbusier. I’m a huge admirer of Le Corbusier’s architecture but not of the man himself. Gray designed the furniture and everything in this groundbreaking house. It truly was bespoke – designed for her lover Badovici and herself. The name of the house is coded (E for Eileen, 10 for the tenth letter of the alphabet (J for Jean), 2 for the second letter of the alphabet (B for Badovici) and 7 for Gray) – this coding is something that Gray repeats in her rugs also.
It seems that the break up of the romantic relationship with Badovici brings Gray back to her apartment in Paris and she leaves the house, never to live there again. She designed two other houses and interior decorated a Parisian apartment but E-1027 is still universally seen as her masterpiece. Ironically, it would not have survived over the years if it wasn’t for the man, Le Corbusier, who, at various points would be named as the architect of the house. I can’t help but think, from what I have read that there was a deep set misogyny that Gray, being a woman, could not possibly have designed the house. Gray had a distinctive, modern and quite minimalist style in her design of E-1027 and at one point Le Corbusier painted erotic colourful murals on the exterior and interior white walls of the house. It is thought that because of his fame, these murals essentially rescued the house from complete ruin. It became completely run down in later years and unfortunately it seems through a combination of a lack of funds of the Irish Government and the fact that at the time, Gray wasn’t well known enough, an offer to buy and restore the house did not happen. Today, thankfully, through hard graft of fans of Gray’s legacy, crowdfunding and the help of the French government, you can now visit the restored E-1027 which is something I hope to do someday.
That bespoke aspect of Gray’s designs that I mentioned earlier was truly interesting to me and as I researched the essay that never was, I picked up on a few lovely facts, which I thought I’d share here. When Gray noticed that her sister liked to take breakfast in bed, when she visited E-1027, she designed one of what is now Gray’s most recognisable pieces: the adjustable table, sometimes known as the E-1027 table.
… and the chair that I was specifically researching resides in the permanent exhibition in the decorative arts and history section of the national museum of Ireland, here in Dublin. This exhibition is curated by our leading expert on Gray – Dr. Jennifer Goff.
This chair is only one of two surviving, I think, and was Eileen’s chair – designed for herself. She sat with her elbow on the armrest (if you look closely you can see it’s worn where I can only presume, her elbow rested) and therefore didn’t cover the rest of the tubular steel with material. Gray was also hugely in tune to the way people moved their bodies, deciding to not place a second arm rest, for freedom of movement (you can turn to converse, in the chair, quite freely). However, she noted how her partner, Jean Badovici sat and designed a separate version of the chair. He sat back into the chair, she observed, so she covered the whole armrest.
Gray was a prolific designer and continued creating right up to her death at 98. She was terribly private and made sure that many letters were destroyed therefore leaving it quite the task for academics (and self learners, like me) to find out information about this amazing woman. It has to be noted that when she passed away, she was still largely unrecognised here in Ireland. A small exhibition in 1973, in Dublin, brought her great joy, it seems. I came across her by fluke as I visited another exhibition in the Centre Pompidou in Paris, around 1996. Since then, I’ve been lucky enough to attend a full day screening at the Light House Cinema of the documentary ‘Gray Matters’ and the film made mostly about the E-1027 era called ‘The Price of Desire. The exhibition in the Irish Musum of Modern Art in 2013 was also incredible and I wish I could go back in time now and drink in every piece that I saw that day. Thankfully, it seems that museums may be opening soon here in Ireland and it will be wonderful to be able to visit the permanent exhibition in Collins Barracks again as it’s been a few years since I was there. No doubt I’ll bring my camera.
So, I’ll leave you with one of my favourite photo’s of Gray in her latter years, in her apartment in Paris and a quote which resonates for me, at the moment.
‘The future projects light, the past only shadows’
Source: National Gallery of Ireland
Jennifer Goff – Eileen Gray: Her work and her world.
Peter Adam – Eileen Gray: Her life and work