This modernist furniture designer and architect was one of the most celebrated and revered in the interwar years, yet forgotten for much of her later life. Now, with history looking back at neglected female designers of the 21st century, Eileen Gray is being rediscovered, and now considered influential in her designs. Find out more about Gray, why she didn’t get on well with Le Corbusier, and which chair — you definitely already know — was designed by her.
“To create, one must first question everything.” — Eileen Gray
Spotlight on Eileen Gray
Eileen Gray’s mother was a member of aristocracy, and her father an artist. When she was born on August 9th 1878, in Enniscorthy, Ireland, Eileen was given the last name Gray and inherited a title of nobility. She was the youngest of five children.
Gray was one of the first women to be admitted to the Slade School of Arts in London, in 1898. In 1902 she moved to Paris to train in lacquer. Her first exhibition of decorative lacquer panels in 1913 was met with recognition for her skill.
After World War I, Gray moved back from London to Paris and took up work as a furniture and interior designer. One of her first projects was designing the Rue de Lota apartment belonging to a socialite. It became known as “the epitome of Art Deco.”
On the success of the apartment, Gray opened a shop in Paris named Jean Désert. It was named after an imaginary male owner and Gray’s love of the North African desert.
Growing Interest in Architecture
Through the 1920s Gray began to self-study architecture theory, taking drafting lessons and attending building sites with architect friends. She began working on a holiday home near Monaco, giving it the enigmatic name of E-1027. It was designed around the ideas of Le Corbusier’s “Five Points of the New Architecture”, an open plan house has pillars and large windows.
Several times, Le Corbusier visited the house as a guest of Gray’s ex partner Badovici. During his visits Le Corbusier painted bright murals of naked women on the white walls. The murals, as described by critic Rowan Moore, was a signal that Le Corbusier was “seemingly affronted that a woman could create such a fine work of modernism, he asserted his dominion, like a urinating dog, over the territory.” Gray was furious about the murals and considered them vandalism.
During World War II, E-1027 was looted and German soldiers used the walls for target practice. It’s currently under renovation.
Tempe à Pailla
The second and only other house built by Gray was Tempe à Pailla, in Menton, France. The house is built on an awkward plot of land, but Gray rose to the challenge and created her house with an incredible view of the town, mountain and of course overlooking the sea.
The space is split between public and private areas, over three stories. The top floor is where the bedrooms, living room and kitchen were placed, as well as large terrace that was open air.
Eileen Gray started her career designing rugs and lacquered items. Later her work moved towards the modernist style, with more neutral and minimalist aesthetics.
Tubular Steel Furniture
Gray was one of the first people to design and manufacture tubular steel furniture. Her Bibendum chair designed in 1926 is named for the French name of the Michelin Man. Many of Gray’s pieces are now known as classics.
After an established career, Gray has been described by The New York Times as “now regarded as one of the most influential architects and furniture designers of the last century.” She passed away on October 31, 1976, in Paris, France at 98 years old.
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