Icons of 20th century: Eileen Gray

Eileen Gray was a designer working in male – dominated sphere and a self-taught practitioner, not to mention that she was of Irish descent living in France. Giving the circumstances, it’s no wonder why traditional design history considered her an outsider and why, even though she created some of the twentieth century’s most original and now widely celebrated projects and designs, she gained reputation later in life. She made a name for herself as a leading designer of lacquered walls and decorative panels. With her theories on design and architecture she left an indelible mark on our ideas about living.

Today she is still considered the epitome of Modernism and is the only woman whose name is mentioned in the same breath as Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe and Marcel Breuer.

eileen gray

Eileen Gray was born in 1878. near the Irish town of Enniscorthy in County Wexford. Even though her family was aristocratic, she rejected the wealth and didn’t want to study at London’s Slade School of Art. She was quick to challenge expectations again and again, eventually moving to Paris. Eileen Gray accepted the “beau-monde” look and cropped her hair for a more androgynous look, known for taking both female and male lovers, and she was allegedly driving her lover’s pet panther in the back seat of her car.

Eileen Gray

Even though she led a really interesting personal life, we are focusing more on her achievements in design, interior and architecture. Gray didn’t study in one of the big avant-garde design schools nor she aligned herself with a powerful male menthor like Charlotte Perriand with Le Corbusier and Jean Prouve, Lilly Reich with Mies van der Rohe or Aino and Alvar Aalto.

Eileen Gray set her practice the only way she knew how – with intuition, tenacity and relentless reinvention.

Eileen Green

Bibendum Chair, Eileen Grey

Eileen Gray

Sketches of various chairs from 1920.

Gray resolved to master the improbable medium of lacquer: an obscure and rarified material relatively unknown at the time. Demanding and unpredictable – it was a perfect choice for Eileen. Later in her work, Eileen abandoned the exotic style of lacquer and turned towards straight lines and modern abstraction. Largely due to Grey’s success, lacquer became an obsession for collectors by the end of the decade, and her talents were in demand.

The habits she had learned from lacquering – an understanding of time and materiality – continued in the rhythm, tactility and spatial quality of the later works.

Eileen Gray

Bibendum chair and E – 1027 glass/tubular steel tables are now regarded as exemplars of modernism, but Gray never positioned herself as part of that ideology. She dedicated her efforts in creating pieces that take in consideration comfort of the user, ensuring that the individual’s needs were the primary focus in the furniture and spaces.

eileen gray

Eileen Gray’s Villa E – 1027 in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, France.

In 1929. Eileen Gray finished her first built project on the French Riviera. The house presaged the spirit of modernism even before modernism has settled and became what it is today. The seaside house was intended for her lover – Jean Badovici, the Romanian architect and writer. The name of the project E – 1027 was a cipher for their interwoven initials and intended to serve as a reminder of the collaborative project. Later on, Badovici was wrongly credited as the author of the project and Eileen Gray was credited only for the furnishing. She was justifiably outraged.

Gray described E – 1027 as “a house envisaged from a social point of view: minimum of space, maximum of comfort.” She insisted that, just as eyes need eyelids to rest, so too did windows need shutters.

Eileen Gray
eileen gray

Her tubular steel furniture designs, at the time revolutionary, have become classics. The high point of her career was her appointment to the Royal Society of Art in London in 1972 as Royal Designer to Industry. The Museum of Modern Art added her legendary Adjustable Table E 1027 to its permanent design collection in 1978. Her lifetime achievement was honored in 2013 with a large solo exhibition at Centre Pompidou. The production of the movie ‘Price of Desire’ and the documentary film ‘Gray matters’ (both 2014) follow the success of this exhibition. After years of restoration work Eileen Gray’s house ‘E 1027’ in Roquebrune is reopened for visitors in summer 2015.

This article was written with the help of Libby Sellers, Women Design book about women pioneers in architecture, industrial and graphic design.