Eileen Gray was a quiet, fantastic Modernist. She was an innovator in Modern furniture, she created one of the iconic, twentieth-century Modernist houses, she painted, she loved famous architects, she sometimes dated women, she held her own in the male-dominated architecture circles in the early twentieth century.
Gray’s career spanned 80 years and her legacy continues in Aram’s reproductions of her furniture, but her name has undeservingly dropped out of popular consciousness or over shadowed by her better known, male contemporaries. Both in terms of her design and her challenge to the status quo, Gray’s work is still relevant today.
Gray was born in Ireland in 1878 and spent her working life in France, after moving to Paris in 1900 to study and work as a lacquer artisan. In 1919 she was commissioned to design the entire interior of the rue de Lota flat of Madame Mathieu Levy. Gray stripped the walls and floor of colour to create a clean, simple background, then filled the space it with lacquer tables, white leather furniture and animal skins. The effect was perfect blend of Modernism’s ‘less is more’ approach and stylish opulence, a paradox that would become her signature style.
The Bibendum Chair in situ
Sifting through the Modernist ideas emerging in Paris, Gray created her Bibendum Chair in 1926. This was a time when Modernism meant house-as-machine, stripped back aesthetics and less is more. Gray designed her first armchair with minimum embellishment – no colour, no ornaments and a plain, stainless steel base. But then she added three tires of plush stuffing for the back and sides – oversized and almost comical, but comfortable. The plush padding gives the chair its name, after the Michelin tire company’s rotund mascot Bibendum Man. Interestingly, two of Gray’s Modernist contemporaries released similar high-comfort padded chairs shortly after – Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona and Le Corbusier’s Grand Comfort.
When she turned to architecture later that decade, Gray created her most iconic work, the house E-1027 on the Cote d’Azur. From 1926 – 1929 she designed the house and everything in it for her and her partner, Jean Badovici. E-1027 was a lover’s place, the name is even a coded version of her and Badovici’s initials, E was for Eileen, 10 and 2 for the Badovici’s initials and 7 for Gray. The house featured Modernist staples- white walls, wide windows and a flat roof; but also Gray’s quirks – cupboards that utilised corners and shutters that allowed different phases of light into the room. And the spectacular view of the Mediterranean Ocean was present everywhere.
Villa E1027. Photograph © Manuel Bougot via The Guardian.
Gray’s unique blend of Modernism, pragmatism and style permeated everything in E-1027. This included her Satellite Mirror (1927) that showed the front and back of the head; or her E-1027 Table, designed in 1927 and still available today. The table design was sophisticated simplicity: only two materials are used – glass and chromium plated steel, and only two geometric shapes – a circle and rectangle. Despite its high design value, the table’s purpose was to facilitate breakfast in bed; more the height of the table was adjustable so it could be lowered to knee level when sitting on the ground, because Gray was the kind of person who wanted to sit on the floor and work off glass.
But the idyllic E-1027 did not last, the couple broke up, Gray moved away and built herself a new Cote d’Azur home, Le Corbusier painted the walls with lurid murals, the house was bombed during World War II, and a later owner was murdered inside. Slowly the house fell into disrepair.
Despite a lifetime of furniture designs and artwork, Gray is most remembered for Le Corbusier’s vandalism of her house. Le Corbusier painted eight (deliberately bad) murals throughout E-1027 in 1938, after Gray has moved out and just before she evacuated the coast impending World War II. Although Le Corbusier was invited by Badovici to paint the walls, Gray considered the murals an act of vandalism, and the murals were an intrusion of male ego on to Gray’s masterpiece. Le Corbusier’s act was motivated by creative jealousy. He was outraged a woman could create such a beautiful piece of Modernist architecture and so deliberately destroyed the ambiance. Le Corbusier even built five holiday cottages on the same block of land some years later. As if to sum up how annoying the whole situation was, a photographer recorded Le Corbusier painting the murals looking both smug and naked.
Le Corbusier painting mural nude
E-1027 has now been fully restored and it opened to the public in 2015. Last year also saw the release of The Price of Desire, a film of Gray’s life and the E-1027 murals. In a concerning reminder that Gray is rarely mentioned without reference to Le Corbusier, his murals are still on E-1027’s walls and the controversy is at the centre of first biopic of her life. Still, interest has been sparked and new publications on Gray’s life and works are emerging, including more niche works on the minimalist artworks she painted throughout her life.
Our renewed interest in Gray’s life and works is testament to the relevancy of her design, and the universal importance of her hard work to be recognised as one of the great Modernists.
Words: Amelia Willis