Eileen Gray, Nonconformist Designer and Architect

(1878-1976)

Eileen Gray circa 1910, black and white side view
Eileen Gray circa 1910. Photo in public domain, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

In some circles, Irish-born Eileen Gray is the figurative "poster-child" for the 20th century woman whose work is dismissed by a male-dominated culture. These days, her pioneering designs are revered. The New York Times claims that "Gray is now regarded as one of the most influential architects and furniture designers of the last century."

Background:

Born: August 9, 1878 in County Wexford, Ireland

Full Name: Kathleen Eileen Moray Gray

Died: October 31, 1976 in Paris, France

Education:

  • Painting classes at the Slade School of Fine Art
  • Académie Julian
  • Académie Colarossi

Home Furnishing Designs:

Eileen Gray may be best known for her furniture designs, beginning her career as a lacquer artist.  "In her lacquer work and carpets,"  writes the National Museum of Ireland, "she took traditional crafts and combined them in a radical manner with the principles of Fauvism, Cubism and De Stijl." The museum goes on to claim that Gray was the "first designer to work in chrome," and was working with tubular steel at the same time as Marcel Breuer. Aram Designs Ltd. of London licenses Gray reproductions.

In 2009, Christie's auction house estimated that a chair designed by the feminist architect and designer would fetch about $3,000 at auction.

Gray's dragon armchair, Fauteuil aux Dragons, set a record, selling for over $28 million. Gray's Dragon Chair is so famous that it has become a dollhouse miniature.

See more Gray designs on the Aram website at www.eileengray.co.uk/

Building Design:

In the early 1920s, Romanian architect Jean Badovici (1893-1956) encouraged Eileen Gray to begin designing small houses.

  • 1927: E1027—Collaborated with Jean Badovici on Maison en bord de mer E-1027, Roquebrune Cap Martin, on the Mediterranean Sea in southern France
  • 1932: Tempe à Pailla, near Menton, France
  • 1954: Lou Pérou, near Saint-Tropez, France
" The future projects light, the past only clouds."—Eileen Gray

About E1027:

The alpha-numeric code symbolically wraps Eileen Gray (the "E" and "7"th letter of the alphabet, G) around "10-2"—the tenth and second letters of the alphabet, "J" and "B," which stand for Jean Badovici. As lovers, they shared the summer retreat that Gray called E-10-2-7.

Modernist architect Le Corbusier famously painted and drew murals on the interior walls of E1027, without Gray's permission. The film The Price of Desire (2014) tells the story of these modernists.

Eileen Gray's Legacy:

Working with geometric forms, Eileen Gray created plush furniture designs in steel and leather. Many Art Deco and Bauhaus architects and designers found inspiration in Gray's unique style. Today's artists, too, write extensively about Gray's influence. Canadian designer Lindsay Brown has commented on Eileen Gray’s E-1027 house, an astute review with photographs of Gray's maison en bord de mer. Brown suggests that "Corbusier had something to do with Gray's obscurity."

Marco Orsini's documentary Gray Matters (2014) examines Gray's body of work, making the case that "Gray matters" as an influence in the design world. The film's focus is on Gray's architecture and designs, including her modernist house, E-1027, in the south of France and the furnishings of the house for herself and her Romanian lover, the architect Jean Badovici.  "The E1027 story is now widely known and taught in architectural schools, as emblematic of the sexual politics of modern architecture," claims reviewer Rowan Moore in The Guardian.

A ongoing faithful community of Eileen Gray devotees and like-minded nonconformists stay in touch on Facebook.

Learn More:

Sources: Sale 1209 Lot 276, Christie's; Eileen Gray's E1027 – review by Rowan Moore, The Guardian, June 29, 2013 [accessed September 28, 2014]; National Museum of Ireland - Eileen Gray Exhibition Details at www.museum.ie/en/exhibition/list/eileen-gray-exhibition-details.aspx?gclid=CjwKEAjwovytBRCdxtyKqfL5nUISJACaugG1QlwuEClYPsOe_OJUokXAyYDHhBdpv5lpG5rQ5cW8ChoCppvw_wcB; Eileen Gray quotation from London Design Journal [accessed August 3, 2015]