Interiors: Fifty shades of Gray
Eleanor Flegg meet s Irish designers who have been influenced by the works of Eileen Gray , whose leather-and-lacquer armchair sold for €21.9m
Published 15/11/2013 | 21:30
Let's hear it for Eileen Gray – interior designer, furniture designer and architect – Ireland's major claim to international design fame. But until just five years ago, Gray was a minor, almost forgotten, figure in the pantheon of great designers.
Then, in 2009, a small leather-and-lacquer armchair designed by Gray made international headlines, selling for €21.9m – the most ever paid at auction for a piece of 20th-Century design.
The chair came from Yves Saint Laurent's private collection.
Did this chair attract interest because Gray had designed it? Because Yves Saint Laurent had sat on it? Or simply because someone was prepared to fork out $28m to take it home? Chickens and eggs come to mind.
In either case, once the international spotlight was turned on Gray, the hitherto neglected Wexford-born designer was catapulted to fame. Now everybody wants a piece of her and Gray is obviously inspirational to much of the work being carried out by young Irish designers today.
The Irish director Mary McGuckian is currently directing a film about Eileen Gray called 'The Price of Desire'. The movie, rumour has it, will tell the story of the personal campaign waged against Gray by the architect Le Corbusier who defaced the interior of E.1027 – the pioneering modernist home that Gray designed on the French coast – with his sexually graphic murals.
At the same time, now is your chance to see what all the fuss is about – following a major retrospective at the Centre Pompidou, Paris, an exhibition of Eileen Gray's work is on show at the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA) until January 19.
In my opinion this is well worth the fiver you pay at the door. You can also see the permanent exhibition of her work at the National Museum of Ireland (NMI), Collins Barracks, for free.
Eileen Gray's furniture designs have aged remarkably well, possibly because she put a lot of thought into how people would live with her furniture as well as how the pieces look and function.
"She tried to apply the principles of camping to furniture design," says Sean Kissane of IMMA. "Many of her piece were made from cheap industrial materials, like tubular steel and painted wood. They're multi-functional, physically light, and can be taken apart easily. In some ways she was a predecessor of Ikea."
Ironically, although Gray designed many of her pieces for mass production, her licensed reproductions are without doubt, high luxury items in today's market and the costs are enormous.
You can buy a rendition of the voluptuous Bibendum chair (€4,267), the Adjustable table (€619), or a range of her rugs (from €2,000) from Minima (www.minima.ie; all prices plus Vat). If you have a spare €38,700 you can buy a reproduction of Gray's iconic Brick screen. Start saving now.
Unauthorised reproductions, which may vary in quality, are a great deal cheaper with a Bibendum look-alike costing €1,100 (www.cadesign.ie).
"Without a doubt Eileen Gray has had a big influence on contemporary Irish design, but we're just beginning to see that coming through now," says Jennifer Goff of NMI.
The Wall, a folding screen in clear acrylic with leaves, flowers and pieces of moss and lichen from the Irish countryside embedded in the resin, was designed for the museum by Sasha Sykes (www.farm21.co.uk) and is now on display in the contemporary furniture gallery.
Sykes also produces smaller pieces. Her clear acrylic cubes, multifunctional pieces of furniture containing straw, lavender or feathers begin at €350 plus Vat. www.maoliosa.com.
Other Irish designers whose work shows the inheritance of Gray include Zelouf+Bell, whose Curved Briques sideboard gives a respectful nod to Gray's Brick Screen with individual sections in Rio rosewood pinned with aluminium rods. Like Gray's original, the finish is hand-rubbed lacquer.
The high-end (€46,760) sideboard is on the high seas at the moment, en route to its new home in an apartment overlooking New York's Central Park. It is one of an edition of four bespoke hand-made renditions of the same design.
And assuming you won't have the price of a Range Rover to spare for a sideboard, it's good to know that Ahmad Fakhry and Cian Corcoran of Designgoat (wearedesigngoat.com) have just launched their Gray collection, which began as a response to Eileen Gray's famously one-armed Non-Conformist chair.
"Our chair is made using solid ash dowel, which takes the place of Gray's tubular steel and it is glued at the joints where the original was welded," says Fakhry.
"We've also borrowed some of the angles from Gray's chair but ours has two arms so that the legacy is not too obvious."
Of course inspiration is not imitation. Their chair has been shortlisted for an IDI design award and is currently available in a limited run from a pop-up shop in Indigo & Cloth (indi-goandcloth.com) until late November.
The chair (€600) is part of a series that also includes a lamp (€675) and occasional table (€450).
The table-top slides off to reveal storage within and the lampshade, if you look closely, is an upside-down version of the table-top.
The choice of yellow for both of these has absolutely nothing to do with Eileen Gray.
"We just like the colour," says Fakhry.