Sunday 21 January 2018

Books: Eileen Gray - shades of virtuosity

Eileen Gray, Her Work and Her World, Jennifer Goff, Irish Academic Press €39.99

Diversity: Portrait of Eileen Gray as a young girl in Paris
Diversity: Portrait of Eileen Gray as a young girl in Paris
Bibendum chair by Eileen Gray
Bibendum chair
Deirdre Conroy

Deirdre Conroy

In 2009, Eileen Gray's Dragon Chair was sold for $28m at Christie's as part of the Yves Saint Laurent estate. It was a record price for 20th-century furniture and was bought by the French dealer Cheska Vallois who, when asked about her extravagant bid, said it was the 'price of desire', which is the title of a new film on the life of Eileen Gray, by director Mary McGuckian.

There is already a vast bibliography on Gray, but this new book by Dr Jennifer Goff, curator at the National Museum of Ireland, is unique in its thorough and passionate enquiry into Gray's Irish origins, her influence, her life and milieu in Paris and the Cote d'Azur. Gray's childhood home was Brownswood in Wexford, a handsome Georgian villa. Its transmogrification into a castellated, turreted circus tent, seems to have been the catalyst for Gray leaving provincial Ireland, albeit her gentrified one, and seeking liberty in Europe.

She had an imperative to shake off the clutter of Victoriana and her photographic portraits are indicative of her transition through Edwardian costume and ultimately to modernist chic, with her pared down styling and short bobbed hair.

She was in the vanguard of modernism in Paris and this book richly illustrates her design drawings, her interiors and furniture. Her shop, Jean Desert, attracted Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, Proust, European royalty and the Parisian beau monde.

When the Irish artists, Mainie Jellett and Evie Hone studied in Paris in the 1920's they befriended Gray, who was to influence Jellett's cubist design rugs.

The diversity of her objects and materials, steel, leather, lacquer, tables, sofas, rugs and screens provides ample testament to Gray's greatness. The Bibendum chair, the telescopic tubular steel and glass table designed for E.1027 are design classics, still reproduced today.

Her most famous architectural creation was the house, E.1027, at Roquebrune-Cap-Martin designed in 1929 for her lover Jean Badovici, the title is a combination of their initials. This project demonstrated her facility to fine-tune every decorative and design detail, a triumph of gesamtkunstwerk, a total work of art. The house has been restored, not without controversy, in recent years and is intermittently open to the public. Few originals of her work survive, due to the looting and destruction of buildings during the Second World War and because she made most pieces herself, there were few to start with. She destroyed most of her correspondence and much of the detail in this book comes from Goff's archival research of Gray's friends, particularly the American, Stephen Haweis.

The book is beautifully designed and each chapter is replete with endnotes. It is a must for anyone interested in design history and the Gray phenomenon.

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