Sunday 15 September 2019


As controversial in her private life as she was in her work, Eileen Gray was a true visionary, says Jonathan deBurca Butler, and an exhibition in Paris, and then Dublin, pays tribute to the stamp she left on the Modernist movement

Gray had what some of my other design heroes like Charreau, Aalto, Eames and Mollino possessed – an ability to create beautiful, functional works in any scale or medium. I fell in love with her early lacquer screens while studying design and marvelled at her ability to transcend early styles of the 20th Century and become one of the most important designers of the late Modernist period. An enduring image of Gray that always comes to mind is of her making modifications and adjustments to her designs in her Paris studio into her 90s. She was a true design hero.

Eileen Gray is rightly regarded as one of the most important modernist designers of the 20th Century. Being from Wexford myself, I've always known about and loved her work. She was a pioneer of modern furniture design while also being highly regarded for her work in architecture. Her unconventional and innovative use of craft and form combined with a strong sense of irony and wit define a body of work, which is still highly influential and sought after today.

For me, Eileen Gray was an Irish woman with the self-confidence to follow her own individual path, who dared to let an unconventional lifestyle and incessant creativity combine in sublime designs and spaces way ahead of their time. I am greatly looking forward to her exhibition.

As controversial in her private life as she was in her work, Eileen Gray was a true visionary, says Jonathan deBurca Butler, and an exhibition in Paris, and then Dublin, pays tribute to the stamp she left on the Modernist movement

WHEN Eileen Gray wanted to relax, she would drive around the streets of inter-war Paris with her lesbian lover – a singer by the name of Damia – and their pet black panther. At night time the pair would dress up as men and visit those places that were off limits to women. Gray was an out-and-out bon vivant. She flew planes, drove ambulances during the First World War, had several affairs with both men and women and she smoked copiously right up to the day she died aged 98. In many ways, her life and how she lived it was ground-breaking, but more important was her immeasurable influence on 20th-Century design and modernism.

Although most of us have probably come across her work, such as the Michelin man- like Bibendum Chair and the E1027 table, Gray's considerable portfolio and remarkable life remains largely unknown. It is for that reason that the Centre Pompidou in Paris is currently running an exhibition which focuses on the Irish woman's achievements.

"It was absolutely necessary to pay a tribute to Eileen Gray," explains Chloe Pitiot, curator of the exhibition. "She was an extraordinary artist and only a few French people know her work. I hope that will change. After all, she lived and worked in Paris for 70 years."

Eileen Gray was born near Enniscorthy, Co Wexford, on August 9, 1878. She was one of five children born into an Anglo-Irish family. Her father was a landscape painter who encouraged his daughter's interest in painting and drawing. Although her parents went their separate ways when Gray was just 11 years old, she often accompanied her father on his painting trips around continental Europe.

By the age of 20, Gray, whose family also had a home in South Kensington, London, was studying at the Slade School of Fine Art in London; an institution whose teachers and training she found stifling.

In 1900 she went to Paris to see L'Exposition Universelle. Paris was then the world centre of innovation and this exhibition was put on to show off the city's achievements. Gray was duly impressed and her love affair with all things modern began.

Her love affair with Paris began some two years later when she went to study at the Academie Julian. Bar some spells in the south of France, Paris was where she spent the rest of her life.

Gray is perhaps best known for her work with lacquer. It became her medium; the thing upon which she was to build her reputation. "She learned about lacquer during her time in the Slade," says Jennifer Goff, curator of the Eileen Gray Collection at the National Museum of Ireland. "She learned the basics in a restoration shop in Soho, London, and by the time she moved to Paris she was put in touch with Seizo Sugawara [a Japanese lacquer artist]. They worked together and perfected their own method. "She began to display it probably from about 1910 onwards, and she began to use it in furniture design. This was quite shocking. The French were very suspicious of it because it was Asian; it had these mystical properties. Up until then it had only really been used in restoration."

Gray was so dedicated to her medium that she suffered the so-called lacquer disease, a painful rash on her hands, but that did not stop her from working. Indeed when she was not working with lacquer, something else would keep her occupied.

"She was a modern-day renaissance woman," says Goff. "She was initially an artist, and she was prolific, she showed at the Salon des Beaux-Arts. She was also an exceedingly talented photographer. Her artistic propensities then went into her designing carpets with Evelyn Wilde. She was like a chameleon."

In 1917, Gray was charged with redesigning the apartment of well-known Parisian milliner Madame Mathieu Levy. On completion, the apartment was hailed as a triumph by critics. Harper's Bazaar described it as "thoroughly modern". Furniture for the apartment included some of Gray's best known designs – the aforementioned Bibendum Chair and the Pirogue Day Bed, which incidentally Goff believes may have been influenced by the currach. The critical and financial success of the project prompted Gray to open a shop where she could display and sell her wares – female shop -owners were not so common in those days.

Soon Gray was to tackle another discipline – architecture. In 1926, she started work on a new holiday home near Monaco with her then (male) lover Jean Badovici. Badovici was a Romanian architect 10 years her junior and was the editor of the highly regarded magazine Architecture Vivante.

Construction of the house took three years and was given the enigmatic name of E1027. It was code for the lovers' names; the E standing for Eileen, the 10 for J, meaning Jean, the 2 for B standing for Badovici and the 7 for G standing for Gray

When her friend and rival, architect Le Corbusier, painted a series of sexually explicit murals inside the house, Gray was outraged. She immediately demanded that they be removed but the Swiss-born architect refused and later wrote a magazine article in which he claimed his murals improved her walls. Gray left the house in 1932 and never returned.

Her relationship with Badovici also broke down, but, as ever, Gray immersed herself in her work, building herself a new house in Castellar on the very south-eastern tip of France, near the border with Italy.

The house called Tempe a Pailla was again a masterpiece of modernism – a multi-layered, ship-like structure, full of space and light.

Gradually, the Irish artist went into something of a self-enforced reclusion. Her on-off relationship with the aforementioned Damia finally broke down for good in 1938. They would never speak again.

Gray still worked but many of her project designs were either not realised or were ignored. Much of her work was allowed to be forgotten, but when in 1972 a private buyer paid out $36,000 for a red lacquer screen called Le Destin at an auction in Paris, interest in her work grew.

Retrospectives were organised in London and Dublin and Gray was recognised by The Royal Institute of Architects in Ireland who gave her an honorary fellowship when she was 95 years old. In 2009, 33 years after her death, one of her pieces, known as the Dragon's Chair, sold at the Yves-Saint-Laurent auction for a record €21.9m.

Evidently, her reputation among those in the know is secure but the exhibition at the Centre Pompidou aims to bring this great innovator to a wider audience.

After its stint in Paris, the exhibition will travel to Dublin where it will be shown at the Irish Museum of Modern Art. Head of Exhibitions at IMMA Rachael Thomas is in no doubt as to Gray's importance.

"Gray was an outstanding multidisciplinary artist," says Thomas. "Her innovative work in terms of furniture and architecture combines the sleek lines of the Modern movement with a concern for comfort and convenience.

"I think that her importance is that of a female modernist who succeeded in the male-dominated milieu of architects and artists in the early 20th Century. She succeeded against the odds in establishing her presence among her overwhelmingly male contemporaries, who accepted her unique viewpoint into the severe modernist discipline with respect, admiration and even, in the case of Le Corbusier, envy."

'Eileen Gray' runs at the Centre Pompidou in Paris until May 20. For full details go to The show comes to IMMA later in the year

Irish Independent

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