The salon of E 1027, the 1920s house on the French Riviera designed by Eileen Gray and Jean Badovici.
Published: February 24, 2013
PARIS — When an artist friend asked the architectural historian Joseph Rykwert if he was familiar with her aunt’s work, he presumed she was referring to an elderly water colorist. It was only when the friend explained that the aunt had designed E 1027, a 1920s house he had long admired on a remote stretch of Cap Martin on the French Riviera, that Mr. Rykwert realized she was talking about Eileen Gray.
Their conversation took place in 1965, when he was only vaguely aware of Gray’s name and knew of the house largely because of the murals the architect Le Corbusier had painted there and its proximity to Le Cabanon, a tiny wooden shelter he had constructed on a nearby cliff. Even so, it was surprising that he had heard of Gray at all, because by then she had isolated herself from architecture and design circles for nearly 30 years.
Gray gradually became better known after Mr. Rykwert published an essay about her in a 1967 issue of the Italian design magazine Domus. Nine years later, she died at the age of 98, but thanks to his championship, Gray is now regarded as one of the most influential architects and furniture designers of the last century. So coveted are her designs by collectors that the Dragon’s Armchair set an auction record for 20th-century furniture when it sold for €21.9 million, about $29 million, in 2009, and she is now the subject of a retrospective running through May 20 at Centre Pompidou in Paris.
Despite her recent fame, Gray remains an elusive figure. Ever an outsider, she was born in Ireland, but spent most of her life in France and struggled for acceptance as a self-taught woman in the male-dominated professions of architecture and design. Even now, her legacy is misinterpreted. She is better known for her furniture than the architectural projects to which she devoted most of her working life, and her most valuable pieces are the early ones in the elaborate style of the Dragon’s Armchair that she abandoned after embracing Modernism in the 1920s. The Pompidou exhibition offers a welcome opportunity to present a fuller, more nuanced picture.
It begins with the exquisite lacquerwork Gray made in the early 1900s after discovering the craft as a painting student at the Slade School of Fine Art in London. She then studied art in Paris, and persuaded her wealthy mother to buy her an apartment there, which would be her home for the rest of her life. Having forged collaborations with a Japanese lacquer artist, Seizo Sugawara, and a Scottish weaver, Evelyn Wyld, she slowly began to exhibit her work, and to sell it to wealthy collectors.
After seeking refuge in London during World War I, Gray returned to Paris, where she and Wyld mixed with a fashionable lesbian circle, including the French singer Marisa Damia, the American artist Romaine Brooks and her lover, the writer Natalie Barney. Many of their friends became clients of Galerie Jean Désert, which Gray opened in 1922 and named after an imaginary male owner “Jean” and her love of the North African desert.
Until then, Gray had designed in the ornate style typical of chic Parisian decorators and later popularized as Art Déco, and used luxurious materials like exotic woods, ivory and furs. In the mid-1920s, her pieces became simpler aesthetically and incorporated steel, aluminum and other industrial materials, reflecting her growing interest in the work of Le Corbusier and fellow Modernists. An avant garde Dutch art magazine Wendingen devoted an issue to Gray’s designs, including an essay written by the Romanian-born architecture critic Jean Badovici.
They soon became lovers and designed E 1027 as a seaside home. (The E stands for Eileen, the 10 for Jean, as J is the 10th letter in the alphabet, 2 for Badovici and 7 for Gray.) As Cloé Pitiot, curator of the Pompidou retrospective points out in the catalog, it is impossible to identify precisely who contributed what to E 1027, but Gray undoubtedly used it as a forum for experimentation. Like all good Modernist houses, it is a model of spatial efficiency, but, possibly thanks to Gray, who camped on site during construction, E 1027 is unusually sensuous in its response to the changing light during the day and the natural beauty of its surroundings.
Gray also designed the furniture to suit the life she envisaged there. A tubular steel table, which has become one of her most popular pieces in reproduction, was originally devised to enable her sister to enjoy breakfast in bed during her visits without leaving crumbs on the sheets thanks to an adjustable top that caught them.
After E 1027’s completion, she and Badovici broke up, and in 1931 Gray started work on a new house, Tempe à Pailla, above the nearby town of Menton. She subsequently felt excluded from E 1027, all the more so after Le Corbusier painted his murals without her permission. Gray completed Tempe à Pailla and furnished it with flexible, space-saving pieces, but except for Lou Pérou, a smaller house she designed for herself near Saint-Tropez, none of her other architectural schemes were realized, and she produced very little new furniture.
Difficult though it was for any woman to work as an architect or designer at the time, it was doubly so for one as sensitive and introspective as Gray. (The few successful female designers tended to be doutier characters, like Charlotte Perriand.) By the time Gray met Mr. Rykwert, she was living quietly, almost reclusively, supported emotionally by her friends and financially by her family’s money.
Blessed with a rich selection of her work as well as sketches, collages, photographs and other preparatory material, the Pompidou retrospective goes a long way toward correcting the misperceptions of Gray by asserting both her architectural credentials and her commitment to modernism. The restored E 1027 should do the same when it opens to the public later this year as a manifestation of her belief that: “The future projects light, the past only clouds.””