During the spring of 2013 Paris’s Pompidou Centre hosted an exhibition of unique pieces, incomplete archives, models and the air of mystery that still surrounds Irish designer and architect Eileen Gray (1878-1976). On display in six rooms are 70 pieces. The immaculately curated retrospective looks at the way Gray’s creativity developed during her long working life, though many consider it puts undue emphasis on Jean Badovici’s collaboration with her. He was the penniless Romanian architect who was her on-off lover for 10 years and to whom she gifted E.1027.
Eileen Gray is generally considered either an iconic interior designer of the Art Deco era or an emblematic architect of Modernism, and sometimes a little of both. Today she is best remembered for E.1027 on the Cote d’Azur, and her internationally renowned lacquer work. She believed, The future projects light, the past only clouds.
Lacquer work, interior design, architecture, paintings, photography and to a lesser extent sculpture were the ways in which Gray expressed her creativity. In the true spirit of Gesamtkunstwerk she is seen as a total creator. She said, The role of the artist is to anticipate the external movement of emotions, to express the secret relations between man and the universe
During the 1920s her works were lauded by the avant guard; from the 1930s she fell into oblivion and with deteriorating eyesight, she became reclusive. She was the focus of interest again when ‘discovered’ by historian Joseph Rykwert in the late 1960s, although it was the sale of the collection of internationally revered couturier, Jacques Doucet in 1972, specifically the Destiny screen, that restored her and her works to their rightful place in the decorative arts.
The Exhibition divides chronologically into: (i) The Art of Lacquer Work; (ii) Jean Désert; (iii) Villa E.1027; (iv) Tempe A Pailla; (v) Lou Perou; (vi) The Portfolio of Eileen Gray; (vii) Personal Creation.
At the entrance to the Exhibition stands the Siren Armchair (1919) – This sumptuous piece in lacquered wood and velvet, sculpted with mythological creatures, was originally owned by Gray’s lover, the French singer Marie-Louise Damien, known as Damia. Another original is the glossy black lacquered Brick Screen (1919-1922) which Gray developed using lacquered wood bricks as pivoting rectangular panels—her screens which revolutionised interior space are one of her most striking inventions—as part of her redesign of the Paris apartment of Madame Mathieu Lévy, a wealthy milliner. And then there’s the lacquered wood, ebony and ivory table, with its Roman chariot motif which was part of the famed collection of French couturier and patron of the arts Jacques Doucet, who commissioned Gray to design furniture for his Parisian apartments.
i. The Art of Lacquer Work
Eileen Gray became fascinated by lacquer while studying at the Slade in London. She took lessons with D Charles an artisan restorer in Soho, and when she moved to Paris continued with Seizo Sugawara. Her best known pieces include The Destiny screen, The Magician of the Night and furniture such as the Lotus table, Siren armchair and Pirogue sofa. She created commissioned pieces for Jacques Doucet and Mme Lévy. Their expertise and her sensibility, daring and talent were the source of some of the greatest lacquer work masterpieces of early 20th century.
ii. Jean Désert
In 1922 Eileen Gray opened Galerie Jean Désert on the luxurious rue du Faubourg-Saint-Honore. The first floor showcased her furniture, designs and rugs while the basement accommodated a weaving workshop, specialising in the rugs that were her best-selling items. Her clients were the aristocrats, financiers and successful artists of the time, and included Phillipe de Rothschild, Elsa Schiparelli, Damia, Romaine Brooks. The decade of Jean Desert was Gray’s most prolific period.
iii. Villa E.1027
By 1926 Eileen Gray was ready to put into architectural practice the studying and on-site experience she had accumulated. She spent months looking for the perfect site for the perfect house. The result was E.1027, today recognised as the first truly ‘modern’ house. The villa is organised around a central room and the path of the sun, with interior and exterior spaces communicating. It is a model of sensitive modernity – an organic entity with a soul. Her reason for leaving E.1027 which she had gifted to Badovici, is well documented: Le Corbusier, the best known architect of his generation and a house guest at the time, painted sexually explicit murals on her walls. When she asked that they be removed – in connivance with Badovici, he refused.
iv. Tempe à Pailla
In 1931, she started work on Tempe à Pailla (a Mentonasc proverb meaning ‘time for yawning’). The site is tucked between vineyards and citrus trees, and her architectural design lies at the crossroads of modernism and the vernacular. An object must be given the form best suited to the spontaneous gesture. The architecture/furniture relationship is particularly strong: mobile furniture, a pants rack; stepladder-towel rack, retractable bench, extendable wardrobe. At the end of WWII, she restored the damaged house and sold it to painter Graham Sutherland.
v. Lou Perou
Her last architectural project at the age of 76 was in corroboration with local architect, Lou Perou. Situated in the heart of a vineyard near Saint-Tropez, it was the restoration and extension of a country house she owned since 1939. The sobriety of the site, simplicity and rustic nature all appealed to her. As in E.1027, interior and exterior spaces intermingle.
From childhood Eileen Gray was intensely private and reluctant to disclose anything about her personal life. But between 1956 and 1975 she assembled a selection of her projects in a portfolio and the information from this forms much of the Exhibition. She omitted her paintings and photographs –this separation of her private world of creation from her career is in character. We must ask nothing of artists but to be in their own time.
Despite abandoning painting for various periods of time, she never completely stopped painting and drawing. They were the subjects she had studied at the Slade in London and the Académies Colarossi and Julian in Paris, and her paintings were exhibited in 1905 at the Salon de la Société des Artistes Franҫais. It’s unnecessary that painting should express anything at all, but just be.’
One of the few personal episodes of the exhibition is her interview with French journalist, Bernard Dunard when she talks of her on-going need to create and dismisses age as irrelevant.