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Eileen Gray (1878-1976)

From furniture designer to architect, why has Gray found such belated prominence?

Eileen grey format

Eileen grey format

Rent boys, drugs, voyeurism and murder: the story of Eileen Gray’s villa E.1027 reads more like an airport thriller than architectural history. Its chequered past had left the structure close to ruin, but after decades of neglect it opened to the public last year. Since then, two films have been released celebrating Gray’s life. Why has this extremely shy and not especially prolific designer achieved such belated prominence? 

Built as a lovers’ retreat for Gray and her partner Jean Badovici in 1929, E.1027’s dehumanised name is an encrypted combination of the pair’s initials: E for Eileen, 10 for Jean (J is the 10th letter of the alphabet), 2 for B(adovici) and 7 for G(ray). Paradoxically, the laconic name speaks volumes about Gray’s secretive character. She was born to an aristocratic Irish family in 1878, studied art at the Slade, and moved to Paris in 1902. There she socialised with celebrity lesbians and had a lover named Damia, a famous chanteuse known for walking a panther on a leash. Her discretion regarding these entanglements was intense, and she later destroyed much of her personal correspondence.

Blue marine rug 1925 1935

Blue marine rug 1925 1935

Source: Classicon

The Blue Marine Rug

In Paris, Gray studied lacquerwork with a Japanese craftsman and opened a shop under the name Jean Désert. Her Symbolist lacquered screens were a success but she soon rejected these as ‘theatrical’, and moved to a more abstract, rectilinear style. One of the most fascinating pieces of furniture to result from this change of direction, the so-called Brick Screen, is composed of black lacquered panels on steel rods. This evolved out of an apartment she designed in Paris where the walls of the entrance hall dissolved into disjecta membra as you moved from public to private space. Her Brick Screen takes this further, playing an ambiguous game between concealment and revelation, solidity and dissolution, movement and stasis.

It also reflects the trajectory of Gray’s career, from furniture designer to architect. This occurred partly under the influence of Badovici, whom she met in 1921. He was 15 years her junior, and editor of the seminal journal L’Architecture Vivante. As such he was able to introduce her to avant-garde architects such as Le Corbusier and Gropius. He also encouraged her first steps in architecture: a series of houses that she helped him to renovate in Vézelay.

Their collaboration culminated with E.1027. As well as encoding its inhabitants’ identities, its name is an appropriate summation of the spatial strategy of the house, caught between the twin poles of Beatriz Colomina’s schema: privacy versus publicity. Ribbon windows slice open the interior, but then a series of screens and partitions obstruct the architectural promenade, hiding what the building has promised  to expose. 

This striptease is performed by an architecture in motion: wardrobes expand to become walls, the living room converts into a boudoir, and its sofa into a bed. On the wall above this piece of furniture Gray painted the words ‘L’invitation au voyage’. Baudelaire’s poem – ‘there all is order and beauty / Luxury, peace and pleasure’ – could have been written about this serene house, which rests on the rocky shore like a beached liner. But its Corbusian purity is leavened by touches of wit: a life ring on the terrace parodies the nautical look, Gray’s Bibendum chair is modelled on the Michelin Man, and in the entrance she stencilled the commandment ‘DÉFENSE DE RIRE’. Why not laugh, we might ask – but a curved wardrobe in the hall screens the boudoir lying immediately beyond it.  This is a house built for sex: incautious visitor, beware. 

Eileen gray jean desert

Eileen gray jean desert

Source: National Museum of Ireland

Gray’s laquerworkshop, Jean Désert

In the end, the house outlived the relationship that was hidden in its name. Gray grew tired of Badovici’s drinking and womanising, and moved on – but Badovici stayed, with Le Corbusier his frequent guest. After one visit, Corbusier wrote to Gray enthusiastically praising her architecture, but in private he remarked to Badovici that certain aspects of the house – including the screen that hides the living room-boudoir – were ‘pseudo’, and should be removed. On another visit, Corbusier painted garish erotic murals on the walls; Gray was appalled. 

An extraordinary photo shows him naked, paintbrush in hand. This was long thought to document the defacement of E.1027 but recent research suggests that it is Badovici’s house in Vézelay. In any case, Corbusier had once said, ‘I admit the mural is not to enhance the wall, but on the contrary, a means to violently destroy [it]’, and one of his destructive paintings is applied directly to the hallway screen in E.1027. By his symbolic removal of Gray’s obstructions he rendered her complex house transparent, and with the erotic scenes he painted, he supplied the imagined objects of his desire.

Eileen gray portrait

Eileen gray portrait

Source: National Museum of Ireland

Le Corbusier’s fascination did not stop here: he also built a little shack, his ‘cabanon’, perched like a voyeur’s eyrie above the villa. He spent the rest of his summers here, swimming every day below the cliffs, and that is where he died in 1965, overlooked by the house that had so obsessed him. 

When Gray died in 1976, she had built only two further houses for herself, in Castellar and outside Saint-Tropez. None of her grander and more socially engaged designs, including low-cost houses, a workers’ leisure centre and a provincial cultural centre, came to fruition – partly as a result of her own diffidence, and partly because of sexism. Not  only did these factors impede her ambitions, they  also erased her legacy: her buildings were frequently attributed to Badovici, if not to Le Corbusier himself. Nevertheless, she did live to see the first glimmerings of her revival, in articles by Joseph Rykwert and exhibitions mounted at the RIBA and in the United States.

But her villa continued its decline. In 1980 a Dr Kägi removed much of the original furniture from E.1027 under the cover of darkness and drove it back to Zurich to auction it off. Three days later, the villa’s owner Mme Schelbert was found dead in her Zurich flat, and her physician – the same Dr Kägi – inherited the villa. Now he began to hold drug-fuelled orgies there, until one night in 1996 he was murdered in  the ‘bedroom-boudoir’ by two young men. 

E1027 juin 2016 manuelbougot© 0190

E1027 juin 2016 manuelbougot© 0190

Source: Manuel Bougot

E1027, post restoration

After his death, E.1027 fell into ruin. Squatters moved in and the remaining furniture was stolen or smashed. All attempts to preserve the building failed, until eventually the département purchased the site, and Le Corbusier’s murals were restored. After many years of under-funded work (the results of which have been called ‘highly questionable’ by Domus), the villa has opened to the public as part of a cultural site incorporating the cabanon.

But what in the end is E.1027 a monument to? It is certainly a fitting tribute to the moment when women won the power to build (a continuing struggle, despite some high-profile successes). But it also memorialises something more elusive: a moment of resistance. Gray’s house, with its ribbon windows and screens, adopts Corbusian transparency while simultaneously attempting a heroic yet compromised resistance to its negative aspects. It refuses to give in to a culture of visibility that has culminated in CCTV, NSA snooping and reality TV. And now we are invited to traipse around this very private villa. Such are the vagaries of history: ‘DÉFENSE DE RIRE’.

Illustration by Markus Färber