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A Retrospective of the Enigmatic Eileen Gray

Eileen Gray is deserving of a full retrospective, but does it reflect on her character, asks Andrew Ayers?

Eileen Gray last hit the headlines in 2009 when the Yves Saint Laurent/Pierre Bergé collection went under the hammer: her Satellite hanging lamp (c1925) fetched €2.9 million, an Enfilade lacquered sideboard (c1915-17) fetched €3.5 million, while her Dragons armchair (see below, c1917-19) went for a staggering €21.9 million, making it the second most expensive piece of furniture ever sold at auction. One of the reasons for these astronomical sums must surely be the rarity of her pieces (which were either unique or made in very limited numbers), which no doubt also helps to explain the obscurity into which she fell after the Second World War, and which has afflicted her to a certain extent ever since.

For it is only now that the country in which she lived for over seven decades is finally honouring her with a retrospective, 37 years after her death. In architectural circles she is essentially known for her first building, the Villa E.1027 at Roquebrune-Cap-Martin (see Michael Webb’s Overview), which she co-designed and built with the Romanian architect Jean Badovici in 1926-29. But architecture was a discipline to which she turned late in life (at the age of 48) after a successful career as a designer, and although she planned many other buildings, her architectural oeuvre remains generally unknown.

Born into a wealthy aristocratic family in Ireland, Gray enrolled at the age of 22 at the Slade School of Fine Art, where she studied painting. It was during this period that she first learnt lacquer work − on her own initiative, outside school hours − an art of which she would become a master in Paris, where she moved in 1902. Although painting finally gave way to the decorative arts around 1907/08, she never stopped producing images, and one of the merits of the Centre Pompidou exhibition is the section devoted to this little-known aspect of her production. In 1910 she opened both lacquer and weaving workshops, and in 1913 exhibited for the first time at the Salon des Artistes Décorateurs.


Gray’s Bibendum chair (1930), inspired by the Michelin Man

After a short hiatus during the First World War, she resumed her career as a furniture maker and also became an interior designer, decorating the apartment of the milliner Mme Mathieu Levy (aka J Suzanne Talbot) in 1919. From 1922 to 1930 she ran a Parisian gallery, mysteriously named Jean Désert, where she sold her furniture and objects, and continued to exhibit. E.1027 was followed by Tempe à Pailla (1931-35), a house she designed alone for her own use.Her career seems to have come to a halt just before the Second World War; aged 67 when the conflict ended, she would spend the rest of her long life in semi-retirement, although the creative urge never left her, and it was in the post-war period that she produced many of her building designs. Her third and final architectural realisation was the renovation of an old stone building (Lou Pérou, 1954-61), which was her summer residence until her death.

Organised chronologically and thematically, the Centre Pompidou exhibition aims to retrace her output as a continuous, if somewhat heterogeneous, whole, rather than splitting her production in two (decorative arts/architecture) as has sometimes been the tendency in the past. It opens with her lacquer objects and furniture, followed by the fittings and furniture she sold at Jean Désert, her interiors (including exhibited ensembles and the apartment she realised for Badovici), E.1027, Tempe à Pailla, Lou Pérou, her architectural portfolio − carefully compiled between 1956 and 1975 − and finally her collages, paintings and photographs. As the exhibition’s commissaire, Cloé Pitiot, points out in the elegant catalogue (have a magnifying glass handy for the tiny images), three quarters of Gray’s production is currently in non-institutional hands, so hats off to the Centre Pompidou for gathering together so many privately-owned pieces (minus the YSL ones, which must have been a relief to the insurers).


Dragons armchair

Her lacquered Dragons armchair represents an exotic earlier phase of her work, with its roots in the Aesthetic Movement of the fin de siècle. She would later decry these pieces as ‘theatrical’

The principal display strategy is what the curators quaintly refer to as ‘period rooms’, in fact a collage technique whereby giant blow-ups of period photographs of her interiors (none of which survives) provide the backdrop to related furniture and objects, emphasising her work as a true ensemblier, a total-environment designer. Interpretation is sparing, and the show gives no clue as to what prompted Gray’s switch from luxury ‘Art Deco’ production to highly avant-garde pieces in tubular steel, although in this she was like other designers of the time inspired by the new idiom, most notably Pierre Chareau. She also shares with Chareau an intimate, interior approach, which Caroline Constant, in an article on Gray, has described as ‘non-heroic Modernism’.

Commenting on Chareau’s Maison de Verre, its curator Mary Johnson has said that in opposition to the buildings of Le Corbusier and co, ‘rather than a manifesto for a way of life proposed from without, it is an embodied exploration of the art of living as discovered from within’, which exactly summarises Gray’s subtle emphasis on the materialisation of manners and morals. (As Olivier Cinqualbre points out in the catalogue, Gray and Chareau’s career trajectories also share strikingly similar traits.) While Gray’s three completed building projects are given extensive space in the exhibition, her architectural portfolio is reduced to a slideshow, which makes analysis of it almost impossible for visitors.

The obscurity surrounding Eileen Gray is in large part her own doing: tastefully, aristocratically discreet, she destroyed much of her correspondence and carefully stage-managed the archives she did leave behind. Ironically (impishly?), this has left the field wide open for all sorts of speculations and interpretations around the themes of feminism, sapphism, gender studies, and did-she-or-didn’t-she (with Badovici, with the singer Damia, to name just two). Scholars have even wondered whether it was in fact she who designed Badovici’s house in Vézelay. Her reserve comes across fully in her work, with its many screens, shutters and other veiling devices. The elegant, sparingly mounted exhibition at the Centre Pompidou tackles none of these issues head on, alluding to them only obliquely in a manner Gray would surely have condoned. After seeing the show, you certainly feel more familiar with her work and career, but the mystery behind them remains as tantalising as ever.

Eileen Gray

Where: Centre Pompidou, Paris, France

When: until 20 May (€9-13)

Click here to visit the exhibition website

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