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​​Everything is Maybe Something Else
 Elisabeth Banim

He ‘asserted his dominion, like a urinating dog, over the territory… seemingly affronted that a woman could create such a fine work of modernism’ the architecture critic Rowan Moore said of the architect Le Corbusier and the eight murals that he painted in the villa E-1027 at Roquebrune, France, designed by Eileen Gray in 1926. Le Corbusier became obsessed with the house, perhaps envious that Gray managed to realise something in her house design that he was trying to do in his own work. He painted the gaudy murals whilst naked, photographing himself in the process. Eileen Gray was furious at the desecration of the simple aesthetic of the building and considered it an ‘act of vandalism’. For most of the twentieth century, the design of the villa was attributed to Le Corbusier and it is because of this and his obsession to preserve his murals that it has survived to this day, having withstood target practice by the Nazis, a stint as a drug den and orgy destination, the scene of a murder and near dereliction. 

Fig. 1 The villa E-1027.

Eileen Gray (1878- 1976) is known primarily as a designer and an architect, famous for a small output of houses and furniture classics. She is now recognised as one of the most important designers of the twentieth century, and one of the pioneers of the modernist movement in architecture. Gray was born near Enniscorthy, County Wexford into an aristocratic Scottish-Irish family. She was one of the first women to study at the Slade School of Fine Art in London in 1901. A year later, she moved to Paris to study drawing and painting at the Académies Colarossi and Julian. After discovering antique Chinese lacquer screens, she learnt the art of lacquer work as apprentice to the renowned Japanese lacquer-worker, Sugawara, who was in Paris at the time. She became so proficient that she is considered one of the greatest lacquer artists of all time.  

Fig. 2 Eileen Gray.

In addition to her furniture designs, Gray began designing rugs, apartment interiors and later houses, initially with her architectural partner and lover, Romanian architect Jean Badovici. She designed the villa E-1027 for Badovici; although she accepted his advice on technical issues, the design is hers and it is now considered one of the most important buildings of the international style. The significance of E-1027 is that it is both an example of avant-garde modernism and a subtle critique of the functionalist element in modernism. She thought of the ‘dwelling as a living organism’, bringing the essential qualities of rationality and design rigour balanced with sensuality that challenged the heroically masculine egotism that characterised much of the modernist movement. Always socially motivated, Gray also designed all the furnishings for the house, envisaging the house, and all her furniture designs at this time as prototypes for mass production.

 

After the Second World War, Gray lived reclusively in Paris and her early success as a designer was largely forgotten. Decades later in 1972 ‘Le Destin’, her lacquered screen created in 1914, was bought at auction by Yves Saint Laurent. This provided the momentum for a revival of interest in her career. In 2009, her ‘Dragon’ armchair sold at auction for nearly €22 million, setting an auction record for twentieth century decorative art. Her greatest modernist pieces of furniture- the Transat chair, the adjustable table and the Bibendum chair, all designed for E-1027, are still in production.

Fig 3 Karl Lagerfeld ' Gray is my Color And Eileen is Her Name', Collage, 1984.jpg

Fig 3 Karl Lagerfeld ' Gray is my Color And Eileen is Her Name', Collage, 1984.

​'a feminist icon in the male dominated world of modernism… she was first and foremost an artist' 

​Eileen Gray is a feminist icon in the male dominated world of modernism, but it is often forgotten that she trained originally as a painter. She was first and foremost an artist, who continued to paint and draw into old age long after she stopped designing furniture and buildings. We have all heard of the ‘Renaissance man’, an ideal developed in Renaissance Italy by Leon Battista Alberti that ‘a man can do all things if he will’. This was brilliantly exemplified in Leonardo da Vinci and Alberti, who was an accomplished architect, painter, classicist, poet, scientist and mathematician. Eileen Gray was the ultimate twentieth century Renaissance woman. She embodied this ideal in her way of working as an artist, designer and architect, where boundaries are fluid and cross pollination between creative disciplines occurs, a multi- disciplinary approach of a different age. Her oeuvre is so interesting because there is very little difference in thinking behind the way she thought about designs for furniture, interiors and architecture and a painting or collage. In her thinking, everything is maybe something else.

 

​Her paintings and collages are a mixture of cubist inspired drawings, designs for her carpets and geometric patterns and are very simple, wonderful and abstract and still today feel so relevant. She had an innovative approach to shape, line, colour, materials and textures, working mostly on paper with water-based media, primarily gouache, collage and cut paper. Her paintings and collages stand on the threshold between figuration and abstraction; the same freedom and breadth characterised everything she did, as she ranged from figuration to abstraction, exploiting chance effects of application and juxtaposition. 

​Gray continued to draw and paint and to make collages and objects to the end of her long life. 'Life without art is a spring without water’ she said. ‘As I was always working at something, my life passed without my feeling all those years accumulating’. 

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