Eileen Gray was many things throughout her life, but first and foremost she was a designer - of furniture, interiors and architecture. Born into the aristocracy in Ireland in 1878, Gray was encouraged to paint by her father when she was a child, and went on to attend Slade School of Art in London as a young adult. While studying, Gray became an apprentice in Dean Charles’ furniture restoration workshop and discovered her love of lacquering, then moving on to Paris to study under and collaborate with northern Japanese lacquer artist Seizo Sugawara. After building a reputation for her furniture designs, Gray went on to design and exhibit interiors and was the architect of two houses in the Alpes-Maritimes. Although she became reclusive towards the end of her career, her work experienced a revival later in her life and her furniture designs are still in production today.
After learning her craft through both education and apprenticeships, Gray took these influences and brought her own, definitive style to her work. In the beginnings of her furniture design she utilised exotic woods in her lacquer work, but as her career progressed she pioneered simpler and more industrial furniture designs using metal tubing, glass, leathers and geometric shapes – a look which she became known for. In her interiors work it was said that her rooms evolved outwards from the furniture, and her architecture followed this trend as she created spaces that were functional and logical.
Growing up between Ireland and England, studying under a Japanese artist and making her name in France it can be said that Gray combined diverse influences in her work, though she refused to strictly adhere to any one existing movement or style of design, and instead forged her own path. Her independence in this regard was not just a conscious choice, but also a by-product of being a woman operating in a predominantly male field, where she was further isolated because of her privileged background - though it was something she was able to lean on to continue her work in desperate times.
Villa E 1027
Gray’s work wasn’t ill-received in her life time, yet she only properly gained recognition for her work towards the end of her life, and after her death in 1976. It could be said that during her life, her work had a somewhat sexist reception, particularly as it pertained to her E-1027 house which she designed and built in the South of France. Upon completion of the project her then partner, Romanian architect Jean Badovici, declared himself joint architect in his magazine, L'Architecture Vivante, which has since been entirely disproven. On top of this, another one of her contemporaries, Le Corbusier, who often stayed in the home flagrantly disregarded Gray’s wishes for it to remain free from decoration by covering the walls in cubist murals of naked women.
When one looks at Gray’s life, her work and its reception as a whole, her continued dedication to her craft can be seen as a distinctly feminist act. Having learned a great deal from the men who mentored her, she developed unique and recognisable works across furniture, interiors and architecture. However men like Badovici and Le Corbusier in turn chose not to learn from her expertise and instead asserted themselves over her work, compounding further the isolation that was already imposed on her because of her gender. Hers is a fascinating but unfortunately all too familiar story of pioneering professional women, but illustrates that ultimately, the dedication to, and quality of, ones work will triumph - as seen in the recognition of Eileen Gray as a key figure in the Art Deco and Modernist styles.
Buy the book about Eileen Gray here.
Story by Francesca Butler.
Francesca is a London based writer.