At first sight there seems to be a contradiction in the works of Irish born Eileen Gray but once you take a look at the house E1027, designed as an entity and now a cultural heritage site, a coherent picture forms itself.
She was a sharp observer, resolute and preferred to be by herself. Her father supported her wish to be an artist and she went through her formal education in London and Paris. Surrounded by other open minded, independent designers, architects and artists her unconventional intellect could unfurl.
In the early years her artistic nature dominated her work. Coincidentally she became familiar with lacquer work and developed a fascination for it. The craft was a dying art at the time. She was enthusiastic when she met the Japanese master of the art, Sougawara in 1906. They worked together for many years.
When Gray and Sougawara returned to Paris after the war she got the opportunity to design the entire interior for an apartment in the Rue de Lota. The Lota couch originates from this commission that included all furnishings.
Positive reviews for the apartment encouraged her to open her own shop where she exhibited her own work as well as that of her artist friends. The shop marked the beginning of her career as interior designer and financial independence.
She was at the centre of the modern movement, travelled extensively and worked with and for a relatively elitist circle. Le Corbusier was an avid admirer of her work.
Eileen Gray herself was her best client. This might be the reason that her work never showed the programmatic restraint of the Dutch and German minimalism. She was free to express humour and phantasy yet developed an affinity for functionalism and picked up inspiration from the Bauhaus school of thought.
Due to the influence of the Bauhaus her bias towards luxurious materials diminished although she never completely renounced them.
The Lota sofa features lacquered cubes as armrests and shows her ability to unite the old fashioned craft with the functionalist thought.
Gray is fascinated by Marcel Breuer’s exploration of tubular steel for furnishings and designs a series of tubular furniture.
Many of them for the house E1027, built and furnished by her at the suggestion of her life partner at the time, the architecture critic Jean Badovici.
The name of the house is a playful code; E for Eileen, 10 for the tenth letter of the alphabet as in Jean, 2 for Badovici und 7 for Gray. To hide little humorous notes in her objects is a typical gimmick of hers.
A little side table for E1027 is one her most inventive designs. The tubular steel construction with glass top is height adjustable and constructed in such a way that it functions as a bed table. It is said that her sister’s preference for breakfast in bed inspired the table.
Gray experimented with a series of tubular chairs and extending tables.
The Bibendum chair, initially designed for the Rue de Lota apartment is part of the furnishing as well. Its name hints at the form of the chair and the character symbolizing the company Michelin. The chair is called a “triumph of the modern spirit” by critics and is one of the reasons for the success of the project.
While some of Gray’s earlier chairs are rather decorative in nature she starts working on the ideal functional chair herself during the 20s.
The Transat chair is a slender construction of slim wooden slats connected with each other by metal bars and joints. The upholstered headrest is adjustable. The freely suspended seat describes an elegant curve, a contrast to the geometrical austerity of the frame. It is evident that Gray studied the construction of a chair in detail as well as the requirement of a person sitting in it.
The chair is extremely adaptable. It is available with a simply functional wooden frame or in highly sophisticated and exclusive versions.
Eileen Gray’s ability to assimilate new ideas and refine them met the spirit of the time and she added a personal touch. Her assertiveness in a craft that was dominated by men makes her, maybe unintentionally, a pioneer of the feminist movement.
Even today there are enthusiastic collectors like Yves Saint Laurent. At an auction 2009 in Paris her Dragon armchair was auctioned for 22 Million Euros, the highest price ever paid for furniture from the 20th century.