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Style Icon: Eileen Gray

by Amy Azzarito

With Saint Patrick’s Day right around the corner, we wanted to celebrate an Irish designer. Eileen Gray (August 9, 1878–October 31, 1976) was one of the pioneers of modernist design, but only relatively recently has she been recognized for her design contributions. Born into an aristocratic Irish family, Eileen’s Scottish father was an amateur landscape painter who encouraged his daughter’s artistic pursuits. When she was 20, she enrolled at the Slade School of Art in London. In 1902, she moved to Paris, where she would spend most of her life. Eileen discovered lacquer work in London, and while in Paris, she met Seizo Sugawara, a Japanese lacquer master. Eileen became a devoted student and was the first western practitioner of Japanese lacquer work. (When war broke out in 1914, Eileen returned to London for the duration, taking Sugawara with her.) Eileen’s work expressed the contemporary enthusiasm for Art Deco style. In 1922, she opened a shop in Paris to sell her lacquer work as well as her carpet designs, focusing on decorative surfaces and luxurious materials. By the late 1920s, tastes had changed, and Eileen turned her attention to architecture.

Image above: Adjustable table E-1027 (the table was used at the villa E-1027 next to the bed) sold at DWR, $977.50

Eileen designed a seaside villa in southern France (Roquebrune-Cape-Martin) for herself and her lover, Jean Badovici. She named the house E-1027, a code for their initials: “E” for Eileen, 10 for Jean (beginning with the tenth letter of the alphabet), 2 for Badovici (beginning with the second letter of the alphabet) and 7 for Gray (beginning with the seventh letter of the alphabet). The home overlooks the Bay of Monaco and was conceived with built-in furniture to maximize space. The L-shaped building with its flat roof and glass walls takes full advantage of the view, and each room has a balcony. Eileen moved out of the house for good in 1932, returning to Paris. She left the home to Badovici. In the 1930s, Le Corbusier, a friend of Badovici’s, painted a series of eight murals on the clean white walls of the villa to Eileen’s great displeasure, who saw it as an act of vandalism. The German soldiers who occupied the villa during World War II used the murals for target practice. The building fell into disrepair in the late ’90s, but in 2000 it was declared a French National Cultural Monument. The house is expected to open to the public later in 2013. (Le Corbusier built his own home a short distance away from E-1027, and when he died in 1965, he was swimming in the sea directly in front of E-1027.)

Image above: Bibendum armchair (named for the character created by Michelin to sell tires)

Eileen spent her later years in Paris. She continued to work on design projects but was virtually ignored by the design industry. She began to lose her sight and hearing at around age 70 but continued to work. In her 80s, she transformed an agricultural shed outside Saint-Tropez into a summer home. Her work began receiving attention toward the end of her life in 1968, with a favorable article about her work appearing in Domus magazine. Exhibitions of her work followed in the 1970s. Eileen Gray died at her apartment in Paris in 1976.

See the Eileen Gray inspired roundup after the jump!

Image above: 1. Wood Palette with 12 Brushes, $8.06 | 2. Lacquer Earrings, $145 | 3. Set of Small Lacquered Bamboo Bowls, $18.90 | 4. Plastic Lacquer Udon Soup Bowl, $6.56 | 5. Lacquer Box, Tall Square, $40 | 6. Double Finger Ring, $345 | 7. The More the Merrier Candelabrum, $109.65 | 8. Andrea Blazer, $225

Books to Read

Eileen Gray by Caroline Constant — Uses a wealth of archival materials to explore the work of Eileen Gray.

Eileen Gray: Architect/Designer by Peter Adam — In addition to a catalog of Gray’s work, this book tells the story of her Irish upbringing and schooling.

Image above: Small Rectangle Lacquer Trays, $32

Image above: Lacquer Jewelry Box, $49–79

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