Style Icon: Eileen Gray

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

  1. Cate says:

    There’s a major retrospective of Eileen Gray on at the moment at the Pompidou in Paris, you should mention this in your post for your international readers!

  2. Anne says:

    Nice article! For those in France, there is a retrospective of Eileen Gray’s work at Centre Pompidou in Paris until May 20th, 2013. Here’s a link to the exhibition :

  3. Alexia Golez says:

    Should you get to Dublin, the National Museum at Collins Barracks has a permanent exhibition dedicated to Eileen Gray. Well worth a look and one of my favourite collections in the museum. Link to the exhibition

  4. kate says:

    The exhibition in the Dublin museum is really good! Highly recommend!!!

  5. Ainee Beland says:

    I don’t know any of this. Thank you!

  6. Katie says:

    Wow! Her designs are truly amazing! I can see the adjustable table used in a modern interpretation of FLW style as well – with the combination of chrome and form, this is fantastic!

  7. ARAM STORE says:

    A wonderful blog post – thank you. In the early 1970s, Miss Gray worked closely with Zeev Aram to manufacture her designs and make them available to the market. In 1973, shortly before her death, Eileen Gray granted the worldwide licence to produce and distribute her designs to Aram Designs Ltd, London – a licence we are proud still to hold. Aram is the only UK source for authentic products.

  8. She has created THE classics!

  9. bianca says:

    Room and Board carries a repro of the table for $399. I got mine there :)

  10. Megan says:

    Beautiful designs! It is unfortunate that her work was not fully appreciated during her lifetime.

  11. Yemima says:

    You can’t mention Eileen Gray without mentioning Yves Saint Laurent’s auction which sold one of her Dragons armchairs. It was the highest price paid for 20th century design up to then, a whopping 2.1 million euros!
    Thank you for writing about one of the so few women who made it during those years in design.

  12. yemima says:

    sorry! correction – an even more whopping 21 million euros !!

  13. fiona says:

    I also think the exhibition in pompidou is coming to imma- museum of modern art in dublin- either later this year or early next year!

  14. Daithaic says:

    A truly remarkable Irish designer whose work over 93 years influenced design & architecture but was largely unrecognised generally in her lifetime.

  15. Daithaic says:

    The armchair was misnamed in the auction catalogue by Christie’s as the Dragon Armchair by its name actually translates as the Serpents Chair, reflecting its sinuous design. Her lacquer screen also achieved an auction record selling for 1.3 million euro.


Design*Sponge reserves the right to restrict comments that do not contribute constructively to the conversation at hand, contain profanity, personal attacks, hate speech or seek to promote a personal or unrelated business. Our goal is to create a safe space where everyone (commenters, subjects of posts and moderators) feels comfortable to speak. Please treat others the way you would like to be treated and be willing to take responsibility for the impact your words may have on others. Disagreement, differences of opinion and heated discussion are welcome, but comments that do not seek to have a mature and constructive dialogue will not be published. We moderate all comments with great care and do not delete any lightly. Please note that our team (writers, moderators and guests) deserve the same right to speak and respond as you do, and your comments may be responded to or disagreed with. These guidelines help us maintain a safe space and work toward our goal of connecting with and learning from each other.