Eileen Gray was an Anglo-Irish architect and furniture designer, regarded as one of the most influential women of the early 20th century. She was well-known as one of the leading designers of the lacquered screens and decorative panels and was adored by Art Deco Style enthusiasts. Gray developed an opulent, luxuriant impression about the geometric forms and industrially produced materials used by the International Style designers, such as Le Corbusier, Charlotte Perriand, and Mies Van Der Rohe, who shared many of her ideals.
Her Bibendum Chair and E-1027 table are now as familiar as the International Style icons. She was also appointed as a Royal designer by The Royal Society of Arts in 1972. She worked as a young designer and deeply shy, as Gray put it: “I was not a pusher, and maybe that is the reason I did not get the place I should have had.”
Here are ten things probably you didn’t know about Eileen Gray:
1. She was not born as Eileen Gray
Eileen Gray, born into an aristocratic Irish family as Kathleen Eileen Moray, grew up in County Wexford, Ireland, and London. Gray’s mother inherited a title from a Scottish uncle, so she became 19th Baroness Gray. From then on, Eileen and her siblings came to be known as the Grays.
She was not born as Eileen Gray
2. Eileen was amongst the first women to study at the Slade
In 1898, she was among the first women admitted to the Slade School of Arts in London, where she studied drawing and painting. She visited the Victoria and Albert Museum near her home, where Gray discovered Japanese and East-Asian lacquerware, objects, and furniture decoratively covered with lacquer, the sap of a tree native to Japan.
Eileen was amongst the first women to study at the Slade
3. She worked in her bathroom
Lacquering is a complicated technique that requires humid, dust-free conditions and several coats of carefully mixed resin, which can take some days to dry. Traditionally Japanese craftspeople made their lacquerwares at sea for the humidity, so Gray chose her bathroom’s next best thing. Meanwhile, along with her lacquer products like screens and cabinets, Gray also started experimenting with fabric and carpet design. In 1910, she also set up her weaving studio.
She worked in her bathroom
4. Book written on Eileen Gray
Caroline Constant wrote a book, Eileen Gray: An Architecture for all Senses. This book documents her achievements as an architect. There are significantly less realized buildings, but the variety of projects she developed over a career spanning almost seven decades is impressive. The book gives Gray’s development from lacquer work to architecture, reforming the decorative arts, and her dominant technocratic modernism position. It also includes her career’s most important architectural designs, including thorough documentation of the enormously influential E1027 residence.
Book written on Eileen Gray
5. Jean Badovici encouraged her to be an architect
Gray was linked romantically with Romanian architect and writer Jean Badovici, who encouraged her growing interest in architecture. Gray took an informal architectural traineeship for herself as she never received any formal training as an architect. She studied academic and technical books and took drafting lessons. Eileen also used to travel with Badovici to study key buildings and learned by studying various architectural designs.
Jean Badovici encouraged her to be an architect
6. An iconic villa was designed by her without any architectural training
Gray, after being encouraged to be an architect, started to explore architectural design, although she did not form architecture. Her first building was a villa, which resulted in her best-known work, E-1027. The house’s enigmatic name is a coded message spelling out her and Badovici’s initials. E for Eileen, the numbers 10, 2, and 7 signifies the alphabetical order of J, B, and G. Unlike other Modernist homes, E-1027 fused moving screens with fixed walls and introduced furniture that could be adjusted and tilted.
She designed an iconic villa, with no architectural training
7. She was anticipating and critical of the Avant-garde movement
Gray’s approach was critical about the avant-garde movement’s focus on the exterior of buildings, as she quoted, “the interior plan should not be the incidental result of the facade; it should be led to a completely harmonious and logical life.” According to architecture critic Rowan Moore, E-1027 “rows from furniture into a building.” Gray was fascinated by lightweight, functional, multi-purpose furniture, which she called “camping style.” This shows how she anticipated styles and was much ahead of time.
She was anticipating and critical of the Avant-garde movement
8. She accused Le Corbusier of vandalizing
Her exquisite work sometimes aroused envy among other designers, and she was often disregarded for being a woman. She even accused the modernist mastermind Le Corbusier of vandalizing the walls of one of her architectural works. Le Corbusier vandalized its walls with Cubist murals of naked women. This violated Gray’s wish that E-1027 be free of any decoration and hence was declared as an act of infringement of the original architect’s intellectual property. During World War II, the degradation continued when German soldiers practiced their aim against E-1027’s walls. After this incident, due to its international significance, the house and surrounding area were declared a “Site Moderne.”
She accused Le Corbusier of vandalizing
9. A biographical film was made based on Eileen Gray and the E-1027 villa
‘The Price of Desire’ is a 2015 Belgian-Irish biographical drama film directed by Mary McGuckian. The film revolves around Eileen Gray’s E-1027 villa, one of the first homes Gray designed and one of the modern architecture movement’s first homes. It also shows Gray’s relationship with the fellow architect Le Corbusier, who erased Gray’s recognition as the author of her work. Part of the film takes place in the authentic French villa, E-1027, located in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin. With the estate in disrepair, the producers had to launch a Kickstarter campaign to restore the house with Parisian interiors.
A biographical film was made based on Eileen Gray and the E-1027 villa
10. An auction record was set by her work
At a Paris auction of 1972, Yves Saint Laurent bought ‘Le Destin’ and revived interest in Gray’s career, followed by the first retrospective exhibition of her work, titled ‘Eileen Gray: Pioneer of Design,’ in London. Later in February 2009, Gray’s “dragons” armchair, acquired by her early patron Suzanne Talbot and later a part of the Pierre Bergé and Yves Saint Laurent collection, was sold at auction in Paris for €21.9 million (US$28.3 million), setting an auction record for 20th-century decorative art.
An auction record was set by her work