Household Dame: The Visionary Modernism of Eileen Gray
It was reputedly a lovers’ spat: Two passionate artists had a falling out and broke up. Like many things in Eileen Gray’s 98-year life, it was dramatic, consequential, and shrouded in mystery.
Now considered one of the 20th century’s most influential modernist pioneers in the male-dominated fields of architecture, interiors, and furniture design, the Irish-born Eileen Gray (1878–1976) is enjoying fame she never knew in her lifetime, as evidenced by a three-story exhibition at Bard Graduate Center in New York City. Yet Gray was almost lost to the mists of history, denied her proper credit and claims to much of her intellectual property by the same two men who had most furthered her career: her boyfriend and her mentor.
At least, that’s the storyline behind The Price of Desire, a 2016 British biopic about Gray’s life. After their breakup, Gray’s boyfriend—architect and magazine editor Jean Badovici—kept the grandiose villa overlooking the French Riviera that the duo built together, called E 1027. Badovici also claimed credit—which Gray actually deserved—for its pioneering modernist design. Later, Gray’s mentor, the famed architect/designer/artist Le Corbusier, further obscured her minimalist vision when he “smattered eight large, colorful, sexually charged wall murals in the house during the summer of 1938, at the invitation of Jean Badovici,” according to Mary McGuckian, the film’s writer and director. (Whether Le Corbusier and Badovici harbored professional jealousy is a matter of speculation.)
Most of this drama, however, is missing from the vast retrospective of Gray’s work, Eileen Gray, on view at Bard Graduate Center through October 28. The nonetheless fascinating exhibition—which expands on an acclaimed show at the Centre Pompidou in Paris—focuses instead on the highly innovative buildings, interior pieces, and artworks that Gray left behind.
As a sad twist of fate, the BGC exhibit opened February 29 and was to run through July, only to be quickly closed due to the Covid-19 lockdown in New York City. It then received a truncated run in late October. Fortunately, a rich and revelatory virtual version of the show remains online. “Click on any of the chairs or credenzas in the installation shots,” writes Jason Farago in the New York Times, “and you’ll discover higher-resolution photographs and thorough contextual materials about [Gray’s] work process and commercial ambitions.”
However colorful the life of Gray, it’s relegated here to benign blurbs on a historic timeline: We learn that occultist Aleister Crowley proposed marriage to Gray (she declined) and wrote several poems about her, but not that the pair had a tempestuous affair. We learn that famed Parisian chateuse Marisa Damia was a patron of Gray’s interior design work, but not that they too had a tempestuous affair, or that they drove around Paris with their pet panther—or even that Gray was unabashedly bisexual as she circulated among the congnoscenti in early 20th century Paris.
What we do see are Gray’s multifaceted physical creations, which are consistently ahead of their time. While Gray started her artistic career in the rarified Japanese artform of lacquer murals, which she studied under Parisian master Seizo Suguwara, her main work early on came from a rug-weaving shop she ran with Evelyn Wilde, where she created handmade floor masterpieces (such as the rug shown above).
Gray branched out into designing interiors for wealthy Parisians. She created all the furnishings, decorations, artwork, and lighting for an avant-garde interior design installation, Boudoir de Monte Carlo, displayed at the 14th Salon des Artistes Décorateurs in Paris in 1923 (below).
The installation, with its irregular use of lines and planes and shapes, was panned by many critics but praised by architect Jean Badovici, who edited the French journal L’architecture Vivante, and the pair began a collaboration that led to the construction of the E 1027 home on the Riviera. The Monte Carlo installation also caught the eye of Le Corbusier, who had taken up furniture design as an extension of his concept that “a house is a machine to be lived in.”
Gray had a leg up on Le Corbusier when it came to furniture design: Her use of tubular steel in forming curvy shapes precedes that of the Swiss-French maestro by several years. She custom-created one-off designs specifically for clients. Gray’s Transat chair (below, left) was commissioned by the Maharaja of Indore, for the Manik Bagh Palace, in 1930. (The design has been replicated for modern customers and can be yours for a mere $8,666.) Gray’s Bibendum chair (below, center) was inspired by and named after the Michelin tire company’s humanoid mascot (aka the Michelin Man). First introduced in 1926, the Bibendum is in varied production, with prices starting at $1,000.
Gray’s carved and lacquered-oak Guéridon, or Pedestal table (above, right)—loaned to the show by a private collector represents the one-of-a-kind nature of most of Gray’s iconic furniture designs. In her words: “Nowhere did we attempt to create a line or a form for its own sake; everywhere we thought of the human being, his sensibility, his needs.” Or her needs, as the case may be: Gray reportedly created her Table pour petit déjeuner (Breakfast table) (below) for her sister, so that she could eat in bed at E 1027 without spilling crumbs. (This adjustable, tubular-steel design has become a household mainstay, available for as little as $249.)
After splitting with Badovici and leaving E 1027, Gray went on to create her own villa to get away from her Parisian apartment: the Tempe a Pailla (named after a local proverb: “With time and straw, the figs ripen”) in Castellar, France. She spent much of her latter years creating abstract sculpture and visual art, living relatively anonymously. She was buried in an unmarked Paris grave in 1976.
A Growing Reputation
Gray’s artistic legacy, however, began to burgeon with a retrospective exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1980, and it grew over recent decades. It was further solidified when her “Dragons” armchair—previously owned by Yves Saint Laurent—sold for a record-setting €21,905,000 ($25,933) in 2009. (This piece does not appear anywhere in the show. That’s probably because it’s in the hands of its acquiring patron—and it is quite ugly, far removed from Gray’s usual elegant, minimalist aesthetic.)
Gray herself reflects a nonplussed attitude toward the endurance of her work in a remarkably lucid interview, on audio display at the exhibit. It’s a talk with architect and designer Andrew Hodgkinson in 1973, near the end of her life. “Everyone can enjoy a moment,” Gray says when told that her work was becoming collectible. “The wheel turns so fast now. I might have a sort of a phase of being spoken about. But I’m sure in about a month nobody will ever think of it.”
Images courtesy Bard Graduate Center