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Women in the Spotlight: Eileen Gray

When studying architecture and design, we hear of the great architects of the 19th and 20th century that propelled architecture as we know it in the 21st century. This knowledge is beneficial, but upon further investigation, professionals can discover holes in the findings as we struggle to give credit where credit is due. An example of such instance is with the work of Eileen Gray (fig 1), an artist to architect that became lost in the publications of architecture and only resurfaced in the late 1900s. Her work is now recognized for her pivotal designs that are constantly replicated and remain as staples of design today. Gray was truly ahead of her time and her evolution as an artist is worth acknowledging.

Eileen Moray (Gray) was born into an artistic Irish family in 1878 as her father was a free-spirited artist. After her parents separated, her great uncle’s name of “Gray” was passed onto the family, and thus she became Eileen Gray. Gray began her studies at the Slade School of London for drawing and in 1902, moved to Paris to further her studies at the Académie Julian and became enamoured by the practice of lacquer during this time. During her exploration of lacquer manufacturers, Gray met Seizo Sugowara, a Japanese lacquer artist and learned his process which led to her employing Sugowara to manufacture her designs. Her first lacquer screen designed in 1911 and was called “Milky Way”. Shortly after her introduction to the furniture industry, Gray was commissioned by Madame Levy to renovate existing rooms in her residence. In Madame Levy’s entry hall, Gray designed the infamous black brick lacquer screen (fig 2), which is now one of the most replicated pieces of furniture Gray has designed.

Continuing her passion for art and design, Gray developed furniture pieces that were inspired by the society around her, specifically art nouveau, the De Stijl movement and culture which gave her the reputation of being avant garde and a modern aesthetic. Upon creating staple pieces of furniture, Gray opened her first shop in 1922 where she sold pieces like the Bibendum Chair in 1922 (fig 3), the Adjustable Table in 1926 (fig 4), etc. This initiative was supported by the Romanian architect, Jean Badovici, who also had a close working relationship with Le Corbusier. Badovici and Gray became close partners and with this support, Gray ventured into the architecture field. Le Corbusier in fact, gave her his first architecture tools to refine her practice. With this guidance, Gray went on to design 3 houses of stunning detail and thought, one being the amazing E1027 completed in 1929.

E1027 (figs 5-10) is situated within the landscape of the Monaco Bay where the focus is placed on the view of the Mediterranean Sea while the distinction between furniture and architecture in the interior is blurred. Gray’s creation blends the disciplines of architecture, furniture, and the environment into one space that exudes modern qualities and ergonomic functions. Through developing windows that could completely slide horizontally to allow the light and sea air to filter into the space, Gray managed to impress Badovici and Le Corbusier, almost too much. After Badovici and Gray separated, Gray moved out and the house was owned and controlled by Badovici. With this power, Badovici invited Le Corbusier to paint murals within the home, disturbing the home Gray worked hard to create (fig 11-12). The name of Badovici and Le Corbusier attached to the home made the industry begin to believe that E1027 was a work of the men, rather than the talented woman, Eileen Gray. Although this action caused a fallout and lead to the miscommunication of Gray’s credit on the house and thus her disappearance, Le Corbusier’s name on the murals is the reason the house was left standing all these years.

Several years after Gray disappeared from the architecture scene and was forgotten by the industry, professor of architecture, Joseph Rykwert interviewed Gray in 1972 and brought her story back to life. Although Gray was nearing the end of her life upon this resurgence of recognition, she continued to design into her 90s until she passed in 1976, while her pieces were being auctioned off for millions of euros. Through the preservation of her furniture, the E1027 house and now documented literature, Gray’s legacy lives on for society to appreciate her designs and recognize her advanced creativity that caters to the present and future needs of humanity. Eileen Gray is a woman of undeniable talent to inspire and empower the women of the 21st century.

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