Bringing Eileen Gray into the light
Transat lounge chair
E-1027 Adjustable Table, part of the furniture in Gray's purpose-built villa
A portrait of the designer
Brick Screen by Eileen Gray, which is on display as part of her retrospective in Paris
There is no plaque on the 18th-century building in Paris where Eileen Gray lived for 70 years. But this lapse is bound to be put right soon, now that the Centre Pompidou has ranked her alongside Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe among the architects and designers who “defined modernity” in the early 20th century.
For the next three months, 1,000sq m on the sixth floor of the French national museum of modern art will be devoted to the first complete exhibition of Gray’s work. It has furniture, rugs, scale models, photographs and memorabilia assembled for the first time from sources on five continents, including many private collections.
It is a stunning ensemble, starting with her exquisite Siren chair from 1919. Beautiful rugs, eclectic lampshades, modern lacquer screens, cabinets with pivot drawers, a folding chair that turns into a ladder, and a louche boudoir design for a house in Monte Carlo all show that the Co Wexford-born designer was ahead of her time.
Some of the original furniture – none of which was mass-produced – bears evidence of its age. A chrome towel rail is tarnished. The glass on one of her signature circular side-tables (from the Pompidou’s own collection) is cracked. A small cork-topped dining table has an undulating surface. But Gray’s brilliance shines through.
The show, which takes up five specially designed rooms, celebrates her achievements. It underlines how unique each of the pieces is and, therefore, all the more rare. Even her rather hideous Dragons chair (1910) sold for a staggering €22 million at the Yves Saint Laurent-Pierre Bergé auction in 2009, though it is not in the exhibition.
Like James Joyce and Samuel Beckett, Gray was always forward-looking. “The future projects light, the past only clouds,” she once said. A painter by training, self-taught in many other areas, free above all else and far from conventional, she continued to design throughout her long life and left behind more than 70 years of creative work.
“In an artistic world still largely dominated by men, Eileen Gray embodied a new kind of femininity,” says exhibition curator Cloé Pitiot. “A total designer, she continues to inspire a whole generation of artists to this day, in fields ranging from photography to textiles, from lacquer painting to architecture . . . What is left of Eileen Gray are unique, resolutely bold works, incomplete archives and . . . a host of mysteries.”
Frustratingly for those who would like to find out more about this enigmatic Irishwoman, she burned letters from likely lovers such as Romanian architect Jean Badovici and music hall singer Damia. Pitiot describes her masterpiece, the E-1027 villa built in Roquebrune on the French Riviera in 1929, as “a manifesto of modernity”. Designed in close collaboration with Badovici, with whom she may have been having an affair, it combines “tremendous technical virtuosity with an inimitable poetic force”.