Bringing Eileen Gray into the light
Gray’s much copied side table in chromed tubular steel with a glass top, adjustable for height, was originally designed as a bedside table for E-1027. Organised around a central room, with a continuous run of full-height windows looking out over the sea, the villa (now a French national monument) had numerous bespoke built-in cabinets.
She spent most of her life in France, buying a first-floor apartment at 21 rue Bonaparte, in Paris, in 1906 before she was 30; it was there that she died in 1976 at 98. The National Museum of Ireland was lucky to acquire the contents of her archives in this small flat, including several pieces of her modernist furniture.
The permanent exhibition dedicated to Gray at Collins Barracks is quite dull and very limited by comparison with the Pompidou’s breathtaking retrospective, which sets out to show that drawing, painting, lacquerwork, interior design, architecture and photography all mingled in Gray’s career to form a coherent oeuvre.
Visitors are led through the phases of Gray’s life, from the Slade School of Fine Art in London at the turn of the 20th century, her fascination with oriental lacquerwork at the Victoria and Albert Museum, then learning it in Soho from an artist referred to as “D Charles” and perfecting it in Paris with Seizo Sugawara.
Gray collaborated with the Japanese master for 20 years, starting in 1910. From their studio at 11 rue Guénégaud would emerge such emblematic pieces as Le Magicien de la Nuit, one of her lacquered screens; it was bought by fashion designer Jacques Doucet, who then commissioned her to furnish his new apartment in Paris.
In 1917, while she was a volunteer ambulance driver in war-time France, the English edition of Vogue published a flattering article on her lacquers. This encouraged her to set up shop on the ritzy rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, where her clientele included such notables as Baron Philippe de Rothschild and Vicomte Charles de Noailles.
The shop, called the Galerie Jean Désert, specialised in pieces of furniture, carpets and designs for apartment interiors, and had a weaving workshop in the basement. Gray’s decade here (from 1922) was her most prolific period, with lacquerwork and weaving evolving towards chromed tubular metal, glass, cork and rhododoïd, as Pitiot notes.
Her biographer Peter Adam says she “had a profound sense of the soul of objects, contemplating them, analysing them, perfecting them. The various stages of her work manifested a free spirit, uncompromising, either with fashion or the trend of the day.” She told him: “To create, one must call everything into question.”
Time for yawning
One of the rooms in the exhibition is devoted to her house set in vineyards and citrus groves above Menton. She called it Tempe a Pailla (meaning “time for yawning”) and it was the only architectural project she designed independently. Clearly of lesser importance than E-1027, it is chiefly known for its prototype furniture.