Memorial unveiled in Paris to designer Eileen Gray

Pioneering talent remembered in magical moment almost 40 years after her death

 

Eileen Gray, Irish architect and designer, 1878-1976, lived in this building from 1907 until 1976,” states the marble plaque unveiled by Ireland’s Ambassador to France, Geraldine Byrne Nason, Patrick Klugman, from Paris town hall, and Chantal Lambert-Burens from the local sixth arrondissement government, on Wednesday.

A green, white and orange spray of flowers was placed in the leafy courtyard of the 18th century building at 21 rue Bonaparte. Berenice Abbott’s 1920s photographic portrait of Gray stood on an easel.

Ms Byrne Nason confessed her own fascination with “this extraordinary woman . . . modern, dynamic, timeless – in other words, very Irish”.

Each time Ms Byrne Nason has held an event to celebrate Gray, Peter Adam, the ageing British author and filmmaker who was a close friend of the designer, has divulged more information about the discreet Irish woman.

Ms Byrne Nason read a letter from Adam describing in detail the second floor apartment overlooking the courtyard where dozens of people had come to pay homage.

In 1907 Gray asked her mother in Wexford to raise her allowance so she could afford the 3,000 francs annual rent for the rue Bonaparte apartment. She purchased it three years later – and stayed until her death at age 98 – 40 years ago next month.

“Perceived as severe and distant, those who knew her were struck by her charm, coquetry, laughter and tenderness,” wrote Adam. Gray told him of her gratitude “towards all these people who take the trouble to dig you up and preserve at least a part of your oeuvre, which, without their efforts, would disappear like everything else”.

Moving experience

One almost expected a grey-haired old woman in tortoise shell glasses to lean out the window.

“That lovely letter that the Ambassador read makes it all come alive,” said Michael Likierman, president of the Cap Moderne association, which is restoring the revolutionary E1027 villa that Gray designed at Roquebrune. “I think we all felt a little thing in our throats when she’d finished.”

Irish architect Patrick Mellett brought two Irish colleagues, “because she continues to influence architecture today”.

Gilles Peyroulet and Dominique Chenivesse, gallery owners who collect Gray’s work, insisted she was “the greatest designer of the 20th century”. 

Cloé Petiot, who curated the 2013 Eileen Gray retrospective at the Pompidou Centre, felt the place was “steeped in the soul of Eileen Gray”.

Even in old age, Gray was ahead of her time, designing a yoga meditation centre in the 1950s, low-income housing and camping tents in the 1970s. “I believe she had left-wing convictions,” said Mathieu Boncour, from Paris town hall. “We’re building refugee camps with structures that are the heirs of her light; reusable designs, such as tents with tubular frames.”

Klugman, also from the city government, paid tribute to Gray’s “incomparable contribution to decorative arts, at a time when Paris was the centre of the world”. From now on, he said, “people will walk down this street and stop and realise how the creative forces that interacted here resisted the passage of time.”