Modest designer who made a comeback at 92

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Irish-born Eileen Gray was a leading design figure in Paris in the 1920s but by the 1970s, had been largely forgotten. Two experts who are coming to Dublin this weekend for an Eileen Gray conference explain to Emma Cullinan how they revived her career.

Alan Irvine:

'I'd always collected material related to Le Corbusier and other architects and came across a publication in a series called L'Architecture Vivant, edited' by Jean Badovici. In it they featured a book called the Maison en Bord de Mer about Eileen Gray's E1027 house in the south of France (set on a cliff near St Tropez).

"I was intrigued because Eileen Gray sounded like an English name. We all knew about Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius and I wondered who this woman was, listed along with them. Amazingly, I discovered that she was living in Paris, aged 92, in the same apartment she had occupied since 1907. I wrote to her, went to see her and got to know her very well.

"She was the most modest, sweetest, kind-natured person. She was always immaculately dressed and was very conscious of her appearance. She wore wonderfully tailored jackets and skirts, silk blouses and elegant lace-up shoes in beautiful soft leather and a good heel on them.

"She had tremendous character in her face and fortunately I was able to persuade her to let me take a series of photographic portraits in her apartment.

"For about 60 years she led a very quiet life in this wonderful apartment on Rue Bonaparte: everything in it was designed by her.

"I never understood how, without any training or having travelled very much, she moved seamlessly into avant garde architecture and design, following her early lacquer work and rug designs.

"But then she had a unique personality and was creative and experimental. She had incredible clarity of thought about form and function in everything she did. While function was paramount, the forms were always unique and magical. She was absolutely uninterested in money. She had some private means and used that to do her own projects. She didn't earn money from them. She was her own client which often wasn't the case for other architects.

"At the time she decided that architecture was the thing to do she was living with Badovici, who was a friend of Le Corbusier's. She turned to the architect for technical advice on architecture which he gave her. Later he exhibited one of her projects and was very supportive to start with but when he had the chance to spend a holiday in her house, he covered the walls with mural paintings.

"She was very cross about that, and thought that he had ruined the interiors. Corbusier was such a giant figure with a huge personality so, although he appreciated Eileen's qualities, it didn't stop him from doing what he wanted to do.

"We'd sit for hours together in her Paris apartment talking. Her eyesight had got so bad then that she never put the lights on. As it got darker and darker in the evenings the atmosphere was perfect for reminiscing.

"Although she was shy she was a good talker with certain people and once we became friends we would talk for hours, often about design and architecture.

"It never crossed her mind that people would be interested in her but I thought that she had been forgotten: such a limited number of people knew about her then. As a result I determined to mount an exhibition of her work at the Heinz Gallery in London, in 1972. I had a real job persuading her to let me exhibit her work. She was terribly modest but in the end she agreed to lend me material and examples of her furniture.

"I also persuaded her to let me find someone to manufacture her furniture to the standards she required: up until then she had used various craftsman from one of the many small workshops in Paris at that time, to make one-off pieces for her.

"She was very pleased when Aram Designs put her furniture into production. The amazing thing is that the pieces she designed are now internationally famous and made in their thousands.

"And now the National Museum in Ireland has a permanent exhibition of her work. Her recognition in Ireland would have been such a surprise to her: Eileen never had any idea that her designs would become so famous.'

Alan Irvine graduated from architecture studies in London in 1947, then went to the Royal College of Art and afterwards to Italy to work with the innovative BBPR Group in Milan. When he returned to London he started his own practice designing cultural exhibition and museum galleries. He got to know Eileen Gray towards the end of her life. He mounted the first important exhibition of her work in 1972, in the RIBA's (Royal Institute of British Architects) Heinz Gallery which he designed (and which was recently relocated to the Irish Architectural Archive in Merrion Square, Dublin).

Zeev Aram:

'Eileen used to come to London to every year to visit her niece, the artist Prunella Clough. Prunella knew that I was keen to meet Eileen following the exhibition in the Heinz Gallery. I'd known Prunella for a while and she used to come to the gallery for tea: it became quite a tradition. So one day she brought Eileen with her. She was very quiet and retiring. Prunella did most of the talking for her.

"Eileen was very dainty and fragile. Her clothes were in subdued colours; there was nothing showy, flouncy or shouty. She always looked perfect: and we're talking about a 92-year-old lady here. Her shoes, stockings and skirt were just right. She was stunning.

"She was surprised and quite taken aback when I said that I wanted to produce her furniture: she didn't say so much to me, she said it to Prunella. She told her: 'It's nice that Aram wants to do this and I can't even help him by showing him drawings.' She'd had a fire in her house and the drawings had been destroyed.

"She put an advert in a French newspaper trying to find examples of her work but no one came forward, so we made the Bibendum chair from two photographs and discussions with her.

"A lovely thing happened when she came to see the prototype. Because it was an early model I'd told the upholsterer to use any fabric just to get a feel for it, and instead of using aluminium we used silver paint.

"We couldn't spend too much at this stage. When the upholsterer delivered it, it was a nightmare. The chair was covered in Bordeaux vinyl with black marbling through it. I thought, how can I show her that? But this was the day before her arrival and I didn't have time to change it. Yet when Eileen saw it she didn't pay any attention to the cover. She patted the chair and me, on the shoulder, and said how wonderful it was to see this chair again.

"She paid enormous attention to detail. You have to remember that at this time she was a small very frail lady of 92 with one bad eye. She wore glasses with one side darkened to cover this. Yet, although she could only' look through one eye she had the ability to observe small details and suggest solutions.

"The whole design office, who would all be there because her visits were such an event and they all wanted to witness her, gasped as she sat in a prototype Bibendum chair and said: 'The back here needs to be 2.5 to 3cm wider, and no more.' I hope I'm like that when I'm 92.

"When I started to work with her, some architectural historians knew of her but the general public and journalists did not. Imagine yourself at 92 having once been flavour of the month in Paris in the 1920s and 30s, with all the fashionable people eating from your hand?

"Then the world sort of by-passed her. I don't think she was filled with disappointment. She seemed quite happy but who knows what goes on in one's soul? There was someone with such creativity and imagination watching Le Corbusier and Breuer; all the guys having become gods in the design field and there she is, the little lady. I think she took it philosophically but somewhere deep down it must have affected her.

"So when we met and started to work on producing her furniture it was a rebirth for her. She said: 'Up until now nothing has happened.' She must have been chuffed, she wouldn't be human if not. When I walk around the showroom I find it unbelievable that one mind could produce this variety of furniture. None of the pieces derive from one another. She kept surprising herself. I've met many of the great designers but working with her was certainly the highlight.'

Zeev Aram studied at the Central School of Arts in London and then worked with grandees such as Erno Goldfinger and Sir Basil Spence. In 1964 he opened a furniture showroom in London's King's Road, introducing the work of the Castiglioni brothers, Carlo Scarpa, Le Corbusier, Charlotte Perriand, Pierre Jeanneret and Marcel Breuer, among others, to London. Some people snapped up the new type of furniture but others sent hate mail and referred to the pieces as "rubbish" and "hospital furniture". In 1973 Aram began producing the work of Eileen Gray and still holds the worldwide licence for her designs.

Eileen Gray and the Making of Modernism conference takes place at National Museum of Ireland, Collins Barracks tomorrow and Saturday, when Zeev Aram and Alan Irvine will speak. The museum has a permanent exhibition of Gray's work. Tel 01 648 6453; bookings@museum.ie

The Design Museum in London is currently exhibiting her work until January 8, 2006. Design Museum, Shad Thames, London SE1 2YD, www.designmuseum.org

Aram Designs is at 110 Drury Lane, Covent Garden, London WC2B 5SG. Tel 020 7557 7557, aramstore@aram.co.uk

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