Eileen Gray was one of the most prolific early designers in the Modern movement, but she remains relatively unknown today. In the 1920s and 1930s, this young Irishwoman seamlessly transitioned from artist to furniture designer to architect, working with some of the most high-profile clients in Europe. She lived most of her life as a recluse in France, however, and collectors have only recently become aware of her impact on Mid-Century design.
We here at Graymoor Lane Designs share her story with you as one of so many women who inspire us, living by their own rules and loving their creations, regardless of fame. Born into Irish aristocracy in 1878, Gray drove an ambulance in World War I, opened her own studio in Paris in the 1920s, and worked in the 1930s with Le Corbusier. We love her international flair!
Ireland, London, Paris, Japan
Gray was raised, in her words, by “governess after governess,” but truly found herself when she began studying painting at the prestigious Slade School of Art in London. It was 1898.
London must have seemed like the center of the world, but Paris was quickly becoming the heart of the design world. Gustave Eiffel had erected his infamous Tower for the 1889 Exposition Universelle, launching an industrial architectural vision that would be the hallmark of the twentieth century. Eileen Gray arrived in 1902.
Eiffel Tower at the 1889 Universal Exposition, Paris.
Moving between London and Paris, Gray shifted her focus to interior design. She was influenced by Art Nouveau and Deco, but she also studied Japanese lacquer techniques from Japanese master, Seizo Sougawara. Some of her earliest, and now most famous works are her beautiful lacquer screens. She balanced a precise technique with the geometric style of Deco, creating appealing, functional pieces whose simplicity hides masterful design.
Eileen Gray screen, 1922. Image courtesy of MOMA
1920s and Geometric Purity
After Gray opened her own studio in Paris after World War I, she began to work not only on furniture, but also on the entirety of a space, an early Modernist idea. She designed her first house in 1927 with little more than innate skill and Modern instinct.
Eileen Gray’s living room in Roquebrune, France, ca. 1927. Image courtesy of eileengray.co.uk
She exhibited her work at some of the greatest design shows of the early twentieth century, including the Salon d’Autumne in Paris, the Salon des Artistes Décourateurs, and the 1937 Pavilion d’Esprit Nouveau with Le Corbusier. During this later phase of her career, she became known for her tables and chairs, in particular, the tubular E-1027 table for her house in Roquebrune and her “nonconformist” chair, recently listed as one of 100 essential objects that contribute to the history of Ireland.
Nonconformist Chair, 1926. Image courtesy of The National Museum of Ireland.
A Quiet Legacy
Eileen Gray always thought of herself as “nonconformist,” a word she used to identify the unique, innovative nature of her designs. But that nonconformity was merely the emergence of a Modern aesthetic ahead of its time. She challenged the limits of traditional design with new materials like lacquer, tubular metal, and textiles. She laid the groundwork for later French designers of the Modern school, and she was almost entirely unknown and unacknowledged throughout the 1950s and 1960s.
Still working in France in the 1970s, Eileen Gray was “discovered” by the art world. Her first solo exhibit in Dublin occurred in 1973, the year in which she was finally elected into the Royal Institute of British Architects. She worked until her death in 1976.
Eileen Gray inspires us to trust our instincts and follow where the design leads. Like in our Artichoke collection, sometimes the simple shape, and the repetition of small things can lead to something quiet, beautiful, and timeless.
Eileen Gray at 98. Image courtesy of The National Museum of Ireland.