Eileen Gray directed her remarkable integration of architecture, furnishings, and textiles to address the modern individual's need for physical and psychological comfort, qualities that were frequently neglected in the early 20th-century quest for innovative forms. Through a relatively small number of buildings and conjectural projects, Gray offered a significant challenge to heroic ideals of the modern movement. Because her architecture drew on the ideas of her avant-garde contemporaries, it was both admired by her peers and forgotten in historical accounts of the modern movement.
Born into a wealthy family in Enniscorthy, Ireland, Gray studied drawing at the Slade School in London and the École Colarossi and Académie Julian in Paris. She settled definitively in Paris in 1906 after training in Asian lacquer techniques with a London firm specializing in antique restoration. After establishing her reputation as the first European designer to adapt traditional lacquer techniques to modern Western taste, Gray opened her own decorating shop, Jean Désert (1922), where she displayed her furniture and carpet designs. The simplicity of her forms and her interest in exploiting the sensual impact of materials brought Gray's textiles and lacquer furnishings to the attention of the Parisian avant-garde. Her approach was both unprecedented among decorative artists and influential for her subsequent pursuit of architecture.
In 1926, Gray began a six-year collaboration with Romanian architect Jean Badovici (1893-1956) that led to her independent involvement in architecture. As editor of the influential periodical L'architecture vivante (1923-33), Badovici was an enthusiastic agent for the modern movement. He encouraged Gray to take up architecture, introduced her to the works of the major European designers, and collaborated with her on several buildings in Vézelay that have been attributed inaccurately to him alone. The early issues of L'architecture vivante were Gray's textbooks, providing fertile territory for her initial architectural speculations. Whereas her lacquer interiors were motivated by the sensual luxury associated with the French decorative arts, Gray derived her subsequent architecture from a critical engagement with contemporary approaches to the modern dwelling in which she distilled ideas from Le Corbusier, Adolf Loos, and the advocates of De Stijl, among others. Rather than beginning her designs from a set of theoretical precepts declared in a manifesto—an approach adopted by her more polemical counterparts—Gray challenged the all-encompassing claims of such examples of contemporary theorizing by adapting a selective combination of modern movement tenets to address the occupants' physical, psychological, and spiritual needs. This reliance on certain leaders of the architectural avant-garde was a necessary corollary to her creative work, however. By working within the framework of certain modern-movement spatial devices, such as Le Corbusier's "Five Points of a New Architecture," in her early buildings and projects, Gray sought to overcome the dehumanizing qualities frequently associated with abstraction by engaging the subjective qualities of experience. After initiating this approach in her independent House for an Engineer (1926), she exploited it more fully in the small vacation house that she built both for and with Badovici on a remote site directly on the Mediterranean in Roquebrune-Cap Martin (1929). She named the villa "E.1027"—a cipher for the authors' intertwined initials (E.J.B.G.)—reflecting the collaborative nature of the undertaking. Gray exhibited the models of the house and its furnishings at both the 1929 Salon d'Automne and the Union des Artistes Modernes, the latter a dissident group of designers of which she was a founding member. She articulated her intentions in a dialogue with Badovici that he published in a special issue of L'architecture vivante devoted to the E.1027 villa.
Gray's focus on the kinesthetic, tactile, and sensual potential of architecture and furniture in both E.1027 and the Paris apartment that she renovated for Badovici (1931) was unprecedented in modern-movement discourse. It derived from her interest in merging an aspiration for luxury emanating from the French decorative arts tradition with the liberal social aims of the architectural avant-garde. With her own vacation house near Castellar (1934), Gray abandoned overt references to the work of her contemporaries while absorbing certain modernist design principles into her own values and expression. She named the house Tempe a Palla, citing a local proverb to allude to the maturation of her ideas over time. In comparison with E.1027, Tempe & Pailla is less of a showpiece; it is more compact and introverted, tailored both to Gray's tendency toward intimate and minimalist forms and to her solitary way of life. The Castellar house also had a more explicit social agenda; its minimal dimensions and spartan material qualities impart a degree of reality that is not evident in her previous work.
During the 1930s, Gray began to address the broader social implications of this approach in a series of hypothetical proposals for public leisure facilities, including her Vacation and Leisure Center (1937) and Cultural and Social Center (1947). Whereas her private vacation houses provided bodily comfort and served as temporary respites from the complexities of urban life, in her conjectural civic projects, Gray transformed this interest in the modern individual's physical and psychological well-being into a more general concern for public welfare. Rather than starting from broad social or political assumptions, she proposed options that would encourage the occupants to make choices about engaging her forms. This quality accounts for ideological consistencies between Gray's built work and her hypothetical designs.
Le Corbusier was a fervent admirer of Gray's architecture; he displayed her Vacation and Leisure Center alongside the work of his fellow Congrès Internationaux d'Architecture Moderne (CIAM) delegates in his Pavillon des Temps Nouveaux at the Parisian International Exposition "Art et Technique" of 1937. After this brief flurry of attention, Gray's work was largely ignored until Joseph Rykwert initiated a reappraisal in a series of articles dating from 1968. Late in her life, Gray received a number of honors; she was named a Royal Designer for Industry by the British Royal Society of Arts (1972) and an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland (1973). When she died in Paris in 1976, Gray was 98 years old and still producing furniture.
Sennott R.S. Encyclopedia of twentieth century architecture, Vol.2 (G-O). Fitzroy Dearborn., 2005.