Home   Architects   Schools   Objects   Library
 

 

 

 

 

 

WORKS / BIOGRAPHY / BOOKS

 

 

EILEEN GRAY
 
 
 
 
  Name   Eileen Gray (born Kathleen Eileen Moray Smith)
       
  Born   August 9, 1878
       
  Died   October 31, 1976
       
  Nationality   England
       
  School    
       
  Official website   www.eileengray.co.uk
     
 
BIOGRAPHY        
   

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 fre-
quently neglected in the early 20th-century quest for innovative
forms. Through a relatively small number of buildings and con-
jectural 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 Ecole
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 estab-
lishing 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 materi-
als brought Gray’s textiles and lacquer furnishings to the atten-
tion of the Parisian avant-garde. Her approach was both unprec-
edented among decorative artists and influential for her
feubsequene plrsuit/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 periodi-
cal L architecture vivante (1923-33), Badovici was an enthusias-
tic 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 build-
ings in Vézelay that have been attributed inaccurately to him
alone. The early issues of Z architecture vivante were Gray's text-
books, providing fertile territory for her initial architectural spec-
ulations. 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 adyo-
cates of De Stijl, among others. Rather than begin 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 con-
temporary theorizing by adapting a selective combination of
modern movement tenets to address the occupants’ physical,
psychological, and spiritual needs. This reliance on certain lead-
ers 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 inde-
pendent 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 undertak-
ing. 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
Liarchitecture 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 apart-
ment 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 archi-
tectural 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 princi-
ples 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 ina 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 en-
gaging her forms. This quality accounts for ideological consist-
encies 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 Congrés 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 ig-
nored until Joseph Rykwert initiated a reappraisal in a series of
articles dating from 1968. Late in her life, Gray received a num-
ber 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 produc-

ing furniture.
CAROLINE CONSTANT


 
 
 
 
 
 
TIMELINE        
   

Born in Enniscorthy, County Wexford, Ireland, 9 August 1878.
Attended Slade School of Art, London 1898-1902; studied lac-
querwork at D. Charles furniture workshops, Soho, London

1900-02; studied drawing at Ecole Colarossi and Académie Ju-
lian, Paris 1902-05; studied furniture making and lacquerwork
with Sugawara, Paris 1907-14. Ambulance driver, French Army
1914-15. Proprietor, with Sugawara, lacquerwork and furniture
studio and workshop, London 1915-17; proprietor, Galerie
Jean Désert, Paris 1922-30. First architectural projects, with
Jean Badovici, Roquebrune, France 1926; worked in Castellar,
France 1939-45; worked in Paris from 1945. Honorary Royal
Designer for Industry, Royal Society of Arts, London 1972;
fellow, Royal Institute of Irish Architects, Dublin 1973; mem-
ber, Union des Artistes Modernes. Died in Paris, 28 November
1976.


 
 
 
 
 
 
FURTHER READING        
    BOOKS AVAILABLE TO DOWNLOAD
 
 
 
 
 
 
RELATED        
 
 
 

 

 

 

       
 

Architects

Schools

Objects

Library

New Projects

About

Contact

Support us