The best-known photograph of Eileen Gray was taken in 1926 by Berenice Abbott, whose sitters had lately included Cocteau, Gide and Joyce. Gray was 48, but looks younger: her hair is cropped, and she seems to be wearing a tailored suit. It is hard to imagine anybody looking more sleekly tuned to the modern than Gray does here. The perfect profile, the flying-helmet of dark hair, the slightly downcast gaze: all this promises the combination of austerity and affect that one finds in her designs. Barthes once remarked on the air of pure thought emanating from a Kertész photograph of Mondrian (also taken in 1926), and there is some of that alluring self-involvement about Gray, alongside the thrill of her androgyny.
There are less well-known photographs from the session with Abbott, one with the subject smiling in half-profile, chin almost resting on her clasped hands on which she wears some huge rings. I’ve probably seen all the published shots in recent weeks: at the Pompidou Centre’s Gray exhibition, at the National Museum of Ireland’s permanent display in Dublin, in the pages of many books and articles. (Peter Adam’s Eileen Gray: Her Life and Work, revised in 2009, remains the best introduction.) But despite the photographs and exhibitions and the commercial as well as scholarly rediscovery of her work in recent decades, I cannot quite shake the suspicion that Eileen Gray did not exist. Looked at in a certain light she seems quite implausible: a bisexual Irish woman at the heart of European modernism, an Edwardian designer who was making things out of Plexiglas and Perspex in the 1970s, a great architect whose sole completed work of genius, the E.1027 house near Monaco, was routinely attributed to others and remained until recently a half-forgotten ruin. Though her place in the modernist canon is now assured, each new book or show still seems like a rescue bid.
Kathleen Eileen Moray was brought up on the family estate near Enniscorthy in County Wexford. In 1893 her mother inherited the title of Baroness Gray, and changed her children’s surname to match. The Honourable Eileen Gray rarely used her title, and thought such trappings fit only for operettas. I have seen it suggested that she left Ireland when the plain, elegant family seat, Brownswood, was made over as a Tudor-style confection, but this is unlikely: the family kept a house in Kensington, and like many young women of her class in Ireland, she was already well used to life in London when in 1898 she enrolled at the Slade to study painting.
For the first half of her long life, Gray knew everybody. At the Slade she met Wyndham Lewis, and soon made friends with the potter Bernard Leach, the explorer Henry Savage Landor and the sculptor Kathleen Bruce, later the wife of Captain Scott. Bruce found Eileen ‘loveable, though rather remote’, and noted that she lived in constant fear of inheriting a strain of family madness. (Another anxiety appears to have dogged Gray: as a young woman she copied out, and always kept, a passage from a self-help book on ‘the removal of shyness’.) It was around this time that she counted among her many admirers Aleister Crowley, who wrote her love poems and of whom she later said: ‘I don’t know how I put up with this nonsense, but he was very lonely.’
Both the Pompidou show and the display in Dublin include an interview Gray gave to London Weekend Television’s Aquarius programme in 1975, a few years into her very belated renaissance. Half-blind and suffering from Parkinson’s, surrounded by examples of her early designs, she recalls an afternoon stroll in Soho in 1905 – she was by that stage dividing her time between Paris and London – during which she came across a lacquer workshop on Dean Street. Already intrigued by work she had seen in Paris, Gray persuaded the owner to take her on as an apprentice. It’s from that moment that we can date her swift maturation. Back in Paris, where she bought an apartment on the rue Bonaparte, she began to collaborate with a Japanese specialist called Seizo Sugawara, who had come to the city in 1900 to repair lacquer pieces on show at the Universal Exhibition.
The Pompidou treats Gray’s early lacquer objects like the monumental examples of modernism that they almost are. Almost, because there are still structural and illustrative traces of Art Nouveau. Though ravishing, a panel such as Le Magicien de la nuit, from 1913, is not yet exactly of its time. An almost naked central figure bows its head and offers a mother-of-pearl lotus flower to an androgynous person on the left; a third figure on the right pulls a golden robe from the shoulder of the supplicant, or perhaps moves to cover it. Apart from the blueish flower, the panel is a study in brown, orange and gold, and the anecdote and the forms are not all that far removed from Aubrey Beardsley’s compositions a couple of decades earlier. The aesthetic is cooler but still Fin-de-Siècle in Gray’s red lacquer table of 1915, silhouetted with speeding charioteers.
Gray quickly came to specialise in room-dividing lacquer screens that became more intricate as her talents and interests tended towards the architectural. Some were ornately illustrated, like Le Destin of 1913, with its svelte mock-classical grotesques, but her work soon attained a pure abstraction. The Pompidou gives over a vast and starkly lit vitrine to one of these screens: a wall of 28 hinged black panels that throw elaborate reflections on the gallery floor. She produced a pure black lacquered square to be mounted on a wall like a flat-screen TV in 1915 – the same year as Malevich’s more celebrated painting.
She also began looking beyond Paris or London. At the Pompidou, lacquer trays and a lamp have graphic antecedents among the Russian Constructivists. What is not so clear early in the show is her immediate milieu. She had settled in France partly in pursuit of a sexual liberation that didn’t entail much frankness about her liaisons (towards the end of her life she burned most of her personal correspondence). She had come to Paris with a friend from London, Jessie Gavin, and Kathleen Bruce was shocked when the two women trawled the bars, Gavin dressed as a man in corduroys and Norfolk jacket.
Gray was close, though it’s hard to say how close, to the singer Damia, to the artist Romaine Brooks and to Gaby Bloch, companion-cum-manager of the dancer Loie Fuller. She knew and admired Gertrude Stein, but mostly steered clear of her salon; she tended to mock the coterie around Djuna Barnes, with their white gloves and martinis at the Flore; and seems to have spent her spare time elegantly bowing out of romantic entanglements and avoiding glamorous or gossipy circles – the real drama was in her work. In 1922 she opened a shop called Galerie Jean Désert on the rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré to sell her carpets and furniture. The Pompidou show has some of her best rug designs, including one that looks like an almost bare blueprint, and another that is merely a large expanse of beige felt with a grid of small holes. But it was furniture that really occupied her in this period, preparing the ground for her move into architecture a few years later.
Until the 1920s, the interiors on which Gray worked, and much of the furniture with which she filled them, retained something of the over-stuffed Fin-de-Siècle: rooms which, as Walter Benjamin said, functioned like the shell of a snail or an aquatic creature. A photograph taken in the early 1920s of one of Gray’s most important clients shows the persistence of this sense of interior design as envelope or carapace. Juliette Lévy, for whom she had decorated an apartment on the rue de Lota, reclines on the Pirogue sofa of 1922: a flute or furrow of lacquer in silver and tortoiseshell, inside which Madame Lévy (photographed for a perfume ad) nestles like an elegant mollusc.
The Lota apartment took four years to complete, and is a bridge of sorts between Gray the late Nouveau designer and the architect of E.1027. The project included some of the pieces for which she remains best known and which have been in production since soon after her rediscovery at the end of the 1960s. They include the remarkable Bibendum chair, a sandwich of tubular adipose leather that Gray is said to have based on the walrus folds of the Michelin Man. The museum in Dublin lets you sit on one at the end of its display; it is surprisingly supportive despite its blubbery appearance.
The critics took notice of the Lota designs; though her name was routinely left out of articles about the apartment (it was not the first or last time she didn’t get credit for her work), she was invited to exhibit an entire room at the Salon des Artistes Décorateurs. The result was the Monte Carlo room, containing a white version of a multiply-hinged screen, lacquered furniture with ‘Cubist’ details – pretty much anything starkly or complexly geometric was called Cubist at the time – and a sharply conical ceiling light. It seems to have been the light that most unsettled a writer for Art et décoration: ‘Take a look at the strange bedroom of Madame Eileen Gray. It is comical and it is abnormal. But it exudes an atmosphere, and one cannot deny its harmony and its extravagance.’ Another critic declared the room ‘the daughter of Caligari in all its horror’. But there was praise too: Dutch architects and designers were especially impressed, and Gray came to the attention of Jean Badovici, editor of L’Architecture vivante, a journal that championed De Stijl and the Bauhaus.
Gray and Badovici had first met in 1921, when she was 43 and he 28, a handsome Romanian architect, penniless and ‘doing all sorts of evening jobs’. They became lovers, and partners of a sort, though Gray bristled at the strictures of a conventional romantic relationship, let alone domesticity. In the early 1920s they began to collaborate on a series of published dialogues on the new architecture, then on designs for houses that remained unbuilt but convinced Gray that she might be an architect herself. (She ‘laughed in his face’, she said, when Badovici first encouraged her in that direction.) In 1926 they started work on a holiday house for Badovici, on a plot overlooking the Mediterranean that Gray, who financed the whole endeavour, had bought at Roquebrune. She came up with the name: E for Eileen, 10 for the J in Jean, 2 for Badovici and 7 for her own surname.
E.1027 is the fullest, bravest and saddest expression of Gray’s art. The structure itself is a feat of compression as well as design: its two floors contain a living room, two small bedrooms, terraces, loggias, bathrooms and tiny quarters for a maid. Almost all the rooms give out onto the terraces, and a spiral staircase rises through the centre of the house to a glass cabin on the flat roof, its form blatantly derived from Tatlin’s projected Monument to the Third International, a model of which had been shown at the Paris Exhibition of 1925. Strip windows run the length of each floor, with an intricate system of five different types of shutter, some of them opening and sliding on rails, eliding the distinction between inside and outside. A staircase descends from the upper terrace to a sunken concrete solarium with built-in recliner, Gray having toyed with and rejected the idea of a pool.
The influence of Le Corbusier on the house is obvious, but Gray was already at odds with his notion of a ‘machine for living’. Certainly the house accords with his Five Points for a New Architecture, published the year Gray began work: the pilotis, the flat roof reached by a staircase, an open plan achieved with fixed and free-standing walls, the horizontal windows opening up the façade to the south. Gray, however, disapproved of what she viewed as the excessive rationality of the new architecture. That much is a cliché among interpreters of her work; how she overcame it is another matter. As with Le Corbusier’s own conception of the modern house, it is largely a question of the way she imagined a body moving in space: she rejected his promenade architecturale for a more private and circuitous procession. Even in the smallest dwelling, she wrote, ‘each person must feel alone, completely alone. The civilised man needs coherent form. He knows the modesty of certain acts; he needs to isolate himself.’
There are clues in the Pompidou show to the way she imagined that isolation, mostly in her remarkable attention to every turn and gesture to be enacted by the dweller of E.1027. In the absence of the space itself – there are plans and models, and a film showing the house in a dilapidated state – it’s the furniture that brings us closest to it. The exhibition reconstructs Gray’s living-room from photographs and uses original or related fittings: the blueprint carpet, the Bibendum chair, the Transat armchair based on transatlantic liner furniture though it looks more like a fragment of one of the early aircraft she loved. Some of the fittings hint at what E.1027 was like to live in: the glass and tubular steel adjustable table, named for the house itself, that she conceived so that her sister could breakfast in bed; a dressing table that is little more than a sketch in chromed steel with wooden drawers hovering to one side; a slanted writing table whose centre rises to become a lectern. Gray designed E.1027 for a youngish man of sociable habits, but looked at closely it seems best suited to a middle-aged woman whose priorities were solitude and work.
She didn’t, by all accounts, spend much time alone there. Badovici was a heavy drinker and a womaniser: factors that may have had less to do with their eventual split than his more general need for company and the intrusion into their life together of the architect they both revered. Le Corbusier had admired Gray’s unrealised projects, and now became a regular visitor to E.1027, which he coveted with a professional regard that verged on personal spite. Things reached an irreversible pass after Gray moved out of the house in the mid-1930s. Le Corbusier developed a passion for wall painting and in 1938 persuaded Badovici to let him paint eight large colourful frescoes on the pristine interior walls; there are photographs of him sprawled on the daybed in the living-room, looking very pleased with himself and his murals. Neither man thought to consult Gray, who was furious and felt that Le Corbusier had vandalised a building which he professed to love.
The love didn’t end there. In 1950 Le Corbusier built a cabanon, supposedly for his wife Yvonne, near the entrance to Gray’s house, and after Badovici’s death in 1956 added five studios raised on pilotis directly behind it. When the house came to auction in 1960 he arranged for his friend Marie-Louise Schelbert to buy it (Aristotle Onassis was one of the bidders). He died while swimming in sight of it, in August 1965. At least he kept Schelbert from making a bonfire of the furniture, but Gray got none of it back. Schelbert died in 1982, leaving the house to her doctor, Peter Kägi, who sold the remaining furniture, now somewhat decayed, at Sotheby’s, and was murdered in the house by his gardener in 1996. After that squatters moved in. In 1999 E.1027 was finally bought by the French government; it is still being restored.
Gray, meanwhile, was forgotten then rediscovered, and died at the age of 98 in 1976. E.1027, if it was mentioned in the architectural literature, was often said to have been designed by Badovici, sometimes by Le Corbusier, and on at least one occasion by the French modernist Jean Prouvé. Gray designed other houses, first Tempe à Pailla at Castellar, overlooking the Mediterranean. Built for herself, it was completed in 1935 and again filled with her signature pieces as well as metal-framed outdoor furniture including an S-shaped folding chair, this time explicitly based on lightweight aircraft design. The house was thoroughly vandalised by German troops during the war, and she sold it to the painter Graham Sutherland in 1955. There was one more house, Lou Pérou: a renovation, undertaken when she was in her mid-seventies, of an old stone building near Saint-Tropez she had bought in 1939. There were also numerous designs for postwar housing and civic or leisure centres, all of them unbuilt.
She hung on at Saint-Tropez until isolation and Parkinson’s got the better of her and then retired for good to the rue Bonaparte, where scholars and collectors later discovered her, polite but brittle, and surprised that things she had made fifty and sixty years before were being sold at auction for astonishing sums. But some part of her had been waiting for her close-up. She had maintained in her Paris apartment a sedulous fidelity to her own work and the design ethos she had elaborated. The screens, the chairs, the steel and glass writing table, her thrilling design for an aluminium twin socket, her bedroom brightly mirrored and flung with furs – all of it was still there, with a portfolio to prove it was all hers.