Eileen Gray: The modernist designer you’ve never heard of

Irish-born and Paris-ensconced, Gray created iconic furnishings and homes that are now sought by the likes of Yves Saint Laurent.

Courtesy of Thames & Hudson
“Eileen Gray: Her Life and Work” by Peter Adam, Thames & Hudson, 328 pp.

Modernist architect and designer Eileen Gray has long been an overlooked figure, despite high-profile commissions in the early part of the 20th century. Gender stereotypes and her own solitary nature contributed to a lack of knowledge about her work. 

Biographer Peter Adam, who first published “Eileen Gray: Architect/Designer” in 1987, aimed to correct that oversight. Now the book, which is the go-to source on her life, has been considerably updated and reissued as “Eileen Gray: Her Life and Work.”

Since the first edition was published, Gray’s designs have garnered more attention. Her “Dragons” armchair, which features clawlike, lacquered armrests, and whose owners have included the fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent, sold for $28 million in 2009. The chair, completed in 1919, set a record price for a piece of 20th-century furniture. 

In the book, Adam expounds on Gray with the tenacity of a scholar and the intimacy of a friend. Indeed, the author, who was in contact with Gray from the 1960s until her death in 1976, offers insights that only a close acquaintance could. “She felt deeply the spirit of things and objects, reflecting and perfecting them until a chair or a table became the friend of man,” Adam writes, adding that he drew to a large extent on his conversations with her, as well as her correspondence. He also excels in illuminating her sensibility. “She believed that art alone is capable of giving us access to the richness of the world in all its most complex dimensions.” 

Gray was born in Ireland in 1878. Although she benefited from the high social status of her well-off Anglo-Irish family, she received an “at best sporadic” education and was reared by “a flow of governesses,” Adam writes. Gray eventually charted her own course, declining to marry and instead enrolling in top art schools, including the Académie Julian in Paris, the city she adopted as her base of operation in 1907.  

A pivotal shift occurred when Gray switched from drawing to making works in lacquer. “[H]er instinct was telling her that she needed to try her hand at something more practical, more useful,” Adam writes. Rugs were added to the artist’s growing three-dimensional repertoire – “The tangled wools recall the mane of some captive beast,” a critic in L’Amour de l’Art wrote of her carpets – as was furniture. Adam describes a table made for collector Jacques Doucet: “on the feet were figures of warriors on horse-drawn chariots, and vases, all inspired by Greek motifs.” 

Yet the designs, whether for furniture or interiors, that best exemplify Gray’s vision were simultaneously stylish and workaday. “She had always liked the notion of a bedroom-cum-living room: a room to rest in, to sleep in, but also a place where one could write a letter or read a book,” Adam writes, referring to the space Gray designed for the XIV Salon des Artistes Décorateurs.

Gray’s ambitions came to encompass architecture, and here, too, functionality reigned. Her plans included lines indicating traffic patterns of residents and servants. For her much-admired modernist house E.1027, Gray sought to achieve privacy in its succession of small but unconfining rooms, saying, “Even in the smallest house each person must feel alone.” At the same time, she never wasted space: The noted E.1027 table was the ideal bedside stand thanks to its adjustable height. “The tea trolley was cork-covered, so as not to wake the sleeper with any clinking,” Adam writes.

Similarly, it is Adam’s personal touch that gives this book its distinction. Beautifully produced with full-color illustrations of Gray’s chairs, tables, and lamps, this book will leave readers sharing its author’s admiration for his subject.

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