Celebrating a Seminal Modern Designer

A review by Michael Webb

Eileen Gray cover high resWhen she died in 1976, at age 98, Eileen Gray was just beginning to emerge from decades of obscurity, thanks to a few belated articles and exhibitions. Now she is in danger of becoming a celebrity. A new movie, The Price of Desire, dramatizes the clash of her vision with that of Le Corbusier, and there’s also last year’s documentary, Gray Matters. Now comes a penetrating new biography by Jennifer Gross, curator of decorative arts and the Eileen Gray Collection at the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin. Much of the story has been told by Peter Adam in the biography he revised in 2000. But Adam was paying tribute to an old friend, while Gross has a scholarly perspective and draws on a trove of correspondence, sketches, architectural drawings, and artifacts.

Gray emerges from this study as a visionary who could have been one of the dominant design figures of the 20th century. As a frail and half-blind recluse in her Parisian apartment, she was creative to the end, a perfectionist who remained fiercely independent. But few took her seriously; even in the avant-garde of the interwar years, women had to struggle to win respect. When Charlotte Perriand applied for a job at Le Corbusier’s studio she was told, “Miss, we don’t stitch cushions here.” She responded by inviting the master to her studio and convinced him he needed her, as indeed he did. It’s to her we owe the classic furniture Corbu took credit for. Gray’s upbringing in an aristocratic Anglo-Irish family gave her tremendous self-confidence but did not equip her to be a fighter.

Gross reveals Gray’s brilliance as a self-taught architect, who was able to realize only three houses for herself. The first, E. 1027 in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin on the French Riviera, has been partially restored and opened for tours in May. Its originality and inventiveness deepens the sense of loss; so many ambitious schemes remained on paper. As a furniture designer she achieved marvels. Her luxurious one-offs have become covetable treasures (Yves Saint Laurent’s Dragon chair sold at auction for $28 million) and her iconoclastic prototypes, such as the Bibendum and Transat chairs, have been put into limited production by Zeev Aram in London. Gross brings the designer to life, as a shy yet passionate creative artist, analyzing her major projects in fascinating detail. For anyone who cares about the history of modern architecture and design, this is an indispensable study.

Eileen Gray: Her Work and Her World; Jennifer Gross, Irish Academic Press; distributed in the US by ISBS. $59.95

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