Elis­a­beth Rib­bans on de­signer Eileen Gray

Eileen Gray? Noch nie gehört! Damit sind Sie nicht allein. Denn erst gut 40 Jahre nach ihrem Tod er­langt die In­nenar­chitek­tin und De­signerin nun die An­erken­nung, die ihr schon zu Le­bzeiten zuge­s­tanden hätte.

Business Spotlight - - CONTENTS - ELIS­A­BETH RIB­BANS is a British jour­nal­ist and ed­i­to­rial con­sul­tant. She is also a for­mer manag­ing ed­i­tor of The Guardian in Lon­don. Con­tact: erib­[email protected] gmail.com

When a small arm­chair sold at Christie’s in Paris for €22 mil­lion in 2009, it set a record for a piece of 20th-cen­tury fur­ni­ture. If I asked you to name the de­signer of this “drag­ons’ arm­chair” — which had be­longed to Yves Saint Lau­rent and went un­der the ham­mer for more than seven times its pre-auc­tion es­ti­mate — could you tell me? A few weeks ago, I cer­tainly couldn’t have done so. I would have guessed the name was ex­tremely well known: Le Cor­bus­ier, Starck, Eames, per­haps. Had I then been told the same per­son de­signed the iconic Biben­dum chair, styled af­ter the Miche­lin man, I would have sworn his name was on the tip of my tongue. But I’d have been wrong.

The an­swer is Eileen Gray, a de­signer and ar­chi­tect born 140 years ago in Ire­land. Al­though she lived to the mag­nif­i­cent age of 98, pass­ing away in Paris in 1976, she never found in her life­time the true recog­ni­tion of her tal­ent that was granted to (male) con­tem­po­raries such as Le Cor­bus­ier, Frank Lloyd Wright and Wal­ter Gropius.

Thank­fully, Gray is now mak­ing up for lost time. In 2015, The Price of De­sire, a biopic of her life, was re­leased. Mean­while, the Na­tional Mu­seum of Ire­land has built an im­pres­sive per­ma­nent col­lec­tion of her works, and it was there, on a sold-out tour given by her bi­og­ra­pher Jen­nifer Goff, that I “dis­cov­ered” this ma­jor in­flu­ence on 20th-cen­tury de­sign.

Space is too lim­ited to list all Gray’s achieve­ments, but her ex­per­tise ranged from de­tailed lac­quer­work to cre­at­ing a mas­ter­piece mod­ernist house, known as E-1027, in the south of France.

The short ex­pla­na­tion for Gray’s rel­a­tively low pro­file seems to be that she was a wo­man who didn’t quite fit in. Lis­ten­ing to Goff, you also won­der whether jeal­ousy didn’t also play a part. Af­ter a fall­ing-out with Gray, Le Cor­bus­ier went to stay at E-1027 with Gray’s for­mer part­ner and, while there, “im­proved” her great ar­chi­tec­tural ac­com­plish­ment by paint­ing mu­rals on its de­lib­er­ately white walls. The critic Rowan Moore de­scribed this as “an act of naked phal­loc­racy” and cer­tainly it in­fu­ri­ated Gray, who or­dered their re­moval. Le Cor­bus­ier re­fused, and one of those mu­rals — painted on an out­side wall — may have been among the last things he saw, as he drowned in the sea be­low the house some years later. (I love the fact that em­i­nent fans of each ar­chi­tect re­port­edly still quar­rel to­day over whether the E-1027 mu­rals should stay or go.)

Af­ter leav­ing the mu­seum tour, we walked to the Tem­ple Bar district of Dublin, where I saw a bar of­fer­ing a cock­tail called... Eileen Gray. Stel­lar sale prices for your works may not do it, but once you have a drink named af­ter you, I’d like to think that you have al­most cer­tainly be­come a le­gend.

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