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.
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.