Daily Features

Eileen Gray Turns 135

Celebrating the Emily Dickinson of design

By Stephanie Salomon, Designers & Books January 3, 2014

The distinctive yet hard-to-pin-down designer of furniture, interiors, and architecture Eileen Gray (1878–1976) was born 135 years ago this past August 9. In a week of looking back to 2013’s highlights at the intersection of design and books, we note two new books and some facts about Gray.

Norman Weinstein, who earlier this year reviewed a new addition to Gray’s bibliography as a Notable Design Book of 2013, observes, “Consider Gray the Emily Dickinson of design: reclusive, simultaneously ancient, modern, and timeless, a relentless questioner of conventional aesthetic wisdom, and a loner beyond simple categorization.”

Eileen Gray, Serpent or Dragon Chair, circa 1920–22, leather and lacquered wood with silver leaf. Photo: Christie’s, London. From Eileen Gray: Objects and Furniture Design, introduction by Carmen Espegal; Sandra Dachs, ed. (2013, Ediciones Poligrafa). The chair sold for $28 million at auction in 2009, setting a record for 20th-century furniture.

The Irish-born Gray studied art in London before settling in Paris in 1907 where she produced lacquered screens and interior furnishings, beginning a seven-decade career of now highly sought-after work that she described as “suited to our existence, in proportion to our rooms and in accordance with our aspirations and feelings.” Her designs—some widely reproduced—encompass lamps, mirrors, tables, and chairs (including one called the “Non-Conformist Chair”).

Eileen Gray, “Satellite” hanging lamp, 1919, cream-painted aluminum. Photo: Eileen Gray Archives. From Eileen Gray: Objects and Furniture Design, introduction by Carmen Espegal; Sandra Dachs, ed. (2013, Ediciones Poligrafa)

Venturing into architecture (self-taught) in 1926, Gray is known for the modernist vacation villa she designed and constructed at Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, on the French Mediterranean, in 1927–29 with her lover at the time, architect and magazine editor Jean Badovici. Gray named the house E. 1027 (“E” for "Eileen,” with the numbers “10” and “2” standing for “J” and “B”—Badovici’s initials—and 7 for “G,” indicating “Gray,” according to the positions of the letters in the alphabet) and furnished it with her own work, including the iconic E1027 Adjustable Table. The house, which went on to have something of a lurid history (Gray later broke up with Badovici and moved out of the house), fell into disrepair, and is currently undergoing a laborious and fraught restoration process. The villa also famously features murals added in the 1930s by Le Corbusier—who was admired by Badovici and was an admirer of Gray (according to some he was even envious of her)—reportedly much to Gray’s dismay.


Eileen Gray, E1027 Adjustable Table, 1927, chromed tubular steel and glass. The table, whose height can be adjusted, was featured in the house Gray designed in southern France with Jean Badovici, called E. 1027, and is her most frequently reproduced design. The reproduction pictured here is from Design Within Reach, licensed for production by Aram Designs Ltd.

An Irish-Belgian feature film, titled The Price of Desire, which explores the relationship of Gray, Badovici, Le Corbusier, and Marisa Damia—another lover of Gray—is slated for release in early 2014.

The Books

Eileen Gray: Objects and Furniture Design Carmen Espegel
Sandra Dachs
Eileen Gray Cloé Pitiot
Eileen Gray Caroline Constant
Eileen Gray Peter Adam

The film, starring Swiss actor Vincent Perez, Irish actress Orla Brady, and Canadian-American singer-songwriter Alanis Morissette, is described as telling “the controversial story of how Le Corbusier effaced and defaced Eileen Gray’s moral right to be recognised as the author of her work and as one of the most forceful and influential inspirations of a century of modern architecture and design.”

The year 2013 included a retrospective exhibition of Gray’s work on view in spring 2013 at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, and an accompanying catalogue edited by exhibition curator Cloé Pitiot. (The exhibition is currently on view at the Irish Museum of Modern Art through January 19, 2014.) Also released in 2013, by Poligrafa, was a survey of Gray’s object and furniture designs, introduced by architect Carmen Espegel who has written extensively about Gray. Two other publications on Gray appear on Designers & Books, including a standard among the many books written on the designer, Caroline Constant’s monograph, published by Phaidon. A study by filmmaker Peter Adam, who was a longtime friend of Eileen Gray, appears on the Designers & Books book list contributed by architect Jeanne Gang.

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