Gray matters

Jennifer Goff

Jennifer Goff Exhibitions, Furniture & Decorative Arts

Recent films, exhibitions, and books re-establish Eileen Gray’s reputation and start to set the record straight

Fig. 2. Gray with peacock feathers in a photograph of 1903. National Museum of Ireland, Dublin; except as noted, images are © NMI.

History was made at the Grand Palais in Paris on February 24, 2009, when lot 276 in Christie’s sale of the collection of Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé was hammered down. In the midst of an economic recession, Eileen Gray’s Dragons armchair (Fig. 3) had sold for € 21.9 million (more than $28 million), the highest price ever paid at auction for twentieth-century decorative art. It was bought for a private collection through the specialist Paris gallery of Cheska and Robert Vallois, fitting, indeed, since Cheska Vallois had sold the chair to Yves Saint Laurent in the early 1970s. When asked why the chair reached this astonishing price, she replied simply that it was the “price of desire.”

Since then, the desire to know more about Gray has soared—exhibitions, books, movies, and more are providing a better understanding of this enigmatic and elusive Irish-born designer, architect, photographer, and artist, revealing her to have been one of the most important figures in twentieth-century modernism. In the fall of 2016 the Bard Graduate Center in New York, in association with the Pompidou Center in Paris, will mount a comprehensive exhibition about Gray, encompassing all that recent and current investigations are unearthing. Here is a brief look at some of these, starting with the Dragons armchair.

Exemplifying Gray’s early lacquer work, the subtly sculpted and magically crafted Dragons chair was created between 1917 and 1919 as part of her design for the rue de Lota apartment of Juliette Mathieu-Lévy, the first patron to provide Gray with an opportunity to create a complete environment. The intertwining dragons that form the frame and armrests are lacquered in rustic orange and brown, their eyes in black lacquer on a white ground. The original upholstery was a pale salmon color, suiting Gray’s overall aesthetic for the apartment, with walls covered in sumptuous chocolate-colored lacquer with sweeping geometrical lines in gold and silver leaf. Lévy was the owner of the fashion house and millinery shop started by Jeanne Tachard, called Suzanne Talbot, a celebrated designer known for her hats and stylish clothing for the Paris elite. The chair, along with the other exotic pieces of furniture created for the apartment, notably the Pirogue sofa bed—a canoe-shaped daybed with gold cushions—and a textured buffet, or enfilade, reflected Gray’s interest in Asian and African art, presaging a taste that became fashionable in the 1920s. In 1931 Lévy turned again to Gray to design an apartment, this one on the boulevard Suchet.

Both interiors stood out radically from those of other decorators of the time in being architectural, not just luxurious; Gray created screens that functioned as moveable walls and concealed earlier architectural details and moldings with panels in different mediums. The hall of the rue de Lota apartment, for instance, was sheathed in 450 lacquer blocks decorated with Japanese powders in matte gold, gray, and silver, while in the salon of the boulevard Suchet apartment she innovatively covered the walls in silvered glass.

Fig. 6. The salon in the apartment Gray designed for Juliette Mathieu-Lévy (1879–1969) on the rue de Lota in Paris, 1918–1922, including the Pirogue sofa bed. National Museum of Ireland.

In early 2013 the Pompidou Center held the first ever retrospective exhibition of Gray’s work in France, her adopted home from the early 1900s until her death in 1976. Curated by the visionary Gray scholar Cloé Pitiot, it embraced every aspect of the designer’s life and work, and brought to light little-known pieces from private collections and public institutions, such as the Charioteer table, which she created for fashion designer Jacques Doucet (Fig.10); and original furniture from the “Bedroom boudoir for Monte-Carlo” that she designed for the Fourteenth Salon des Artistes Décorateurs in 1923 (see Fig. 5). Gray’s novel use of different mediums and the various artistic movements that inspired her were revealed in such pieces as the rare sycamore De Stijl-influenced Architectural cabinet with sliding and pivoting drawers. Iconic pieces from Gray’s architectural masterpiece in the south of France, E.1027, built for her lover at the time, the Romanian architect Jean Badovici, included an original Bibendum chair (Fig. 4). In addition, the exhibition examined Gray as an artist—with rare gouaches for carpets as well as other artworks and collages (see Fig. 8) produced in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s—and as a photographer, revealing her concentration on form, light, and shade.

In October 2014 Gray Matters, Marco Orsini’s documentary film premiered at the New York Architecture and Design Film Festival. A revisionary documentary, it addresses the many myths surrounding Gray through interviews with those who knew her and those who have dedicated themselves to understanding her life’s work. It reveals new research surrounding E.1027 and focuses on Gray’s conflicted relationship with Badovici and with the enfant terrible of modern architecture, Le Corbusier, whom she both admired and despised.

Fig. 11. The living room at E.1027 in a photograph of 1929–1930 with a Bibendum and Transat chair designed for the room. National Museum of Ireland.

This eye-opening story is also the subject of The Price of Desire, a new feature-length film directed by Mary McGuckian and starring Orla Brady as Gray (and Alanis Morrissette as Marisa Damia, one of her lovers), which launched the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival earlier this year. Gray designed E.1027, its furnishings, and garden for Badovici (E stood for Eileen; 10 for the tenth letter of the alphabet, J for Jean; 2 for the second letter of the alphabet, B for Badovici; and 7 for the seventh letter of the alphabet, G for Gray). The design was playful, subtle, and carefully attuned to the sun and wind, but Badovici never really understood the purity and simplicity of Gray’s design. Long after the two parted ways, he invited Le Corbusier to visit and commissioned him to paint a series of murals in the house. While Gray had initially been influenced by Le Corbusier’s planar style of modernism, she had developed her own style at E.1027, integrating architecture and furniture and believing that architecture must be its own decoration. Not surprisingly, she found the murals, executed in bright, bold colors, some charged with sexual imagery, an act of vandalism and a desecration of her original vision as well as a callous display of disrespect for another artist’s work.

This May, after years of neglect and controversy, E.1027 opens to the public, largely restored (the murals remain) and with further restoration due toward the end of the year. The contents were sold at Sotheby’s Monaco in October 1991, dispersed to a wide variety of private and public collections, including the Vitra Design Museum in Germany and the Pompidou Center.

Fig. 12. The guest bedroom at E.1027 in a hand-colored photograph in Gray’s copy of L’Architecture Vivante, Winter 1929. National Museum of Ireland.

Other sales in the years since the Yves Saint Laurent-Pierre Bergé auction have brought to light additional little-known pieces by Gray, including an original white block screen from the Monte Carlo room; Gray’s own original black lacquer block screen, 1920s; Transat chairs made for Badovici, 1925, and the maharaja of Indore (Fig. 9); the Aéroplane ceiling light of circa 1925–1928; and a unique red lacquer block screen produced in 1972, four years before Gray’s death at ninety-eight (Fig. 10).

In 2000 the National Museum of Ireland acquired a significant collection from the artist’s niece Prunella Clough and Gray’s biographer Peter Adam. Accessioned between 2000 and 2008, the 1,835 objects embrace the many disciplines that interested Gray and represent a veritable anthology of her varied career. It is fully covered in the recent book Eileen Gray: Her Work and Her World, which offers both new clues to her inspirations and new insight into her early years as an artist and designer. The book explores Gray’s friendships—both professional and personal—with artists, writers, philosophers, and architects and reveals how elements from their catalogues, manifestos, and other publications, which she collected avidly, are reflected in coded references in her work.

Fig. 13. Gray in her rue Bonaparte apartment in a photograph of 1975. National Museum of Ireland.

During her later years Gray attempted, and mostly succeeded in, destroying her personal papers, wanting to be remembered for her designs and her architecture, rather than her personal history. Increasingly, this fascinating woman is being remembered for both. It has become abundantly clear that Gray matters.

JENNIFER GOFF is the curator of the Eileen Gray Collection at the National Museum of Ireland and the author of the recently published Eileen Gray: Her Work and Her World.