Eileen Gray: Pioneer of Design, by Joseph Rykwert, Architectural Review, December 1972

Vía Architectural Review

Joseph Rykwert introduces the work of Eileen Grey in this piece from December 1972, prior to the opening of an exhibition of her work at the Heinz Gallery

Eileen Gray was born in Ireland (Enniscorthy, Co Wexford) in 1879. She spent her childhood in London, and went as a student to the Slade in 1898 or thereabouts. Her father was a painter, so that the idea of painting and of drawing came quite naturally. Towards the end of her days at the Slade, she came by chance on the sign for a lacquer workshop in Dean Street:

‘I went upstairs and I saw that they were making things in lacquer. They were using both Chinese and European lacquer. I asked the owner if I could work there and he said: “Yes, of course. you can start on Monday.” Just like that! I found it very interesting. and the foreman was very kind. I went on seeing them and corresponding with them for many years.’

While at the Slade. she also went to Paris ‘for a few days with some friends’. But she found it very congenial and returned often. After the Slade, she worked a great deal drawing, mostly at Colorossi’s in the Grande Chaumiere; she also found a studio in the rue Joseph Barras, but continued travelling between Paris and London.

She had already taken her first balloon trips and was very thrilied by the first air Channel crossings. In fact she was of the party which accompanied Latham on his cross-Channel flight in 1909. She continued to be interested in flying; in the early ’20s she flew on the first airmail service in America, from New Mexico to Acapulco.

In 1907 she found a flat in the rue Bonaparte where she still lives. Dissatisfied with her drawings, she began to make furniture. ‘Frankly, drawings were no use. I wanted to do something useful. So I started with relief screens and panels…’

There was a workshop around the corner, in the rue Visconti, and opposite in the rue Bonaparte. She worked mostly with a Japanese craftsman, Sugawara. He was the most experienced lacquer technician in Paris at the time. Eileen Gray went on working with him, and with a staff of French assistants they trained, for many years. This remained the pattern of her work: she would find craftsmen with whom she could reach an understanding and would develop methods of design in conjunction with them over several years; joiners, masons, upholsterers worked with her usually over decades.

During the war work was interrupted. Eileen Gray became an ambulance driver for the French army in Paris. But soon she found there was a surplus of ambulance drivers, and she returned to making lacquer, first in Paris and later in London. But she already had a clientele and an establishment in Paris. Soon after the war, Eileen Gray opened a gallery exhibiting furniture, lacquer, carpets and some paintings and sculptures opposite the Salle Pleyel in the rue du Faubourg St Honore. It was uneconomic for her to produce one-off pieces, and the gallery was from the outset intended as an outlet for multiples of certain designs.

This had its disadvantages, since ‘decorators’ would sometimes produce whole interior schemes using her pieces without acknowledgment. But much of the early work was highly individual, particularly the lacquer screens. The earliest ones were in fact figurative reliefs of great complexity, using metal inlays on lacquer which required extremely elaborate working. Although she was at first influenced by the linear qualities of Beardsley, she was working away from figuration to more abstract and more generalised forms.

This tendency is clearly apparent in her most important individual early commission, the flat which was published in Wendingen in 1924. For this flat she already had made a number of carpets, and carpets in fact became the most successful products of the gallery which sold to a Parisian and American clientele. The carpets were made in conjunction with Evelyn Wylde, and were very remarkable at the time for using natural wool from the south of France and vegetable dyes.

There were one or two works by artists exhibited at the gallery. Ossip Zadkine (who at that time was not exhibiting anywhere else) was perhaps the most prominent. But her Parisian contacts were as much with the world of fashion as with the artists. Paul Poiret was a visitor, though Jacques Doucet was much more assiduous in his visits and bought from the gallery as well as directly from the workshop, even if - as Eileen Gray says - ‘he liked things which were too elaborately ornamented’ for the way her taste was developing.

She had met the architects connected with Wendingen at the exhibition of the Artistes-Decorateurs in 1922 and maintained a contact with Wils, Oud and Ravensteyn. It was at this time too that she met the Greek critic, Christian Zervos, and the Rumanian architect Jean Badovici, who through their publications Cahiers d’Art and L’Architecture Vivante became the most influential publicists of modern art and architecture in Paris during the ’20s and early ’30s.

Badovici urged Eileen Gray to turn her attention to building: ‘Badovici said: “It’s so silly, all this trouble with furniture, and what’s furniture, after all. It’s so trivial. Why don’t you do some architecture?” I said: “It’s perfectly absurd. I haven’t had any training.” But suddenly I decided I would start working at it myself… I went down to the Midi alone and really worked very hard. I made a lot of drawings: facades, plans. Then Badovici came to join me, and we started the house.’

Eileen Gray bought two sites on which houses were built. Both were awkward sites and required her to use local labour. Elaborate models and full-size drawings for every detaiI were essential. Since this was a high point for L’Architecture Vivante, Badovici had little time to spare for the problems of the house at Roquebrune. In any case, the second house at Castellar was designed and built by Eileen Gray herself. In fact the Roquebrune house was to have an important, if anecdotal, part in the history of architecture. The adjoining site was occupied, across a hedge, by the bistro of Monsieur Rebutato who let off a small piece of ground to Le Corbusier; it was on this small piece of ground that Corbusier built the hut to which he so often retired and from which he was to take his fatal swim.

Moreover, Badovici occupied the house during the second world war and it was at this time that it was extensively and elaborately painted by Le Corbusier. But he did not regard it as a neutral background to his figurative exercises. There is reason to believe that he kept a copy of Maison en bard de mer in his study at the rue de Sevres, and always regarded the house as an exemplary building.

For Badovici, too, she designed a small flat (40m2) which was to serve both as his office and as a home in 1930-31. It was a quite extraordinary economic use of space for the time, almost in the spirit of the minimum dwelling. The furniture she was now using was very different from her early products which were sold through the gallery. There was much less emphasis on noble materials, on highly figured woods, lacquer, bone or metal inlays. The furniture was of leather and metal tube, usually chrome; the screens quite often of transparent celluloid or metal mesh.

Meanwhile, Eileen Gray’s interests enlarged. While she was supervising the house at Castellar, she began work on a number of larger buildings, none of which were executed. But she exhibited sporadically both furniture and projects. Furniture at the exhibition of decorative arts in 1925, for instance; a very large project for a centre de loisirs was a part of Le Corbusier’s Pavilion des Temps Nouveau at the Paris World Exhibition in 1937.

With the arrival of the second world war, Eileen Gray moved down to her house at Castellar and left her designs and the unsold furniture and carpets in Paris. These last were unfortunately looted; and if they have not been destroyed, may yet turn up somewhere in Germany. The house at Castellar was also looted after Eileen Gray had been interned as an enemy alien in a village 200 miles away, so that in 1945 she was left with very little material evidence of her activity. She had always been a rather isolated figure. In the early ’20s, when the ‘modern art world’ was fairly close, she often avoided meetings which might have proved fruitful because of her dislike of publicity.

One such meeting was with Apollinaire. Knowing how mercurial the corpulent poet was, it is interesting to speculate what she might have suggested to him, and how those awful last pages on Cubist decoration in La Peinture Cubiste might have turned out as a result. She was, and has remained, a very shy person; but in any case, the Parisian reception of her work was not very friendly. She quotes reviews which spoke of her work as being ‘inquietant’. In the event her closer contacts in the design world were with the Dutch. She did meet Gropius and two or three of her things appeared in Moderne Bauformen. But some Parisian designers very much appreciated her work. Le Corbusier had been a steady if intermittent friend, Mallet-Stevens wanted her to work for him, and Bijvoegt befriended her in his Paris years.

But it was her choice to work alone and to concentrate on the quality of individual objects and on the remarkable refinement of detail. Her isolation has increased since the war. Her only executed project is an interior for her own occupation at St Tropez, but she has continued working on a number of ideas and is currently engaged on designing metal and plastic screens. She is even meditating on some pieces of furniture using plastic tube frames. Her interest in technique as well as in the changes of design has remained constant and she finds it tedious to reminisce. The curiosity of the young about her early doings seems extravagant, unwarranted, when so much is going on now to fascinate.

And yet the young will continue to be curious because however you estimate the scale of her achievement it is unique. Not only for the inventiveness and the high quality of the individual objects, but also because of that extraordinary fusion of formal invention with craftsman skill which required, at the time when she achieved it a visionary intuition about the possible grafting of invention on manual skiII which only achieved a fully articulated and explicit expression in the work of the early Bauhaus masters.

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