Eileen Grey - an aristocrat who not only made a name for herself in the androcentric world of modernism but also inspired her male contemporaries with her creative capacity.

Can a designer both define and deny modernism throughout her career? Everything is possible if that person is Eileen Gray. Gray was born in Ireland in 1878 into a wealthy, aristocratic family. She got a degree in painting at the Slade School of Fine Art, which remains one of the best art schools in Britain. Gray is also one of the first female students to be admitted to the school. After completing her degree, she settled in Paris in 1902 and started working in the lacquering workshop of a Japanese master. Hand-lacquered furniture was key in the decorative concept of the Art Deco style in the times. Gray fused Far Eastern influences from her Japanese master with her formal training in painting and her unique design style to create spectacularly crafted elegant designs. It was not long before Gray’s work came to the attention of the Parisian aristocracy, bringing a breath of fresh air to the decorative arts scene in Paris, where female artists had traditionally been ousted. This was also a period where she started laying the foundations for the next stage of her career. Gray opened a showroom called Galerie Jean Désert with her then-partner, architect and architecture critic Jean Badovici. Galerie Jean Désert became a place to exhibit her lacquer work and take on decoration projects. Decorating famous fashion designer Suzanne Talbot’s house became a milestone in her career. The Talbot House was a textbook example of the French Art Deco style, combining animal hides and exotic patterns. But there was a fundamental problem – Eileen Gray did not feel close to the Art Deco style. For the construction of Bibendum Chair, one of the products she designed for the Talbot House, she used tubular metal legs and a curved body. The Bibendum Chair is possibly one of the earliest uses of the metal pipe, which is the essence of the mid-century modern style that was unheard of at the time. Her next decoration project was a flat on Rue de Lota. Gray developed a fascination for the architecture of the building and ultimately shifted her focus from lacquering to architecture. Despite having no formal training on this subject, she spent most of her time on architectural drawings, and with Jean Badovici’s encouragement, a new era began for Gray.

Gray’s instinctive architecture
Eileen Gray’s first architecture project, the house in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, made even iconic modernist architects jealous. Because Eileen Gray’s magic in the E1027 house was concealed in designing a space that will serve its actual inhabitants. While the designers who embraced modernism that emerged right after WWI sought an answer to the post-war era’s interest in hygiene and simplicity, Gray incorporated the human factor into the equation. Designing the architecture of the house and all the furniture inside it with the understanding that ‘form follows function’. The furniture in Gray’s E1027 house is just as iconic now as they were then. Ahead of her time, Eileen Gray introduced the concept of ‘user experience’ to her metal and glass designs but even this did not gain her respect in the world of design dominated by men. At the end of her career, this pioneering unique woman chose a life in isolation. Up until she was discovered again! In 1972, as Gray turned 94, art historian Joseph Rykwert wrote an article about her creativity and innovative perspective. The world got to remember Gray thanks to this article after which she received perhaps the most memorable proposal of her life a year later. When a furniture company got in touch with her to reproduce her designs, Gray asked ‘Do you really think they’re worth reproducing?’ The answer was a firm ‘yes’ and production commenced. Though considerably late, Eileen Gray received the respect she deserved in her final years before passing away in 1976 at the age of 98. We salute this humble giant whose fame increased exponentially by biopics, countless exhibitions and biographical boks after her death. The queen bee of modernism, you still possess the power of inspiring women (and men!) around the world with your designs and humility. We are so glad you passed by this mess we call earth!

“The future projects light, the past only clouds.” Eileen Gray