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Gray, Eileen - Biography

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Eileen Gray was born on 9 August 1878 into an aristocratic family near Enniscorthy, a market town in south-eastern Ireland. Gray was the youngest of five children. Gray’s father was a painter who encouraged his daughter's artistic interests. He took his daughter on painting tours of Italy and Switzerland which encouraged her independent spirit.

In 1898, Gray attended classes at the Slade School of Fine Art, where she studied painting. In 1900 her father died and she went on her first visit to Paris with her mother where she saw the Exposition Universelle. The main style at the fair was Art Nouveau and Gray was a fan of the work of Charles Rennie Mackintosh which was on exhibit. Soon after, Gray moved to Paris, but in 1905, due to her mother's illness, she settled back in London. She rejoined the Slade but found her drawing and painting courses were becoming less satisfying.

Gray came across a lacquer repair shop in Soho where she asked the shop owner whether he could show her the fundamentals of lacquer work, as it had taken her fancy. The owner had many contacts from the lacquer industry and when Gray moved back to Paris in 1906 to an apartment (21 rue Bonaparte, Quartier Saint-Germain) where she remained for much of her working life, she met one of them: Seizo Sugawara (or Sugawara-san). He originated from an area of Japan that was known for its decorative lacquer work and had emigrated to Paris to repair the lacquer work exhibited in the Exposition Universelle. She found after working with Sugawara for four years that she had developed the lacquer disease on her hands, but she persisted in her work and it was not until she was thirty-five that she exhibited any. When she did, however, it was a success. Around 1910 Eileen Gray started making lacquered folding screens. In 1913 she first showed work at the Salon des Artistes Décorateurs, where she attracted the notice of the couturier and art collector Jacques Doucet, who became Eileen Gray's first major client.

 

 

In 1914, when World War I broke out, Gray moved back to London, taking Sugawara with her. At the end of the war, they returned to Paris and Gray was given the job of decorating the Mme Mathieu Levy apartment in the rue de Lota in 1919. She designed most of its furniture, carpets and lamps, and installed lacquered panels on the walls. The result was favorably reviewed by several art critics who saw it as innovative. Given a boost from the success of the apartment, Gray opened up a small shop in Paris to exhibit and sell her work and that of her artist friends.

In the 1920s, Eileen Gray came into contact with the Dutch avant-garde group De Stijl and their abstract geometric works. At the same time, she was made acquainted with contemporary modern architecture through the French architect Jean Badovici. In 1924 Gray and Badovici began work on the house E-1027 in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin in southern France (near Monaco). The codename stands for the names of the couple: E for Eileen, 10 for Jean (J is the tenth letter of the alphabet), 2 for Badovici and 7 for Gray. Rectilinear and flat-roofed with floor-to-ceiling and ribbon windows and a spiral stairway descending to a guest room, E-1027 was both compact and open. Gray designed the furniture as well as collaborating with Badovici on its structure. Her circular glass E-1027 table and rotund Bibendum armchair were inspired by the recent tubular steel experiments of Marcel Breuer at the Bauhaus (who had been inspired, in turn, by Mart Stam). Le Corbusier was quite impressed by the house, and built a summer house nearby. Le Corbusier left his mark on the building in the form of several colourful wall murals. Gray vehemently disapproved of the murals, created at Badovici's behest, as they destroyed the integrity of the wall planes. When Le Corbusier died in 1965 he was swimming in the sea directly in front of E-1027.

(The house has been in poor repair for years, but plans for its renovation are being prepared by the French government, who have designated it a French National Cultural Monument.) 

In 1930-31 Eileen Gray designed the furniture for Jean Badovici's flat.

In 1934 their house, "Tempe e Pailla", was built in Castellar.

In 1937, she agreed to exhibit her design for a holiday center in Le Corbusier's Esprit Nouveau pavilion at the Paris Exposition.

During World War II Gray, along with all other foreigners, was forced to evacuate the coast of France and move inland. After the war discovered that her flat in Saint-Tropez had been blown up and that E1027 had been looted.

Gray returned to Paris and led a reclusive life. She continued to work on new projects, but was almost forgotten by the design industry. When she was around seventy, she started to lose her sight and hearing, yet when she was eighty, she transformed a dilapidated agricultural shed outside Saint-Tropez into a summer home; she soon moved there and continued to work. Shortly before her death, Gray’s work was shown in an exhibition in London. At the age of ninety-eight, Gray died in her apartment on rue Bonaparte in Paris.

In 1968, a complimentary magazine article drew attention to her accomplishments, and Gray agreed to production of her Bibendum chair and E-1027 table as well as numerous other pieces with Zeev Aram. They were soon to become modern furniture classics. Following the purchase of her archive in 2002, the National Museum of Ireland[2] at Collins Barracks, Dublin opened a permanent exhibition of her work. On 8 November 1972, the Doucet sale added to the interest which continues to this day in the 'antiques' of the twentieth century. Gray's 'Le Destin' screen was featured in the sale and went for $36,000. Collectors entered the chase, and Yves Saint Laurent's interest completed the mythification of her image. 

 
 
 
In February 2009, a "Dragons" armchair made by Gray between 1917-1919 (acquired by her early patron Suzanne Talbot and later part of the Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé collection) was sold at auction in Paris for 21.9 million euros (US$28.3 million), setting an auction record for 20th century decorative art.
 
 
 










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