Gray was born as Katherine Eileen Moray Smith on 9 August 1878, near Enniscorthy, a market town in south-eastern Ireland. Her father, James McLaren Smith, was a painter who encouraged his daughter's artistic interests. Her mother was Eveleen Pounden, a granddaughter of the 10th Earl of Moray; she became the 19th Baroness Gray in 1895, upon the death of her own mother, née Lady Jane Stuart. After that, Lady Gray, who had separated from her husband in 1888, changed her children's surname to Gray.
Gray had four siblings:
- James McLaren Stuart Gray, 20th Baron Gray (1864–1919)
- Ethel Eveleen Gray, 21st Baroness Gray (1866–1946), married Henry Tufnell Campbell
- Captain Lonsdale Richard Douglas Gray (1870–1900)
- Thora Zelma Grace Gray (1875–1966), married Edward Lorne Frederick Clough-Taylor
Gray spent most of her childhood living in the family's homes in Ireland or South Kensington in London.
In 1898, Gray attended classes at the Slade School of Fine Art, where she studied painting. While there, she met Jessie Gavin and Kathleen Bruce. In 1900 her father died and she went on her first visit to Paris with her mother where she saw the Exposition Universelle, a World's fair that celebrated the achievements of the past century. 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 along with her friends Gavin and Bruce from the Slade School. She continued her studies in Paris at the Académie Julian and the Académie Colarossi. For four or five years after the move, Gray travelled back and forth from Paris to Ireland to London, 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.
Working with lacquer
Gray came across a lacquer repair shop in Soho, in London, where she asked the shop owner, Mr. D. Charles, 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 where she remained for much of her working life, she met one of them: Seizo Sugawara (or Sugawara-san). He came from an area of Japan 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 1913, when she was thirty-five, that she exhibited any. When she did, however, it was a success.
In 1914, when World War I broke out, Gray moved back to London, taking Sugawara with her.
Apartment in the Rue de Lota
At the end of the war Gray and Sugawara returned to Paris. There Gray was given the job of decorating an apartment in the rue de Lota. She designed most of its furniture (including her famous Bibendum chair), carpets and lamps, and installed lacquered panels on the walls. The result was favourably 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, Jean Desert, to exhibit and sell her work and that of her artist friends.
Houses in the south of France
Shortly thereafter, persuaded by Jean Badovici, she turned her interests to architecture. In 1924 Gray and Badovici began work on the house E-1027 in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin in southern France (near Monaco).
In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Gray was involved with the Union des Artistes Modernes which had well-known members. She designed and furnished herself a new home, Tempe à Pailla, outside Menton. This is another icon of Modernist architecture, a space designed for her to dwell and work, a living/working machine as she wanted it, a space which could be constantly changed with multi-purpose furniture.
During World War II Gray, along with all other foreigners, was forced to evacuate the coast of France and move inland. After the war she discovered that her flat in Saint-Tropez had been blown up and that E1027 had been looted.
Post World War II
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 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.
Late 1910s: The Bibendum Chair
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Eileen Gray's innovative Bibendum Chair was one of the 20th century's most recognisable furniture designs. The chair is very much for lounging in and socialising. Its back/arm rest consists of two semi-circular, padded tubes encased in soft leather. The name that Gray chose for the chair, Bibendum, originates from the character created by Michelin to sell tyres.
The chair was designed for a milliner; Madame Mathieu Lévy who was a highly successful boutique owner which sold stylish hats. Lévy had commissioned Gray to re-design her apartment on rue de Lota in Paris. It was hoped to be new and original, with innovative designs. The process took four, painstaking years; from 1917 to 1921. During this time, Eileen Gray created the Bibendum chair along with the interior walls, furnishings, rugs and lamps. With Gray's disapproval of the moulded walls that had previously been installed, she put up lacquered panels instead. She wanted to create the apartment so that it fulfilled aspirations, suited Lévy's lifestyle and would go along with any particular mood. The Bibendum Chair was relatively large; its depth approximately 840mm and its height 740 mm tall.
The visible part of the frame of the Bibendum i.e. the legs, were made of a polished, chromium plated, stainless steel tube. The framing of the actual seat was made of beechwood and there was rubber webbing that was inter-woven across the base of the seat to provide added comfort. The seat, back and arm rests encased in soft, pale leather. Gray made a point of using plain coverings for this particular chair as well as another, the Serpent Chair which was simple, plain red. She also designed the Pirogue Boat Bed which was also completely plain. This was so that the apartment would not look too cluttered or messy and so that the eye would be drawn, first of all, to the tribal art on display. The furniture in the apartment on rue de Lota, in particular the Bibendum Chair, was all extremely comfortable.
Today, a full grain leather coated Bibendum Chair would sell for an approximate price of £2300. The chair was designed for the room so that it looked inviting and made you want to sit down in it. As the apartment was being designed for a trendy, modern, young woman, Eileen Gray's wish was to make it quite alternative and daring. The Bibendum Chair in itself was hardly like anything ever seen before and its originality was quite amazing at the time.
The Bibendum Chair was designed as part of the modernist movement which was completely different from her earlier, more traditional work. She decided to make the change in style to simply make "progress". The art critics loved the chair and reviews in papers and magazines exclaimed that it was a "triumph of modern living". Thanks to her great achievement with the Bibendum chair and the other furnishings designed at the apartment on rue de Lota, Gray was given a huge moral boost, so she made the decision of opening up her own gallery in 1922 (see biography). Madame Mathieu Lévy's commission provided a great financial success for Gray, and thanks to this, she did no longer need to rely on her family's financial support.
1920s: The E-1027 House
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. As a result the state of France and the city of Roquebrune Cap Martin – through the national agency "Conservatoire du Littoral" – bought the villa in 1999 and made it secure provisionally. The building is being restored through an initiative of the state of France, the department Alpes Maritimes, and the city of Roquebrune (bearing 50% / 10% / 40% of the expenses).
Late 1920s and early 1930s: The 'Tempe à Pailla' House
In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Gray designed and furnished herself a new home, 'Tempe à Pailla' (Menton. This is another icon of Modernist architecture, a space designed for her to dwell and work, a living/working machine as she wanted it, a space which could be constantly changed with multi-purpose furniture.), outside
Eileen loved a challenge; it is believed that was why she chose such a difficult site. She built on existing structures which anchored the house, based her house on ship structures, using forms that were long and narrow, many decks for views and levels for storage. Eileen was very social, she took advantage of the entertaining space for her guests and incorporated views of the city and the sea with balconies and large windows. However, she was also in a way private and enjoyed her space: this can be viewed on the plans of 'Tempe a Pailla' on her choice of where she positioned her rooms, as the bedrooms, service rooms and courtyard were tucked away at the back, revealing a tranquil view of the distant mountains. It was almost like the house can be split in half, one side public and the other private. Eileen treated the outside space the same way as she treated the inside space; she did this by having the same tiles, the same material inside and out. She liked to take advantage of the sunlight, in fact she designed each room with regard to where she would receive the most sunlight or the least, and she even incorporated a way in which she could control the light in certain rooms: in the bedroom a medium-sized circle could be moved according to the amount of light she wanted to enter the room, almost like an eclipse, as if she had her own sun to play with.
Gray was bisexual. She mixed in the lesbian circles of the time, being associated with Romaine Brooks, Gabrielle Bloch, Loie Fuller, the singer Damia and Natalie Barney. Gray's intermittent relationship with Damia (or Marie-Louise Damien) ended in 1938, after which they never saw each other again, although both lived into their nineties in the same city. Gray also had for some time an intermittent relationship with Jean Badovici, the Romanian architect and writer. He had written about her design work in 1924 and encouraged her interest in architecture. Their romantic involvement ended in 1932.
- Irish Daily Mail, 27 February 2009
- "In Search of Eileen Gray", Apollo, 23 August 2009 http://www.apollo-magazine.com/features/5283133/in-search-of-eileen-gray.thtml
- Gray's niece was the eminent British painter Prunella Clough.</Adams, Peter. Eileen Gray: A Biography. London: Thames and Hudson, 1987,p. 9.
- National Museum of Ireland
- "Record-breaking YSL auction shrugs off crisis". Reuters. 25 February 2009. Retrieved 25 February 2009.
- "Eileen Gray 'Dragons' Chair Fetches $28 Million on Day Two of YSL Sale". mediabistro. 25 February 2009. Retrieved 25 February 2009.
- "YSL's seat sells for £19million". Metro.co.uk. 25 February 2009.
- Dillon, Brian (23 May 2013). "On Not Getting the Credit". London Review of Books 35 (10): 29–30.
- O'Toole, Shane. "Eileen Gray: E-1027, Roquebrune Cap Martin". Archiseek.com. Retrieved 26 January 2011.
- Matt & Andrej Koymasky – Famous GLTB – Eileen Gray
- MacCarthy, Fiona (10 September 2005). "Future worlds". The Guardian (London). Retrieved 1 May 2010.
- glbtq >> arts >> Gray, Eileen
- Documentary about Eileen Gray
- "Eileen Gray – Lacquer screen". Victoria and Albert Museum. Retrieved 15 November 2007.
- Official Eileen Gray Website
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