Architect and designer of furniture and ornamental objects, Eileen Gray (1878-1976) boasts a body of diverse pieces inspired by an international assortment of traditional craft processes. Although her work emerged from an appreciation for French decorative arts, after studying Le Corbusier and the artists exhibiting in early 1900s Paris, she developed a unique modern aesthetic with no apparent roots in any specific movements. A superiorcraftsmanship and this chameleon-like style have established her as one of the classic modern designers.
Gray grew up in Ireland and moved to London in 1898 to attend the Slade School of Fine Arts. After graduating, she moved to Paris and soon became apprenticed to Seizo Sugawara, a Japanese master of the art of lacquer. She learned the technique from him and spent several years meticulously studying the process and hand making lacquered furniture, folding screens and bowls to hone her skills. With her work in lacquer, she became interested in manipulating the dimensional aspects of a single surface, as lacquering involves blending many layers of color together for the desired tonal interplay. Gray had her first exhibit in 1913 at the Société des Artistes Décorateurs and, as a result, received a commission to design an interior for a Parisian collector named Jacques Doucet. Fromthis job came a number of other commissions to do interior design, launching her professional life.
The interiors featured remarkable flourishes like exotic animal prints and eggs, and visual icons inspired by mythology and African art. She also designed a number of rugs after a trip to Morocco during which she learned to weave and dye wool in natural colors. A number of experimental one-off pieces came out of this period, some of which were later reproduced. A 1915 table, the "Lotus," is an obvious extension of Sugawara's eastern influence, and has a decorative pendant at each corner. Her 1919 "Pirogue" daybed, a dramatic canoe shape supported on short legs, became an enduring symbol for her early style. Another daybed, from 1920, was executed in sumptuous lacquered wood and had deep blue, shiny upholstery. In 1922 Gray opened a store in Paris to sellsome of her work.
During the late 1920s and early 1930s Gray designed some of her best-known furniture. A bedside table from 1926 had a circular top supported on a stand by a u-shaped base, a form that she also used for the "Bibendum" chair whose backrest was made from two stuffed u-shaped pieces. Her minimalist standing lamp from the 1930's had a column of tubular steel alongside a long tube light. The "Transat" chair had an upholstered seat with an adjustable headrest suspended within an angular wooden frame and was probably inspired by the form of Marcel Breuer's "Wassily" chair from the same period. In the 1930s she created the unusual folding "S" chair, a simple upholstered seat between a dramatically curved metal frame. Gray also began focusing on architecture, designing several boxy, modern houses for herself in Paris and near St. Tropez. Her collaboration with Jean Badovici, editor of the journal L'Architecture Vivant, led to a published dialogue between themselves, one of her only forays into architectural writing and theory. The house they designed, E1027, was his private residence, and is probably the best-documented example of Gray's work.