Art

Resurrecting the Modernist Legacy of Designer Eileen Gray

Eileen Gray
Furniture for E 1027 Villa by Eileen Gray at the Centre Pompidou (all photographs by the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise indicated)

PARIS — Eileen Gray designed furniture that didn’t so much inhabit as space as touch lightly on it. With discreet forms and minimalist waves that contrasted their industrial materials to the waning of Art Nouveau, the Irish designer quietly influenced the Modernism that would guide architecture and design beyond the 1920s and 30s. Yet while her contemporaries like Le Corbusier and Marcel Breuer have their names as cemented in Modernist history as their sturdy designs, Gray’s legacy has been less studied. Now that should all change with the current retrospective at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, where many of Gray’s furniture pieces are on public display for the first time along with her paintings, photography, architectural drawings, and brief glimpses into the life of the woman architect and designer who was was working against the norms for both art and gender.

Portrait of Eileen Gray (courtesy Centre Pompidou)
Portrait of Eileen Gray (courtesy Centre Pompidou)

The Pompidou marks Gray’s “rediscovery” in the contemporary design world with the 1972 auction of her furniture that had been collected by fashion designer Jacques Doucet. That one of the pieces, a screen called “Destiny” (“Le Destin”) sold to Yves Saint Laurent for $36,000 couldn’t help but draw eyes back to Gray’s design career which, although heavily focused on furniture, included personal residences, photography, and painting, an art she practiced  her whole life after studying at the Slade School of Fine Art.

Walking through the exhibition at the Pompidou is a soothing, subdued experience, much like it must be to sit in one of Gray’s curved chairs or inhabit one of her houses (which, being that her furniture pieces were never mass produced, you probably can’t do). While it’s fascinating to see the breadth of Gray’s career at once and see how she moved from ornate laquerwork to minimal and elegant forms, the exhibition is as restrained as her slight adjustable table on biographical material. Why she stopped being a part of the design community later in her life and worked in relative seclusion is barely examined, and her complicated relationships with her male contemporaries are only hinted at (for example, her friendship with Le Corbusier that ended when he painted his stern murals, without permission on the E 1027 Villa she designed with her likely lover Romanian architect Jean Badovici).

Eileen Gray
Curved Divan, 1929

Yet while the exhibition isn’t perfect, it does convincingly convey the tone of Gray’s work, where whether it was a painting or her own home she looked for ways to strip design down to its basic form, while maintaining a graceful, curving shape, often taking influence from the design of ocean liners or the waves of the ocean. She died at the age of 98 in 1976, only shortly after her work had again gained prominence, and it’s obvious from seeing her minimal boldness in designs how they influenced the more aggressive Modernism that came in the decades after. Along with the retrospective at the Pompidou,  her restored and preserved E 1027 Villa is also planned to reopen soon, a revival from when it slumped into decay along with the recognition for her graceful influence on minimal modern design.

Eileen Gray
Dining Chair, 1926-29

The retrospective on Eileen Gray is at the Centre Georges Pompidou (19 Rue Beaubourg, 75004, Paris) through May 20.

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