Eileen Gray was born in Enniscorthy, County Wexford Ireland in 1878. At the age of twenty Gray moved to London to study painting and drawing at the Slade School of Fine Art in London.
During this time she discovered a passion for the art of hand lacquer work. This was a very time intensive and intricate process, far removed from what we think of lacquering today – high gloss spray varnishes. It required years of practice, unbounded patience and an intense attention to detail.
In 1907 she went to Paris where she studied the art of lacquer work under Seizo Sugaward. By 1910 she had begun to produce her first decorative panels, screens and furniture which she sold to wealthy clients who valued and appreciated her natural skill. Her first complete screen was purchased by the couturier, Jacques Doucet.
During the First World War she returned to London and intent on continuing her work opened a studio in Chelsea. However her heart (and a wealthy clientele who understood her art) were on the continent and at the end of the war Gray and Sugaward returned to Paris.
In the 1920s she designed an apartment for the fashionable dressmaker, Suzanne Talbot, which turned out to be a perfect showcase for her avant-garde pieces and luxury furniture including the widely renowned “Gondola” daybed.
Gray’s energy and enthusiasm continued to drive multiple projects. 1922 saw Gray open a shop, Jean Desert, selling unique pieces of furniture, carpets and lighting. In 1924 she designed furniture for the ocean liner Transatlantique. A year later, her first pieces of furniture using metal, were produced.
Soon after, the architect Jean Badovici persuaded her to pursue an architectural path. In 1929 Gray designed and furnished her own house, ‘E1027’ at Roquebrune, France, with Jean’s assistance. The house was to become one of Grays’s finest works. The interiors were multifunctional with folding furniture in tubular steel, glass and painted wood. A truly magnificent modern statement perched on a cliff overlooking the Mediterranean near Nice. Le Corbusier was a frequent visitor to the house. On one occasion, whilst staying at the house alone he reportedly took it upon himself to decorate the pristine white interior walls with colourful murals. Gray was infuriated and their relationship cooled somewhat. Corbusier went on the purchase a parcel of land a few hundred metres along the coast upon which he constructed his Cabanon.
A year later, Gray designed an apartment in Paris for Jean Badovici, where she installed her furniture and rugs. She continued to work as an architect until the outbreak of World War Two after which she slid into obscurity. E1027 fell into disrepair but recently was recognised as the iconic modern masterpiece it is, was saved for the state (or Republic) when purchased by the French government who have undertaken a full scale restoration to enable the house to be opened to the public.
Interest in her work was revived in the 1970’s, when Gray was in her nineties, by the commercial production of a number of her pieces. It should be remembered however that this is relative to the one-off hand lacquered art pieces that she produced during her own working life. Her Bibendum and E1027 table are among the iconic pieces of furniture from this era and are testament to how Gray applied her talents across a range of disciplines.
Gray died in 1976 in Paris.