Eileen Gray, Unsung Modernist Architect, Comes Into Full View

With more than 200 furnishings, sketches, and archival documents, the Bard Graduate Center Gallery in New York offers a new take on the late Irish architect’s remarkable career.

Boudoir de Monte Carlo shown at the 14th Salon des Artistes Décorateurs, from Intérieurs Français, 1923; Courtesy of Archives Galerie Gilles Peyroulet, Paris.

In the 1920s, the Irish architect and designer Eileen Gray oversaw the construction of E-1027, a bracingly modern seaside villa that overlooks the turquoise waters of Roquebrune-Cap-Martin in the south of France. Gray, then in her 40s, conceived a white cube-like structure, perched on pilotis and wrapped in floor-to-ceiling windows, in which every interior detail was meticulously designed to foster the emotional wellness of its inhabitants. Neglected during and after World War II, and historically misattributed to Jean Badovici and Le Corbusier, E-1027 has come to be regarded as a masterpiece, and Gray’s most famous work, but her many other achievements continue to be overlooked. “Eileen Gray,” a newly opened retrospective at the Bard Graduate Center Gallery in New York, aims to change that.

The show, which reopened after Covid-induced closures earlier this year and now runs through October 28, includes more than 200 pieces, including never-before-exhibited furniture, lacquer works, drawings, and excerpts from a video interview recorded in 1973—three years before Gray’s death, at 98. A fixture of the early-20th-century Parisian vanguard in her youth, she worked for more than seven decades, and experimented with tubular steel furniture and lacquer screens designed in partnership with Japanese master Seizo Sugawara. She exhibited that work at Jean Désert, a gallery in Paris that she opened under a male pseudonym to deflect the industry’s pervasive sexism, which played a role in her long-delayed reception.

In an interview, Cloé Pitiot, the Gray scholar who curated the Bard show, delves into the architect’s growing legacy, her numerous unrealized and lost projects, the codes she embedded in her work, and aspects of her life that still await study.

(Clockwise, from top left) “Transat chair,” owned by the Maharaja of Indore, for the Manik Bagh Palace, 1930; © 2014 Phillips Auctioneers LLC. “Pedestal table”, 1922-25; Courtesy of Galerie Vallois, Paris, Photo: Arnaud Capentier. “Dining room serving table”, 1926-29; © Centre Pompidou, Mnam-CCI, Dist, RMN-GP: Jean-Claude Planchet. Banquette for Chambre à coucher pour boudoir Monte-Carlo, 1923; Courtesy of Galerie Vallois, Paris.

You curated an Eileen Gray retrospective at the Centre Pompidou in 2014. What have  you unearthed about her history and achievements since then?

After the Centre Pompidou exhibition and another show about her at the Irish Museum of Modern Art, I did six years of research with Dr. Jennifer Goff and auctioneer Philippe Garner [each of whom wrote monographs about Gray]. Garner knows her lacquer work very well. Aside from discovering new works, such as two new lacquer panels and a lacquer tea table, we found she was connected with British and American artists, writers, and poets such as Aleister Crowley. We didn’t know any of this before. This made it easier to understand who she was and what she was doing.

How did her background launch her into design?

She was a true creator, a multidisciplinary artist. She studied at the Slade School of Fine Art in London and, in 1902, moved to Paris to continue her studies at the Académie Colarossi and the Académie Julian, which offered more creative freedom. She started with 2D drawings on paper, eventually moving into 3D with lacquer screens, panels, and architecture. She was also interested in mathematics, so maybe her work even entered the fourth dimension.

What led her to open a gallery?

Around 1922, she was falling in love with French-Romanian architect Jean Badovici, with whom she would eventually design E-1027. She then opened a gallery, named Jean Désert after Badovici, that sold her furniture, rugs, and lamps, and sometimes the work of others, like sculptures by Chana Orloff. She closed Jean Désert after eight years because she felt that no one, except for Dutch people and Badovici, understood what she wanted to achieve with furniture. At that time, French people were very focused on tradition. Critics were hard on her. 

What’s the story behind the name E-1027?

It’s an enigmatic code between Eileen and Jean Badovici, who were lovers. E stands for Eileen; the 10th letter of the alphabet is J, for Jean; the 2nd is B, for Badovici; and the 7 is G, for Gray. She added secret codes in each of her works and we’ve tried to figure out their meanings, but sometimes it’s difficult!

E 1027, seaside; Centre Pompidou, Bibliothèque Kandinsky, Fonds Eileen Gray.

What else do you know about the codes?

For example, in a bedroom at E-1027, one of the storage units contained seven or eight paper trays, each labeled with different letters: A, W, V, S, and so on. We don’t know what they mean. She also etched letters and drawings into her lacquer works. We found relationships between the facade of Tempe à Pailla, another one of her buildings in France, and patterns of her screens. There are links like these between all of the works.

Why do you think she used codes?

She was influenced by Imagism, a movement in early 20th-century English literature [that used precise imagery and sharp language]. She was a very secretive person, but was interested in how codes added more dimension to the world, especially in architecture and furniture.

E-1027 is one of her most well-known achievements—what was she exploring in her unbuilt projects?

She practiced architecture for around 30 years, but we don’t know exactly why so many of her projects, which include theaters, meditation centers, and social housing, weren’t realized. Perhaps we haven’t found them yet, or they disappeared after the war. Some of her buildings have no address or city; others list a location, but we found nothing when we went there. Some of her architectural models lead us to believe that she worked in Dakar, Senegal. We found a drawing of a house in Nice, France, but we never located it, so maybe it disappeared. Much work remains to be done!

(Left to right) Lamp, 1923; © Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Katherine Wetzel. Thérèse Bonney, Mme Juliette Mathieu-Levy in her living room designed by Eileen Gray, 1930; Courtesy of the Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, BHVP/Roger-Viollet RV-39756-7.

How did her work evolve throughout her career?

Eileen experimented with figurative art early on, but stuck with abstraction after 1914. Time and time again, we see that her architecture and furniture was designed with the human soul and body in mind, which is clear in the modernist characteristics of E-1027. After that project, she moved onto vernacular architecture mixed with modernism.

Why do you think her work is so under-examined?

Maybe because she only realized a few projects. People know her furniture and lacquer works much better. Few people were interested in her until the 1960s. It’s interesting to think that our research isn’t finished—this just marks the beginning.

What do you think today’s architects, specifically those practicing in the United States, can learn from her?

Freedom in creation. She followed her own path and was fascinated by the interconnections of body, soul, and object. She wasn’t just drawing pieces of furniture—she was truly in contact with them. Furniture, she believed, should help people live with emotion and a sense of softness. In architecture, for example, she said that walls, elevation, floors, furniture, and humans were engaged in an emotional ballet. In her work, there are no borders.

The Bard Graduate Center Gallery has launched an online companion to this exhibition in light of its closure due to Covid-19. The site features a virtual tour of the exhibition, a digital flipbook of Eileen Gray’s portfolio, digital access to the catalogue, an educator’s guide, and excerpts from the gallery’s recent symposium on Eileen Gray.

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