Underappreciated in her lifetime, the career of late Irish architect and designer Eileen Gray is the subject of a timely new exhibition at The Bard Graduate Center Gallery in New York. Jennifer Goff, curator of the Eileen Gray collection at the National Museum of Ireland, tells us more.
Eileen Gray (born Kathleen Eileen Moray Smith; 9 August 1878 – 31 October 1976) was an Irish architect and furniture designer and a pioneer of the Modern Movement in architecture. Over her career, she was associated with many notable European artists of her era, including Kathleen Scott, Adrienne Gorska, Le Corbusier, and Jean Badovici, with whom she was romantically involved. Her most famous work is the house known as E-1027 in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, France.
From 1922/1923 to 1926 Gray created an informal architectural apprenticeship for herself as she never received any formal training as an architect. She studied theoretical and technical books, took drafting lessons, and arranged to have Adrienne Gorska take her along to building sites. She also traveled with Badovici to study key buildings and learned by reworking architectural designs.
In 1926, she started work on a new holiday home near Monaco to share with Badovici. Because a foreigner in France couldn’t wholly own property, Gray bought the land and put it in Badovici’s name, making him her client on paper. Construction of the house took three years and Gray remained on site while Badovici visited occasionally.
Renewed interest in Gray’s work began in 1967 when historian Joseph Rykwert published an essay about her in the Italian design magazine Domus. After the publishing of the article many “students began to ring at her door” as eager to learn from the now famous designer.
At a Paris auction of 1972, Yves Saint Laurent bought ‘Le Destin’ and revived interest in Gray’s career.
The first retrospective exhibition of her work, titled ‘Eileen Gray: Pioneer of Design’, was held in London in 1972. A Dublin exhibition followed the next year. At the Dublin exhibit, the 95 year old Gray was given an honorary fellowship by the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland.
In 1973 Gray signed a contract to reproduce the Bibendum chair and many of her pieces for the first time. They remain in production.
Eileen Gray died on Halloween 1976. She is buried in the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris, but because her family omitted to pay the licence fee her grave is not identifiable.