Eileen Gray (Enniscorthy, Co. Wexford, 1878 - Paris, 1976) was a scion of a landed Anglo-Irish family. She was born in 1878 at the family domain outside Enniscorthy but spent her adult life in France, where she became world famous for her interior designs, her lacquer and furniture work and her architecture.
Gray took up art studies at the Slade School in London in 1900 and made her first trip to Paris in the same year, to visit the Exposition Universelle. Also in 1900, Gray's father died in London and her brother was killed in the Boer War. With two friends from the Slade she moved to Paris in 1902 to continue her studies at the Ecole Colarossi in rue de la Grande Chaumière (6th arrondissement) and then at the Académie Julian at 31, rue Dragon (6th arrondissement), where the likes of Paul Henry and John Lavery also studied.. She first lived in a sordid boarding-house" at 7, rue Joseph Bara (6th arrondissement, "house no longer exists), before moving to rue des Saints-Pères(6th arrondissement).
Not that Eileen Gray ever really had any financial worries as a young single woman in Paris. In 1907, when, at age 29, she bought an apartment at 21, rue Bonaparte (6th arrondissement) in the Latin Quarter, she was still living on "la pension de sa mère" Family support must have been generous, for three years later she was also able to rent two work studios—one at 11 rue Guénégaud (for her lacquer work), the other at 17, rue Visconti (for weaving), just around the corner from her apartment.
In 1906, Gray started studying lacquer work with a master craftsman from Japan called Seizo Sugawara, who was to work with Gray for over 20 years. In 1913, Gray held her first exhibition of decorative panels at the Salon des Artistes Décorateurs. This led to the odd commission before the First World War broke out, which convinced Gray (plus Sugawara) to move to London for a while. When she came back to France, she partnered with fellow lesbian Dolly Wilde (niece of Oscar Wilde) to drive an ambulance. Gray's big break came in 1917 when she was asked to decorate the apartment of Madame Mathieu-Lévy at 9, rue Lota (16th arrondissement). Her work there brought her to the attention of the Paris upper classes and finally hauled Gray out of financial dependence on her family.
Just as Maud Gonne was a creature of the 16th arrondissement, so Eileen Gray elected the sixth arrondissementt—he most expensive in Paris—as her physical and spiritual home. The various apartments, schools and studios heretofore mentioned are all located in that arrondissement. But Gray proved for once unfaithful to her favourite stomping ground when, in 1922, she opened a gallery at 217, rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré in the eighth arrondissement. In the interest of credibility, she called this outlet the Galérie Jean Désert, although she herself is described as having been "too shy and introspective to serve there".
In 1921, Gray also bought a small weekend hide-away for herself on Quai de la République at Samois-sur-Seine, south east of Paris, where Maud Gonne had buried her young son Georges 30 years before.
Gray was heavily influenced by the De Stijl movement, which, in reaction against Art Nouveau, emphasised clean lines and simple forms. Several exhibitions of Gray's interior design work followed in the 1920s even as she turned increasingly to architecture. In 1924, along with Romanian architecture critic and part-time lover Jean Badovici, she began working on a 'Modern Movement'-style house called E-1027 on the cliffs near Monaco. Other architectural work followed along the Mediterranean coast and in Paris. After the war, Eileen Gray lived relatively secluded and forgotten in her rue Bonaparte flat until her death in October 1976. Occasional visitors included the British novelist Bruce Chatwin, who apparently was inspired to visit Patagonia after interviewing her for a newspaper article in 1972. Interest in Gray's art has only grown in design circles in recent years. But that interest has not saved her mortal remains. Three people, including journalist and friend Peter Adam, attended her funeral cremation in 1976. Her ashes were placed in niche 17616 in the Columbarium of Père Lachaise cemetery. With nobody found to renew the lease, the authorities took back control of the niche on February 5, 1998 and quickly rented it out again.
Eileen Gray, Architect Designer—a Biography (revised edition, 2000)
Caroline Constant (207)
“Eileen Gray”, www.designmuseum.com