Eileen Gray’s sleek modernist designs retain their power
NEW YORK — Furniture design underwent a radical shift between the first and second world wars, with lavish and stuffy interiors giving way to pieces that were informal and adaptable. Among the most forward-thinking designers of this era was Irish-born Eileen Gray (1878–1976), whose inventive furniture designs were not only functional but also adapted principles of architecture and sculpture.
The Victoria & Albert Museum in the United Kingdom notes that Gray was inspired by both the Art Deco style and 1920s functionalism, and describes her as one of the most fascinating designers of the early to mid-20th century. “Largely unrecognized in her own lifetime, today she is considered a pioneer of the Modernist movement, known for her remarkably bold furniture designs and architecture,” the museum writes on its website. She was said to be uncomfortable with self-promotion, and as a woman working in the male-dominated design field in Paris, she did not receive her due for her contributions to the field until many years later.
Splitting her childhood between a country home in Ireland and a cosmopolitan life in London, she went on to attend the Slade School of Fine Art, part of University College London. She was one of the first women to be admitted, and it was at this school where she learned about the ancient Asian technique of using lacquer to create highly glossy surfaces. Early in her career, she had a lacquer workshop in Paris and specialized in producing lacquered screens, furniture and decorative accessories. She reportedly caused a stir in 1923 when she exhibited a modernist and lacquered lady’s room, done up in plain white, at the 14th Salon des Artistes Decorateurs.
Today, Gray’s furniture as well as her lighting, mirrors and rugs are coveted by modernist design connoisseurs. Arguably her most successful design was the E-1027 side table that she designed in 1927. Reportedly, it resulted from her desire to have a bedside table for her sister when she visited her home. The table makes it easier to have breakfast in bed because it can be pulled close to the bed without its frame getting in the way; its height is also adjustable. Many of Gray’s designs have been popular enough to merit a reissue. A contemporary pair of E-1027 side tables in chrome-plated tubular steel, made for the German furniture maker ClassiCon, realized $1,300 plus the buyer’s premium in February 2023 at Heritage Auctions.
Lacquered furniture in stark modernist colors such as black and white was squarely in Gray’s wheelhouse. A fitting example is a rare coffee table in white lacquered wood, designed in 1928, which brought $10,539 in November 2022 at Capitoliumart s.r.l. This table represents an aesthetic shift away from her early interest in luxurious and exotic woods to designing pieces with a cleaner, industrial look. Her work reflects what several other notable designers and architects of her era, such as Le Corbusier, were also doing at the time. The emphasis was on creating functional pieces instead of heavily stylized and over-decorated pieces.
Originally made for her villa in southern France overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, Gray’s Transat chair was designed with one purpose in mind: to be comfortable. Evoking the sense of being in an ocean liner deck chair – its name derives from the word “transatlantic” – this low-slung chair is deceptively simple, but has a complicated joinery system. Early original examples are hard to come by, but even later reissues are sought after. A Transat chair in enameled wood, chromed steel and leather, made by Ecart International circa 1985, sold for $4,250 plus the buyer’s premium in January 2020 at Wright.
Also among her most popular pieces were her lacquered Brick wood screen, which could be described as a moving wall. The Cubist-inspired sculpture, geometric in nature, was made up of solid blocks of wood and negative spaces in the gaps between the blocks. According to the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, which has one of her Brick screens in its collection, “It is among the most striking and elegant creations by Gray.” An example in white wood, with five columns and eight rows of rotating panels, overall measuring 68in tall by 61in wide, attained $3,250 plus the buyer’s premium in September 2020 at Abell Auction.
Besides furniture, Gray was interested in designing for the whole house. Her ambitious villa, built between 1926-29, was her showcase to design for her own interior, instead of other people’s homes. The name of her home, E-1027, is a coded play off her name and that of her partner, the architect Jean Baldovici. It was her first architectural design and her best-known. Many of Gray’s designs were initially created for this space before being commercially produced, including the side table named after the home as well as her Satellite mirror, which has an adjustable magnifying mirror with two locking handles. Like her Transat chair, Ecart also reissued her Satellite mirror design in the 1970s. One example made $3,733 plus the buyer’s premium in December 2022 at LTWID Auction House S.R.L.
Well-designed furniture is always in style. Gray’s pieces are striking in their simplicity, which belies the careful thought that went into their appearance. She paid scrupulous attention to detail and created pieces that could be adapted to meet the owner’s changing needs — a new concept at the time. She waited decades to be fully appreciated, and it was not until the early 1970s, when she was 94, that she was written up in an Architectural Review piece. Her comeback was cemented a year later when the Aram furniture store asked permission to reproduce her designs, which she granted. The sleek, modernist style she championed has been firmly embraced by succeeding generations of homeowners, ensuring that Eileen Gray and her works will always have legions of fans.