Eileen Gray was born August 9, 1878 in Ireland near a small town in the south-eastern region of the country. Her father, who himself was a painter, encouraged her artistic interests by taking her on painting tours in Italy and Switzerland.
She entered the Slade School of Fine Art in 1898, to study painting. In 1900, the same year her father passed, she went to Paris with her mother to attend the Exposition Universelle that primarily exhibited Art Nouveau, a style that she particularly liked. She continued her studies in Paris while traveling between Paris, Ireland and London; finally settling back in London.
Interested in expanding her art, she became interested in lacquer work first learning from a shop owner and then continued to learn in Paris under Seizo Sugawara. It was not until several years had passed, in 1913, before she would display any of her own lacquer artwork.
After the end of World War I, she received a commission to decorate an apartment in the rue de Lota. Designing most of the furniture, carpets, lamps and installing lacquer pieces on the wall, it received favorable criticism from local art critics. Embolden by her success, she decided to open a small shop, Jean Desert, to display and exhibit her work as well as that of her friends.
Becoming increasingly interested in modern design and architecture, in 1924 Gray and Jean Badovici designed a house E-1027 in Roquerbrune-Cap-Martin in southern France. The house was so named because it stood for the names of the designers; E for Eileen, 10 for Jean j being the tenth letter of the alphabet, 2 for Badovici and 7 for Gray. She contributed to the design of the house as well as designing furniture pieces including a circular E-1027 glass table and Bibendum armchair inspired by Marcel Breuer’s work with tubular steel.
From the late 1920s and early 1930s she designed and furnished her own home, Tempe à Pailla, a Modernist space based on that of a ship’s structure. With long and narrow forms, outside decks were carefully placed to maximize views allowing for both private, secluded spaces and for those suitable for entertaining. Embracing the concept of a building as a living machine, the house incorporated public areas as well segregated private areas. This multi-functionality was reflected in her furniture design as well. Light and the movement and the interplay of sunlight informed her spaces allowing her to interact with nature to her advantage.
During World War II she moved away from her house along the coast of France and moved inland. After the war she attempted to return to her home only to find it had been broken into and damaged.
The remainder of her life was spent in Paris where the design community passed her by. She once again choose to design her home and transformed an aging agricultural shed into a summer home.
Before her death, she agreed to production of her Bibendum chair and E-1027 table as well as other pieces. The National Museum of Ireland in Dublin opened a permanent exhibition of her work. The “Le Destin” screen was sold for $36,000 and a “Dragons” armchair she had made between 1917-1919, sold for $28.3 million in 2009 setting an auction record for 20th century decorative art. She died at the age of ninety-eight on October 31, 1976 in her apartment in Paris.