Eileen Gray – French and English Furniture Designer

Eileen Gray Born to an Irish aristocratic family in 1878, she was encouraged by her father to pursue her artistic interests taking her on painting tours throughout Switzerland and Italy when she was a child.

Living between family homes in London, England and Enniscorthy, Ireland, she studied painting at the Slade School of Fine Art when she was twenty years old. Visiting Paris in 1900, she was exposed to Art Nouveau at the Exposition Universelle, a world fair. Deciding to relocate to Paris, she continued her studies at the Academie Julian and Academie Colarossi.

While she continued to study painting she happened upon a lacquer repair shop in Soho, London and found it interesting. Wishing to learn more about this, she moved back to Paris and began to work with Seizo Sugawara from Japan. It wasn’t until 1913 that she decided to exhibit her works which met with almost instant success.

After World War I ended and she returned to Paris from London, she designed the Bibendum chair and other accessories for a commission to decorate an apartment in the Rue de Lota. With lacquered panels included on the walls, critics responded favorable prompting her to open Jean Desert where she sold her and her friends artwork.

The Bibendum chair, perhaps one of the most recognized modern furniture designs, was intended to be included as innovative furnishings for a successful business woman who desired something new and fresh. Bibendum, named after a character originated by Michelin tires, was specifically designed for lounging including soft leather semi-circular padding over a stainless steel tubing frame. With a beech wood seat, it included rubber webbing to ensure comfort. This as well as the Serpent chair and the Pirogue Boat bed were designed to be simple and plain so as not to complete with the owners collection of tribal art. The designs of these chairs were a marked departure from her usual more traditional design. In an attempt to move with the progress of modern times she had found her artistic voice.

In 1924 she began to work with Jean Badovici in architecture designing furniture for the house E-1027 in southern France. One of her better known modern furniture pieces is the circular glass and steel E-1027 table.  Gray went on to design and furnish a home of her own designed as a living/working machine, it has become a Modernist icon. Once again, war disrupted her life and she was forced to leave the coast of France during World War II and moved inland.

After the war was over she returned to Paris but had to seek new accommodations as her old apartment had been bombed during the war. Settling into a quiet life in Paris, she eventually created a summer home from a makeshift garden shed only to live there on a year round basis. It was only near her death in 1976, at the age of ninety-eight did she return to Paris.

 

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