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Eileen Gray, Designer and Architect

by Jorg Bundschuh, Director
First Run/Icarus Films, Brooklyn, New York, 2006
DVD, 52 mins., color
Sale/DVD: $390; rental/DVD: $100

Distributor’s website: http://www.frif.com.

Reviewed by Florence Martellini
University of Wales, Newport


Using archival footage and interviews, this documentary outlines briefly Eileen Gray’s life and work with a focus on her architectural design. Starting with her first and key house E1027 built in Roquebrune, South of France. This masterpiece shows the ways in which Gray was ahead of her time, leading a life which breached conventions for a woman of the early 20th century. E1027 is a result of all her previous work and experience. A Modernist designer apart in that she believed that a house is an extension of man’s needs as opposed to only a ‘machine’ to live in as Le Corbusier used to claim, "Architecture must not only look right but feel right. It is about building houses for people." Gray’s work is a response to rather than an illustration of Le Corbusier’s principles of architecture.

The narrator then flashes back on the events of her life that led to the design of E1027. Born in Ireland in 1878, Gray showed a strong determination to follow her intuition and somehow her upper middle class background would allow her to do so, at least materially. Her visit in 1900 of the Exposition Universelle had a big impact on her life in that the new ideas and creations of the time met her fascination for new technologies and speed. She subsequently studied in London at the Slade School of Fine Art, which she found too conventional. Fascinated by Asian lacquered objects she learnt with Seizo Sugowara the techniques that were the foundation of her design style. She moved to Paris, travelled extensively, and returned to London in 1905 where she opened a workshop with her lacquer master Sugowara.

Gray evolved in a period of transition between Art Nouveau and Art Deco, and her lacquered work allowed her to move away from the more decorative objects done at the time that she loathed — and carried on a dialogue. Her tastes were very simple and understated, and she always remained independent, distant to the buzzing activity of the time, like a bohemian on a continued journey. Her discovery of Moroccan carpets gave her a new direction, different from that of her lacquered objects and brought her first success at the Salon de la Société des Décorateurs and subsequently important commissions to decorate luxury apartments. In 1922, she opened her own boutique Jean Désert and successfully attracted wealthy customers. However, she quickly felt the need to re-gain her creative freedom rather than solely working on commissions. Her Monte Carlo room showed in 1923 at the Salon the Décorateurs was not well received; however, she was discovered by the Stijl movement, and the architecture critic Jean Baldovici would help her deepen her knowledge of Modernist architecture e.g. with Le Corbusier, Van der Roe, Gropius, and the ways in which it can be used as a basis for furniture design. More travel to Mexico and Peru gave her the opportunity to study carefully ship cabins.

In 1925, she started to design her own house and furniture in the South of France that is currently under renovation by the French state. E1027 highlights the ways in which Gray’s work was unconventional, extremely accurate and imbedded into its surroundings. E1027 is a work of art from the ship like design of the house, the furniture, down to the light and heating system that adapt to the seasons. In 1932, she started a new architecture project for herself Tempey a Pailla. Resembling a liner like E1027, she claimed that it was made for a woman whose pleasure was to work as opposed to E1027, which was for a man who likes to entertain — exemplifying her architectural and design philosophy. It seems as though Gray was on a journey to find a sort of spiritual dimension and attempted to transfer it into everyday objects. Aware or not of it, I would argue that she was on the same line of thinking as the artist Piet Mondrian, founder of the Stijl movement, to whom the built environment ought to encourage the inner seeing of its occupier, a location to experience a higher state of consciousness.

Gray moved out of E1027, and left it to her long-time partner Baldovici. Le Corbusier who praised Gray’s work became a regular visitor but curiously destroyed its minimalist design by decorating the walls without her consent. He later managed to buy it indirectly, letting others to believe that he was its architect and designer. The world gently passed Gray by and slowly she was forgotten about. In the early 1970’s Zeev Aram, a furniture retailer in London, started to reproduce and sell the wide range of furniture and objects she had designed throughout her life. Gray was rediscovered, and she kept working till her death at 98 years old demonstrating until then an amazing level of altogetherness.

This documentary is a good taster for those who have never heard of Eileen Gray — having visualising it, one longs to know more. It focuses on Gray’s unique style as a Modernist designer and architect but only hints at reasons that led her peers to underrate her work. Thus, more historical background on her relations with other artists, designers, and architects of her time would have put Gray’s work into context, rather than focusing merely on that with Le Corbusier. A deeper analysis of her philosophy and the ways in which it differs from other Modernist designers of her time is lacking even more so that Gray questioned her nationality in that she resided as a foreigner inside her languages and homes ——she spoke English and French with a strong Irish accent; France was her home throughout her life although she was never identified as either French or Irish by others and missed Ireland. And being such an independent creator, it would have been valuable to give a hint on her personal creative process. The pace of the narrative is good but more time allowed to visualise Gray’s beautiful work would have improved the documentary.



Updated 1st April 2008

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