This is CR Muse, a series dedicated to the remembrance of important artists and idea-makers from our past who have shaped culture as we know it today. From traditional creators to those of conceptual thought, we celebrate these women known not only for their work but their confident, eccentric style as well.
Eileen Gray lived quite the life. The daughter of Irish aristocracy, she charmed her adoptive city of Paris in the 1920s as a provider of chic furniture and interior design. All the while, she drove around the city with her girlfriend Damia (a famous French singer) and Damia’s pet panther. But by the 1930s Gray had turned her eye to a new passion—architecture—which eventually lead to both an incredible career and a legacy that was almost written out of existence by jealous men.
Born in Ireland on Aug. 9, 1878, Gray’s first exposure to art was through her father, a painter. She studied art herself before become interested in lacquering, which would become an important part of her furniture work. After moving to Paris, she established herself as a master of lacquer work, designing in an Art Deco style. By 1922, she opened her shop, Jean Désert, which touted Elsa Schiaparelli as a client.
Her “Dragons” armchair set a record for 20th-century decorative art at auction. Originally designed for Suzanne Talbot, the chair (which features cushy brown leather with a sweeping wood accent) was sold to the art dealer Cheska Vallois in 1971, who then sold it to Yves Saint Laurent two years later. When the Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé collection went up for sale in 2009, it was Vallois who bought it back again—for a whopping €21,905,000.
But the most famous of all of Gray’s work is her house, E.1027—which, incidentally, was her first foray into architecture. Encouraged by her then-lover Jean Badovici (himself an architect, and 15 years Gray’s junior), the house was built in a modernist style that was often compared to the work of Le Corbusier, due to the fact that she adopted many of his design principles for the exterior.
Their views differed, though, when it came to interior design. Where Corbusier thought of houses as “machines,” Gray saw them as “living organisms” and she designed in service to people actually living in them. “The interior plan should not be the incidental result of the façade,” she once wrote. “It should lead to a complete harmonious and logical life.”
Sadly, Gray was not able to enjoy her masterpiece and without her, it succumbed to decades of abuse. She left the home when she and Badovici ended their relationship. He later invited a friend to live in it—none other than Le Corbusier. Incensed that such a beautiful work was rendered in his style by a woman (one who also happened to be untrained as an architect), he defaced the interior by painting on the walls, claiming it was a “gift.” She called it vandalism.
During World War II, the house was occupied by Nazis, who shot up the walls. After Badovici died in 1956, the house was purchased by a wealthy widow who gave it to her gynecologist, Peter Kaegi. A morphine addict, Kaegi let the house fall to squalor (in fact, he was murdered in it).
Though Gray chose to live a quiet, almost recluse life, she did live long enough to see how much people appreciated her work. In the 1970s she was approached by the design retailer Zeev Aram about mass producing her designs. She agreed, and her furniture is still being made today. There has even been an effort to restore E.1027. It has been named a French National Cultural Monument, and in 2015, it opened to the public for the first time. Despite the fact that Corbusier’s paintings remain on the walls (they are themselves protected artworks), the house is being returned to its original glory, with replicas of the original furniture being provided by Aram. As the house has been introduced to the public, so has its arduous story—and ultimately the story of Gray.END
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