Eileen Gray (1878-1976) is regarded today as one of the most important furniture designers and architects of the early 20th century. She is also known as the most influential woman in those fields.
Eileen Gray furniture is characterized as being “luxurious and theatrical.” Her unique background in lacquer and strong appreciation for geometric shapes bring a distinctive style to her work that is not seen in many other modern classic furniture pieces.
Some of her most popular and enduring designs include:
Be sure to check out our complete collection of Eileen Gray mid century modern furniture to see more of her designs.
Eileen Gray’s Career Challenges
Eileen Gray’s career was not one filled with fame, or even much recognition. She stood alone for the most part as she moved from being a lacquer artist to a furniture designer and finally an architect. Ironically, the very independence and uniqueness that left her largely disregarded during her career is exactly what makes her work so prized today.
Most other designers at the time were male and were members of a specific movement. Because she was a woman, Gray was denied access to the supportive networks the male designers of her age benefited from. She had no powerful male mentor, she was never an apprentice in an impressive studio, and she did not study at the Bauhaus School. Essentially, she was isolated from the rest of the rising stars in the modern classic age, but in the end she was able to make a place for herself.
The History behind the Woman
Eileen Gray was born into an aristocratic family in County Wexford, Ireland, and was the youngest of five children. She entered the Slade School of Art in London in 1898, largely because her father encouraged her creative talent and wanted her to have the opportunity to study painting. Over time her interests shifted from drawing and painting to the unique, complex and painstakingly detailed art of lacquer.
Around this time she was introduced to a young lacquer craftsman, Sugawara, who came from a village in northern Japan. Gray studied with him for four years, during which she refined her techniques and worked on creating stark forms with simple geometric decorations. She finally exhibited some of her decorative lacquer panels in 1913 at the Salon de Artistes Decorateurs.
From there Eileen Gray went on to decorate an apartment on Rue de Lota that finally garnered her some praise from newspaper and magazine articles. She opened a gallery to exhibit her work, attracted a fairly chic clientele, and created a few other prominent room sets. This work really launched her into the architecture and modern classic furniture industries, where she began to have a more noticeable impact.
Some of her notable pieces of this era include the: circular glass E-1027 Height Adjustable table, rotund Bibendum armchair, foldable S-Chair, and a double-sided chest of drawers.
As she grew older, Eileen Gray led a quiet life, rarely seeing anyone outside her tiny circle of close women friends, and working on new projects sporadically. She was largely forgotten by the architecture and modern classic furniture communities until 1968, when an appreciation of her career was published in Dormus Magazine. After that, a furniture company began to make reproductions of some of her most popular designs, a practice that many companies have continued to do to this day.
On October 31st, 1978, her death was announced on French national radio. It was the first time her name had ever been mentioned in a radio broadcast.
*Resource for this page: http://designmuseum.org/design/eileen-gray