Wednesday, February 24, 2010

A Fair Day for Eileen Gray

At just about this time last year, Eileen Gray's Fauteuil aux Dragons became the second highest selling piece of decorative art ever sold at auction at the "sale of the century" - the Yves Saint Laurent-Pierre Bergé collection at Christie's. Estimated between 2 and 3 millions, it sold for 22 million euros to Parisian Gallery owner, Cheska Vallois for an unnamed client (erroneously reported as Henry Kravis). A table by Gray, Enfilade, also part of the collection, fetched a pretty penny as well. Gray is in the spotlight these days for continuing prowess in the auction house world and because of the renovation of her villa E-1027 at Rocquebrune.

It is interesting to see how history has bestowed a position of esteem on this stubborn rebel of the design world. She was a woman of her time - a fascinating and troubled time of the first decades of the 20th century when anything seemed possible and change in everything seemed necessary  - and yet she was apart. A woman in furniture design and architecture, an Irishwoman in France, an aristocrate in a bohemian setting - one has to believe she enjoyed setting herself apart. She was shy - and yet she intrepidly followed her own beliefs and interpreted her epoch as only she could. Her work is based on symbolic conceptions and ideals that went beyond form and surface and which gave fire to her exceptional design talent.

The Dragon Chair is an example of her interest in Oriental philosophy. Christie's lot description states,"the dragon has a history in Chinese iconography as a symbol of strength and goodness, with the power to protect and to guard. The dragon is often illustrated toying with a pearl (zhu) which in turn is a symbol of strength associated with the moon and with thunder.... The entire sculptural form of the present armchair could be interpreted as representing a pearl within its shell, encircled by the dragons." A designer really couldn't provide a client with better or more flattering comfort.

Eileen Gray came to settle in Paris in 1902 as a young Irish woman of 24 after attending the Slade School of Art in London as one of its first female students. She was from a somewhat forward-looking family of title and means with certain artistic propensities; her father was an amateur painter. She continued to study drawing in Paris at the Académies Colarosi and Julian, then made a turn toward the decorative arts by furthering her knowledge of lacquer techniques, her medium of choice during the first part of her career. What could be more suitable to her reserved, thoughtful personality than this ancient and painstaking method that requires a perfectly smooth surface as a base, then layer upon  layer of resine to achieve an exquisitely profound finish? Seizo Sougawara initiated Gray to this craft in 1907 making her the first of her generation  to use lacquer techniques for modern expression, rather than restoration of traditional chinoiserie  decors. Gray worked with  Sougawara for four years before leaving him to his next student, Jean Dunand ! (gazette-drouot). If Grey was reserved, she didn't let it stop her from doing the things she wanted to do. She was interested in new possibilities of her age and  piloted planes, drove fast cars, manned an ambulance during the beginning of WWI, but most importantly, she had the guts to march to her own beat as a designer.

Symbolism was important in her refined and luxurious early work. How appropriate that this picture in her tender youth shows her face elegantly framed by peacock feathers. With its numerous connotations, the very deorative peacock is symbol of immortality and ressurrection; its flesh was said never to decay, its eye-patterned feathers were supposed all-seeing and protective. Was it Eileen Gray's discretion then, reclusive character, that made it possible to forget her for a long period during her own lifetime? Or the fact than her limited production stayed in the hands of the few? She was known and recognized as an innovator until the late 1930s, then forgotten for most of the second half of her long life. In the years just prior to her death in 1976,  her work came out of hiding thanks to exhibits and sales which signaled the revival of interest in
"art deco" years.

The lacquer and mother-of-pearl panel Magicien de la Nuit or Om Mani Padme Hum was displayed at the 1913 Salon des Artists Décorateurs. It was here that Jacques Doucet, one of the foremost couturiers of the era and enlightened collector/bibliophile first saw Gray's work. The title  makes reference to one of the most famous Buddhist mantras. Tibetian monks believe that repeating it out loud or silently to oneself  invokes the powerful benevolent attention and blessings of Chenrezig, the embodiment of compassion (Dharma-haven). Doucet's knowledge of ancient Chinese art must have made him even more receptive to this work. He sought immediately to meet Gray; commissions and important introductions followed.

Le Destin

A duel-faced screen, Le Destin, is dated 1914 and was acquired by Doucet in that year. In 1912 he had sold off his 18th century antique furnishings in an historic auction and embarked on a creative collecting adventure with contemporary artists and designers.  Doucet is even credited with funding the budding Surrealist movement, since he hired Louis Aragon and André Breton to advise him in building his art collection and his library.  He chose Pierre Legrain and Paul Ruaud for his new interior decoration in order to harmonize new acquisitions and express his tastes for the avant-garde, integrating his collections of tribal and ancient oriental art.

The other side of the screen, Le Destin, shows swirling geometry 

Doucet was one of Gray's first and most important patrons. It was through his own sale-of-the-century, the 1972 auction of his collections by Hôtel Drouot, that Eileen Gray was rediscovered.
Yves Saint Laurent entered the competition for the screen which broke sales records of the time. My sources cannot confirm that he was successful in acquiring it.

Doucet's salon as shown in L'Illustration 1930

  He counted La Charmeuse de serpent by Douanier Rousseau and
Les Demoiselles d'Avignon de Picasso among his exceptional collection of paintings.
Pictured here is Gray's table Bilboquet next to a Marcel Coard canapé.

The Bilboquet table - it's name refers to the game of cup and ball.

Doucet's Cabinet d'Orient

Doucet had particular interest in ancient Chinese art and undoubtedly appreciated Gray's 
use of oriental symbols and iconography. The central piece is Gray's tasselled Lotus Table.
The screen, Le Destin was also placed in this room.

Lotus table

  The lotus is a recurrent theme for Gray and Doucet. The roots of a lotus are in the mud, the stem grows up through the water, and the heavily scented flower lies pristinely above the water, basking in the sunlight. This growth pattern indicates the progress of the soul from the primeval mud of materialism, through the waters of experience, and into the bright sunshine of enlightenment. (religionfacts)

Her most ambitious decoration project to date came in 1919 from Mme Mathieu Lévy, owner of a
celebrated millinery salon, Suzanne Talbot. Mme Lévy is photographed here by Baron de Meyer in her new surroundings. Gray had free run in her rue de Lota apartment and the result was spectacularly
glamorous and architectural.
The Dragon Armchair comes from this interior.

A clearer view of the dug-out canoe shaped daybed raised on twelve arched feet

and finished in textured brown lacquer and silver leaf. 

One of the most interesting inventions for the over-long hall of the apartment was the use of textured lacquer blocks set against the walls like bricks. Halfway down the room, the  blocks folded out perpendicular to the wall and broke up the otherwise awkward space.

This idea gave birth to free standing block screens which Gray was to use elsewhere. Hector Guimard
of art nouveau fame is said to have had one of these screens.
The road to architecture is not far off.
Eileen Gray was later to reject theses highly luxurious creations as she moved toward functional, socially-aware designs and even shuddered at the tassels on the Lotus table. That doesn't mean we can't enjoy it. Though her objectives changed, she was always a highly thoughtful and sensuous designer.
The Irishwoman who lived all her adult life in France and died as she wished, alone in her rue Bonaparte apartment, was buried in the famous cimetière Père-Lachaise. A telephone call to the cemetery has informed me that her plot was not renewed in 1998.
"Ca n'existe plus!"
With no offspring and a solitary life I guess it was to be expected,
but somehow, I don't think she'd mind.


What music was Eileen Gray listening to in these years? Probably to her close friend Damia
while wearing a Poiret gown.

for more on Eileen Gray:
Eileen Gray Designer and Architect by Philippe Garner
Eileen Gray by Caroline Constant
Apollo In Search of Eileen Gray
National Museum of Ireland

Photos: Christie's, Apollo, L'Illustration, Eileen Gray Designer and Architect


  1. Fabulous furniture as works of art!!
    Thank you for sharing these unique details! Eileen Gray, amazing woman!


  2. I love Eileen Gray. There is a wonderful documentary about her entitled Eileen Gray Invitation to a Voyage. Wonderful pictures of her house in the South of France.

  3. Once I again I am so very impressed by your scholarship. My native state, Oklahoma, joined the union in 1907 so the year always perks up my attention. Fascinating what was going on in that year around the world! Love her use of symbolism, of her trying to perfect a craft with meaning.

    ps my verification today is: lingu. Art in any language?

  4. Eileen Gray is an enigma( to me)- you have enlightened me today. The Doucet interiors I have always loved in overall appearance.Do we even speculate or know about the comfort of the daybed- did it even matter? Probably not.It is so oddly beautiful it defies me, the dragon chair (?) again there is to me this fine jeweled detailing and then a less than graceful looking chair. Her own changes to a more simple line may signal she was less than enamored with these pieces forms. The block screens just baffle me. All very mysterious-she must have devised it this way, No? A beautifully designed examination of Gray by you.

  5. Karena - So right the woman behind the work is amazing - one to admire.

    Lucindaville - I'd like to see it!

    HBD - thanks! You know, I think more and more I'm starting a fixation on certain years and numbers. 1881, 1907, 1919 - and grouping the whole shebang up to the end of WWII. The people who crosed paths or heard of each other in the news, the music, technology....
    Mmmm hmmm, you find your tea leaves in word verifications these days too? Lingu is perfect as art is a universal language.

  6. Little A - we can pick and choose! But imagine women breaking free from their corsets curled in that armchair in their fluid dresses and pants or draped and propped on that daybed dreaming of a business venture as with Mme Lévy! Gray rejected her early work because it was costly and extravagant. As a thoughtful person her ideals changed with the crash of the stock market, WWI, ... Not that she went with the flow - she led it - and as with all of us, was of her age. She always sought comfort and sensuous-ergonomic aspects in what she designed.

  7. wonderful post.
    i love her works.
    and how impressive was she to stand among the men, who dominated the industry at the time??


  8. I love these posts and hearing about how and why the piece was created! Thanks for the traditional metro pics too!
    Eileen Gray Table