Furniture in Focus: Eileen Gray

Today’s “Google Doodle” which, let’s face it, is where most of us are reminded of these important calendar dates when we boot up our computers in the morning to blearily work our way through the spam emails from the night before, reminds us of the achievements of a number of feminist pioneers. Amongst the line-up of cultural icons and activists are artists, designers and architects: some of the most influential tastemakers of the last century who helped define the way that we see the world around us today.

With this in mind, we profile one of the few women who were able to break through the prejudices of the early 20th century and become successful and well regarded as a furniture maker in their own time, Eileen Gray.

Gray was born into a privileged family in South East Ireland in 1878, eventually becoming Baroness Gray on the death of her mother in 1895. From her early childhood it was clear that she had artistic talent and her father, the painter James McLaren Smith, encouraged her to pursue this as a career. She was one of the first women to enrol in the Slade School of fine art in 1898, where she was tutored in painting and drawing, but early in her studies it became obvious to Gray that her passion lay in design and architecture.

In the late 19th century Britain was in the midst of a torrid love affair with all things Japanese. The island nation, which for the past 2 centuries had been virtually barred to any foreign trade and influence, finally began to open itself to the outside world. In 1848 an American whaler named Ranald Macdonald (no, not him!), who risked death to sneak ashore at Rishiri Island off the north coast of Japan, was employed by the Japanese government to teach some high-ranking Japanese, who were already proficient in Dutch, to speak English. The effects of this were truly felt when 1858 the Treaty of Amity and Commerce were signed by representatives of both countries, allowing British traders access to Japan’s markets and in turn causing a flood of Japanese products to become available in Britain.

This new trend, known as Japonism, proved immensely popular, with the initial trade predominately in luxury goods; particularly furniture and artwork (Pokémon, Power Rangers and Sony Walkman would come later). Sensing opportunity a number of new specialist businesses, including lacquerers, sprang up to make repairs to the fashionable and expensive items. Traditional Japanese lacquering is a painstaking process of coating wooden objects such as panels, bowls and furniture in the sap secretion of certain trees belonging to the Toxicodendron genus. This sap can be dyed and when applied in multiple coats produces a durable, waterproof and attractive coating. One such Lacquerer, Mr D. Charles, took Eileen Gray on as an apprentice in 1898 and she studied with him until 1902 when she left for Paris to live with some friends from the Slade. She had previously visited Paris in 1900 where she saw the famous Exposition Universalle and was drawn to the Art Nouveau designs of Charles Rennie Mackintosh and his contemporaries, which inspired her to continue her studies of lacquer work and cabinetry.

When she left England Mr Charles effected an introduction to Seizo Sugawara, a Japanese immigrant to Paris who would continue to tutor her in the art of lacquerware until 1913 when she began publically exhibiting her work for the first time. When the First World War broke out Gray and Sugawara left for London together and did not return until 1917 when she began her most famous early commission, designing an apartment on the Rue de Lota for the successful Milliner and collector of tribal art Madame Mathieu Lévy. Amongst the plain white lacquered wooden panelling on the walls, Gray designed and created several of her most famous and striking pieces including the famous Dragon Chair, a lacquered wooden chair upholstered in fine leather, and the Pirogue Boat Bed, another lacquered wooden piece. Both items take inspiration from the tribal aesthetic of Lévy’s collection, mixing it with the art Nouveau styling that was popular at the time to create some beautiful pieces. The Dragon Chair set a new record of 20th century decorative art when it was auctioned as part of the Yves Saint Laurent estate in 2009 for a cool $28.3 million, smashing the previous record that had been set by a piece of her furniture of £209,000 for her Mermaid Chair in 1989 by some margin! It is for her work of this period, which marries this traditional Japanese technique with cutting edge European design, that she is best known.

As the 20’s drew to a close design tastes changed and with the birth of modernism Gray abandoned furniture to focus on architecture, working with famous luminaries of the new style such as le Corbusier. As fashion moved on Gray found herself unable or unwilling to keep up and faded into obscurity, though she continued working into her 90’s. In the 1970’s, near the end of her life, her work was rediscovered by academics and design students following major exhibitions at the Victoria and Albert Museum and her election to a fellowship of the Royal institute of Irish Architects. Now she is once again recognised as one of the most important figures working in design in Paris in the 1920’s.

Blog | 7 years AGO