The Enigma of Eileen Gray
It’s an all too familiar story, girl meets boy, they fall in love, she locates, excavates, designs, builds then dedicates the house to their relationship - e.1027 is an encryption of the couple’s initials. It’s their summer house to enjoy, located on an isolated rocky hillside on the western side of Cap Martin overlooking the Bay of Monaco. The house is strikingly modern – a solid rectangular shape raised on pillars – but with sensual interior elements. For her, a house is a living thing, an extension of the human experience, not “a machine for living in” which is what her boyfriend’s overbearing architect friend keeps telling her. “It’s not a matter of simply constructing beautiful ensembles of lines, but above all, dwellings for people,” she says. “Formulas are nothing,” she insists, “Life is everything.”
They have some good times but eventually the relationship sours, his drinking and womanising replace the romance and she leaves. He keeps the house and hosts parties for his artist and architect friends, one of which - who’s supposedly her friend too – later decides to strip out some of the interior elements of the house because he feels they are ‘pseudo’ and paints erotic murals over the walls. As time passes the house is seen as a house made by men namely her ex, the architect critic Jean Badovici and the architect Charles-Édouard Jeanneret better known as Le Corbusier, whilst the creator is side-lined and her work forgotten until the late 20th century. Her name is Eileen Gray.
Eileen Gray was born into a wealthy family in Ireland in 1878 but spent her childhood in London. With the financial independence to pursue life as she wanted through her mother’s inheritance, she chose a rather more unconventional one than many of her peers. Gray was among the first women to be admitted to the Slade School of Art, which she followed with an apprenticeship in a lacquer atelier. She then established herself in Paris, as one of the leading designers of lacquered screens and furniture, and in 1922 opened a gallery, Jean Désert, in Rue du Fauborg Saint Honoré to sell her own work; by 1929 Gray had 12 women working for her in her workshop. Gray was an absolute tour de force, in current terms, she’d be described as a multi-disciplinary entrepreneur – whose career spanned, art, craft, retail and architecture.
As for her architectural work, e.1027 was one of three realised buildings, and her first foray into architecture which is now seen as a benchmark of modernist design. It was completed in 1929, in the same year that Le Corbusier began building his iconic Villa Savoye - a constructed experiment based upon his manifesto for modern architecture. His 5 principles dictated that modern buildings should have: reinforced concrete pilotis (columns or stilts) that supported the building, an open plan design, a free façade that allows an uninterrupted view, from the essential, horizontal ‘ribbon’ windows and a roof garden. Gray’s house followed these principles, yet in her design, she developed her own approach, allowing the inhabitants to maintain a feeling of intimacy and privacy; something she valued enormously. For example, a screen that hid the living room-boudoir, something that Le Corbusier took particular exception to and removed at a later date when he visited the house. Perhaps this was one of the reasons why Le Corbusier was so intrigued and frustrated by Gray? This was a woman, who had willfuly diverged from his manifesto in her first architectural build, and confidently executed her own ideas as well as making her own fundamental contribution towards modern architecture.
When Corbusier’s murals were published in a magazine in the late 30s, he doesn’t credit the building as designed by her and yet they continue to correspond throughout their lives. This strange relationship deserves more analysis but so obsessed was Le Corbusier by the locale - and one must assume e.1027 and its architect - he built his own summer house, a modest cabana just above the site, and poignantly, when died in 1965 it was in the sea below the e.1027 house.
In fact, it was Corbusier’s fame and the conservation of his e.1027 murals that led to the restoration of the rest of the building. After years of neglect and historical inaccuracy about its design, construction and life; e.1027 has over the last decade been restored and its creative ownership rightly attributed to designer and architect, Eileen Gray. e.1027 stands as an exemplary product of its time, a modern, sensual yet stoic reminder that this woman’s work matters.