- Charles Eames
- Verner Panton
- Le Corbusier
- Eileen Gray
- Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
- Arne Jacobsen
- George Nelson
Tragically neglected throughout her career, it is only in the last 30 years that Eileen Gray has become internationally acknowledged to be one of the most influential female furniture designers and architects of the 20th Century, inspiring both Art Deco and Modernist comtemporaries.
She was born Kathleen Eileen Moray in 1878, the youngest of five, in the small Irish market town of Enniscorthy. During childhood, the children all took the name Gray –the name her mother’s aristocratic family. Eileen enjoyed a fairly privileged upbringing, travelling between family homes in her native Ireland and West London with her father James – who was a keen amateur artist and supporter of Eileen’s creative side.
On leaving school, Gray enrolled at the Slade Art School in London, before studying at both the Académie Julian and the École Colarossi in Paris. On completion of her studies, Gray returned to London in 1905 to nurse her sick mother and it was here, under the expert tutelage of a Japanese national called Sugawara, that she became fascinated and consumed by lacquer working. This was to have a great influence on much of her later work, as well as her health – as she contracted the very painful "lacquer disease" in her hands. In 1913 Gray held her first lacquer panel exhibition in Paris, which generated some interest in her work, but by the outbreak of the first world war, she was back in London and once again living off the generosity of her family. Towards the end of the war Gray was back in Paris working as a bespoke interior designer – where her geometric designs won her a number of commissions.
In 1922 she opened her own gallery - Galerie Jean Désert, named after a male completely fictitious ‘owner’. She felt so oppressed as a female in such a male dominated profession that she never served in the gallery herself, but instead agonised over the design of every single part of it. The gallery achieved some critical success, but it was never directly attributed to her.
By the late 1920’s Gray had turned her attention to house design and she oversaw a number of important projects. The design of her houses tended to be modern and again Gray liked to oversee every aspect of their design, from the decoration on the walls, the floor coverings and even all of the furniture. Her iconic Bibendum chair and elegant E1027 steel and glass tubular table were first showcased in this way, but sadly little was made of them at the time.
Much of her work was destroyed during the Second World War, but by this time she had given up looking for public approval of her designs and she was largely living in a reclusive state. Her work was then largely forgotten until a 1968 magazine article and subsequent 1972 auction brought her back to the attention of an interested public, which led to a number of her famous designs going back into production. Now in her 80’s, this newly found acclaim was met with scepticism – being so used to working alone and for her own pleasure.
She died in 1976 alone in her French apartment. Eileen Gray’s story is a tragic one in many ways. Had she been male she would almost certainly enjoyed the success and public adoration heaped on contemporaries such as Le Corbusier and Jean Prouvé. Gray chose a very singular path and as a consequence was confined to obscurity, but this unswerving and genuinely unique outlook has been the main reason for her critical success today.