“Small brown armchair sells for €21.9m” – that was the headline that propelled the name Eileen Gray back into public consciousness in 2009 when a piece of furniture designed by an Irish-born woman went for six times its estimate at auction in Paris, during a global recession.
Now regarded as one of the most influential designer-architects of the twentieth century, between the 1940s and the late 1960s Gray almost completely disappeared from view. Her original pieces are rare and coveted by collectors, not least because until mass production of some of her designs began in the 1970s, she produced mostly individual prototypes.
There are two indisputable lessons to be learnt from a long-overdue show of Gray’s work, which originated in the Pompidou Centre in Paris, and has now opened at the Irish Museum of Modern Art. Firstly, that there is something consistently right about the way in which Gray’s designs click, a pleasing satisfaction to the airy yet solid elegance of it all, to how her furniture and buildings are designed to work. The second lesson is that sometimes furniture can be art.
That record-breaking Dragon’s Armchair, produced around 1919, is not part of this excellent show, which marks IMMA’s return to its Royal Hospital Kilmainham home after an almost two year closure, but just looking at photos of its squat stylishness one hopes the new owner felt immediately compelled to sit on it, rather than admire it from afar, as untouchable art.
The title of the IMMA show – Eileen Gray: Architect, designer, painter – goes a step too far. Gray was not a painter, although she studied painting, first in London then Paris. Her paintings are mildly diverting experiments in colour, pattern, scale and form, more visual notes to self than artworks in their own right. But that’s ok, because there’s no doubt that Gray was an artist. Her skill lay in producing aesthetically sound, functional objects.
She made chairs with spines that undulate, tables that slide, drawers that pivot, headrests that tilt; railings, roofs and steps that seem to slot into place. She said, “An object must be given the form best suited to the spontaneous gesture or the instinctive reflex that corresponds to its purpose.” What she meant was that furniture should move in sympathy with the needs of the human body; that buildings and living spaces should respond to their environment and the physical requirements of the people within in, as well as being visually pleasing.
Gray’s output can be catagorised as art, but something strange also happens when a gallery displays it as such. Yes, her furniture was meant to be admired for its aesthetic qualities, but it was also intended for use, for physical interaction. At IMMA by necessity, pieces of furniture are offered for view almost as sculptural objects. Tables and chairs, most of which appear to have been well-used in their time, are transformed into untouchable artworks and placed in an oddly limbo-like, lighted and labelled, staged space. They feel a little dead, like specimens on display, but Gray’s enduring legacy lies in the fact that her pieces still call out to be used. It is impossible to encounter them without wanting to open the drawers and adjust the height of the tables, to sit on the chairs to see how they feel.
Her striking lacquer work Brick Screen is given the air of a precious treasure by dint of its presentation in a painted wooden, glass fronted box, essentially framed like a piece of art. Behind the glass, it boasts industrial looking bolts at the top, stoppers for the rods that hold its mobile concertina structure in place. The criss-cross of the black panels implies movement even when it is still. As with all of her best designs, it is airy and solid, elegant and industrial, beautiful and functional. Gray moved quickly from her early work which was more Art Deco in style to Modernist-influenced pieces using her trademark tubular steel, lacquer and leather, object that frequently seem to marry the qualities of mechanical structures with those of domestic furnishings.
Examples of Gray’s unique vision range from her most iconic pieces (some of which are in production today) to little known items of furniture and plans for unrealised projects, including her delightful 1931 Camping Tent. The delicate solidity of her 1931 Celluloid Screen, on loan from the National Museum of Ireland and which was not part of the Pompidou exhibition, is a revelation.
Her awareness of joins and pivot points as both functional and beautiful is apparent in her Transat Chair and Adjustable Table, designed between 1926 and 1929 for her now infamous E1027 home on the French Riviera, still the subject of a controversial restoration project.
This is an intimate show, including letters and family photos. It highlights her relationship with her contemporaries, in particular the architect Le Corbusier and the architecture critic Jean Badovici, for and with whom she designed and lived in E1027, but also members of the Dutch De Stijl movement, who were the first to see Gray as artist, and her first client Jacques Doucet.
Despite it all, Gray remains a somewhat intangible figure. As with all artists, a stronger sense of what made her tick comes from looking at the objects she made. In 1924 Badovici described her art as “a way of life”. It was and is more about a way of living than anything else.
Very few of her pieces are static, immobile. They are designed for moving and shifting, for use. In general, the scale and proportions seem best suited to a smaller, female frame, certainly these are not pieces for large bodies.
Gray spent most of her life in France. Although she was born in Enniscorthy in 1878, her family lived between there and London. She worked in Paris as a lacquer artist and then as an interior designer, which led to her interest in Modernism and architecture. In 1922 she opened Galerie Jean Désert in Paris to sell her furniture and that of some of her friends. She moved in fashionable lesbian circles. Before Badovici, most of her romantic relationships were with women.
After falling out with Le Corbusier over murals he painted at E1027, she lived reclusively in the 1940s and 50s supported by her family’s money, until the rediscovery of her work in the late 1960s by which time she was in her late eighties. The apartment she bought in Paris in 1907 is the one in which she died in 1976, surrounded by items of her own design. This show includes a standard lamp from 1925 that remained in use in the apartment until her death there aged 98, as well as a four panel cork screen, her final design drafted in the 1960s.
This is a show of lost buildings, saved ideas and a significant amount of rescued furniture. It is remarkable that someone who worked actively for such a short period of time could have made such an impact, with such a compact collection of work. As the exhibition catalogue points out, “the Jean Désert decade represents Gray’s most prolific period.” Essentially that was from 1922 to 1930.
After a closure of almost two years, IMMA has sensibly re-opened with a comprehensive show by a name likely to attract a wide range of audiences. Rescued from oblivion, Gray has been a good choice, not least because she proves there’s more than one way to be an artist.
Eileen Gray: Architect, Designer, Painter – Irish Museum of Modern Art is at the Irish Museum of Modern Art until 19 January 2014.