Eileen Gray At the Design Museum, Shad Thames, London SE1, until 8 January
In many ways Eileen Gray was the invention of Joseph Rykwert, who in several articles - one in Domus in 1968, another in The Architectural Review - extracted Gray from the general background noise of forgotten Modernistas. Then, in 1972, there was an auction of the effects of the couturier Jacques Doucet, for whom Gray had designed in the 1910s. Her work was the hit of the auction.
Aram began making reproductions of several of Gray's inter-war furniture pieces, including the Bibendum chair and the E1027 bedside table. And it turned out that it was from the beach below the E1027 house at Cap Martin, designed by Gray in 1929 with her lover Jean Badovici, that Le Corbusier took his fateful last swim in 1965. The Eileen Gray industry had started.
Gray died in 1976, some time before the 1980 exhibition at New York's Museum of Modern Art, which crowned her as a major Modernist. Now comes this Design Museum show. It is arranged as a long hallway with three rooms off each side - one serving as the entrance foyer. The rooms are quasi-installations, with giant photos of selected interiors populated by real examples of appropriate furniture.
Naturally the E1027 table features in several of these set pieces: a fixed, polished metal version; and two glass versions - one adjustable, one not - in both of which the glass has fractured around the hole - the result, you imagine, of inadequate polishing to relieve the stresses of cutting.
For AJ readers the most interesting bits will be the models of Gray's architectural designs. Eight of them are arranged down the central hallway on a very long and very low table. Annoyingly, the designer makes you trail down the length of the table before you are allowed to come back up the other side, where you have to crouch to read the captions - all framed in overcute little sawtooth holders.
Built by Michigan University architecture students in plain wafer-thin timber, directly from her drawings, the models give the observer a grasp of the abstractions of Gray's three-dimensional design. The limitations of this abstracting in plain timber are revealed most in her amusing little camping tent. It reads in model form as an interesting grouping of sections of geometric shapes. When you look at the drawings, the design turns out to be largely canvas, with lots of lacing and eyelets, relying more on pram-hood technology than on the semiPhileban forms hinted at by the solid model. But either way it's fun.
What does the exhibition tell us? We have all learned how to do the respectful knee-jerk reaction to the name Eileen Gray. But then look at her built output. It is, as the Design Museum's notes say, 'negligible - two houses, both designed for herself'; and the notes also acknowledge that it was her family wealth that enabled Gray to continue working and living in Paris, rather than County Wexford. And, at least after the Second World War, she did so in self-imposed obscurity, during which she was 'documenting her work'.
For three decades? Nothing wrong with rich, nothing wrong with misunderstood, and nothing wrong with negligible output. But, after viewing the show, you are a tad inclined to go 'hmmm'. Especially when we could do with equally serious Design Museum exhibitions on masters of the inter-war French years, starting with, say, Robert Mallet-Stevens and Andre Lurçat. 'Who?' you ask. That is exactly why we need them.
Sutherland Lyall is an architectural journalist