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Eileen Gray - the original eminence grise

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Though she waited years to receive proper recognition, says Joseph Rykwert, Eileen Gray was the designer behind one of modernism’s iconic buildings

In about 1965, that much underestimated painter Prunella Clough asked me if I knew her aunt’s work. An aunt’s work? I imagined charming watercolours. I should have known better. Clough was referring to E.1027, the fabulous and, to me, venerable ‘Maison en Bord de Mer’ on the Côte d’Azur, France.

What I found so entrancing was not only the splendid house, but the way in which its designer, Clough’s aunt Eileen Gray, managed to create a complete, relaxed yet bracing seaside dwelling to which all the details contributed. This portfolio of attributes was part of the mythology of modernism, even if odd photographs of the house have appeared showing Le Corbusier’s ambiguous reliefs on its walls. E.1027 is only yards from where Le Corbusier would build his seaside Cabanon, to which an exhibition is currently devoted at the RIBA.

Until 1965, I had always associated Eileen Gray’s name with the Vacation Centre, a project of which Le Corbusier had shown a model in the tented Pavillon des Temps Nouveaux at the Paris Exposition of 1937, and had also reproduced in ‘Des canons, des munitions? Merci! Des Logis SVP!’, his garish anti-war propaganda book.

But all that was rather sketchy. I had no idea that this shadowy figure, Gray, was still alive and living in the middle of Paris – and I was over the moon when Clough offered to introduce me. We met in the cobbled courtyard of the Rue Bonaparte, opposite the École des Beaux-Arts, and walked up to the apartment she had occupied since 1907. From it, Gray had launched her greatest work, much of it in lacquer. In spite of an allergy, she was one of the most skilled and entrancing lacquer artists in the West, later using it for her furniture designs.

A brilliantly stylish Slade School of Fine Art student, Gray devised her own art-deco manner well before 1914, a decade ahead of the style, and was part of a smart, cosmopolitan, self-consciously ‘modern’ group. When Hubert Latham made his unsuccessful bid to fly the Channel in 1909, she followed in a boat. ‘He didn’t quite make it, but we had a lovely dinner at the Ritz afterwards,’ was her comment. In the mid-1920s, her furniture and interior designs, which by then had become closer to de Stijl, were published in Wendingen, the most ‘advanced’ architectural journal of the time.

Although her work was attributed either to Badovici or Le Corbusier, Gray was sharply conscious of authorship

It was about this time that Gray fell in with Jean Badovici, a Romanian emigrant. Badovici’s own periodical, L’Architecture Vivante, a series of portfolios with loose plates in dark sepia gravure and occasional stencilled colour, became another vital architectural publication between the wars. E.1027 was an Architecture Vivante portfolio, and one of just two houses designed by Gray. The other, not far away at Castellar, was owned by British painter Graham Sutherland for a time.

Badovici guided Gray, who was moving from furniture and rugs to interiors towards architecture. Although she only built for herself and her work was attributed either to Badovici himself or to Le Corbusier initially, she was sharply conscious of authorship. One day I went to see the Maison de Verre, which was not yet famous. On returning to have a drink with Gray, she asked where I had been. I told her. ‘C’est quoi, la Maison de Verre?,’ she asked, puzzled. ‘It’s the house which Pierre Chareau did in Rue St Guillaume,’ I replied. ‘Pierre did a glass house?’ she asked. ‘Yes,’ I said, ‘for Dr Dalsace.’ It was round the corner from Rue Bonaparte. ‘Ah yes,’ she said, brightening up. ‘But that wasn’t Pierre, you know. It was that very clever Dutchman.’

The name of ‘that very clever Dutchman’, Bernard Bijvoet, is indeed marked on one of the Maison de Verre’s stanchions. Chareau’s other work is forgotten, but Bijvoet and his partner Duiker are numbered alongside the true architects of the 20th century. Gray’s memory didn’t play her false – her work being attributed to Le Corbusier or Badovici irritated her as much that of Bijvoet being attributed to Chareau. Does it really matter who did what? I think it does. A blurred past can lead to a muddled present.

Le Corbusier’s Cabanon 1952/2006 – The Interior 1:1 runs until 28 April at the RIBA, 66 Portland Place, London W1.

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