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Modernist credentials

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Eileen Gray By Caroline Constant. Phaidon, 2000. 256pp. £35

Eileen Gray (1878-1976), the extraordinary self-taught interior designer turned architect, has attracted cult status since she was 'discovered' in the late 1960s.

Peter Adam's melancholic biography of 1987 describes a shy, bisexual woman frustrated by lack of recognition, even from those she loved, and particularly from Jean Badovici, the young architect who tempted her towards building. She designed her first buildings for Badovici - a series of house conversions in Vezelay and the holiday home for which she is today best known, E1027, its very name a play on their entwined initials. How much money did she spend on him during the 1920s and '30s?

It is helpful to read Adam first, not least for the clear photographs and captions; in Constant's book the same images are reduced to grey smears straddled by brown captions. The brownness of the design is not only a strange reversal of Phaidon's coffeetable values, but makes it hard to get stuck into the text. But battle on, for this is an excellent and thought-provoking read.

Constant's study of the earlier Vezelay commissions debunks the myth that E1027 appeared almost out of nowhere. By concentrating on her architecture, she shows Gray as a stronger figure than has hitherto been acknowledged - one who can hold her place in the history of Modernism unapologetically.

Her furniture and interiors had already been discovered by members of the De Stijl group, but her introduction to Badovici was critical. Their travels together introduced her to the latest buildings and ideas (for example, Weissenhofsiedlung) and also to Mexico and Peru. His magazine, L'Architecture Vivante, was perhaps the most significant international periodical of its day, and Gray not only learned from it but contributed to many of its theoretical articles, often in the form of a dialogue with Badovici.

The most significant of these, published in the winter of 1929 and jointly credited, describes the balance of functionalism and personal statement that informed E1027. Few artists leave such a clear expression of their aims. This is printed in full as one of Constant's copious appendices, which also include a full catalogue of Gray's architectural projects and a chronology of her life, as well as short biographies of many contemporaries.

Gray's ideas emerge forcefully from a solid discussion of the thoughts and influences of her contemporaries, particularly of Le Corbusier and of Parisian design groups such as the Union des Artistes Moderne. Indeed the book is a valuable critique of Modernist philosophy in the late '20s and early '30s.

Gray's conversion from designer to architect was by no means unusual in the '20s.

Her career makes an interesting comparison with that of Pierre Chareau, five years her junior and whose output is similarly limited.

There are considerable similarities in their furniture designs of around 1930, in their use of folding mesh screens, and cupboards and drawers that can be extended sideways as well as outwards.

Both designed reductively for minimal living. But Gray creates a more humane, sentient brand of Modernism and a greater spatial awareness that is also entirely Modern in that it fulfills all five of Le Corbusier's tenets. It is ironic, given their many arguments, that it is largely thanks to the eight or nine murals Le Corbusier painted at E1027 in 1938 for Badovici, that the house survives. Vandalised by squatters in 1998, the local council has now acquired it with a view to restoration.

By the mid '30s Gray had abandoned all connections with the Paris intelligentsia and was building entirely independently. Tempe a Paille, completed in 1934, incorporates three stone cisterns, a fusion of old and new materials that antedates examples by Le Corbusier and Marcel Breuer. One could paraphrase Virginia Woolf 's maxim that 'a woman needs money and a room of her own' if she is to design. That is why there weren't more women architects in the '20s.

Constant has finally convinced me that Gray was also a good one.

Elain Harwood is a historian with English Heritage

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