In WWI Paris became her home. Gray first exhibited her designs at the 1913 Salon des Artistes Décorateurs in Paris, after which Parisian collector Jacques Doucet became her first important client. In the years after the war, Gray’s work gradually moved toward a more overtly modernist style.
Her first complete interior design project, 1919–22, was the Paris apartment of milliner Suzanne Talbot on the Rue de Lota. It is a striking, mostly black-and- white combination of the exotic and the avant-garde. The objects Gray designed for it included the Bibendum chair and the Dragon chair. In 1922 Gray opened a shop called Jean Désert, on Paris’s chic Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, to sell her own and others’ modern furnishings. Her rich Bibendum chair 1925 had a backrest made from two stuffed u-shaped pieces of leather, resting in tubular steel.
Gray’s most familiar design is the occasional table, made for the holiday home that she designed and built between in the late 1920s - an ingeniously telescoping circlet of tubular chrome-steel and glass. Her 1925 daybed showed Gray's geometric forms in steel and plush leather.
And there was a clear influence from the Bauhaus designers. In Germany Marcel Breuer’s Wassily chair 1927, the frame was first made from a tubular steel, and soon chrome plated. Designed for Kandinsky's flat at Dessau Bauhaus, the rest was made from canvas or leather. In time, it was modified many times and mass produced. Inspired by Marcel Breuer's Wassily chair, Eileen Gray’s Transat chair 1930 was simple, elegant and dressed with brass fittings. And it had an upholstered seat with an adjustable head rest suspended within an angular wooden frame. In the 1930s she created the unusual folding S-chair, a simple upholstered seat between a dramatically curved metal frame.
Gray designed furniture for particular clients or for her own residences; none was made purely for the market, and all were done in very small quantities. And she created all of her furniture herself, which accounts for its perfection of detail. Consider how radical it was for its time; using chrome-steel and glass at the same time as Marcel Breuer and Mies van der Rohe were. We know the influence of technology was transforming taste and so during the late 1920s-early 1930s when she designed some of her furniture, it was of course Deco.
The V & A said Gray was initially known for her work in the Art Deco style but by the mid 1920s, particularly under the influence of Le Corbusier, she became a proponent of Modernism. But this doesn't make sense to me. Was Deco not modernist in its time?
E1027 was Gray’s first architectural work, completed in 1929 when she was 51. On the Côte d’Azur, this was a pioneering and accomplished work of the modern movement in architecture, putting into practice ideas that were still new. More than that, it brought essential qualities into building that other modernists lacked. Le Corbusier visited and, apparently outraged that a woman could have made such a significant work in HIS style, assaulted it with a series of garish and ugly wall paintings, executed whilst completely naked. He later built a retreat for himself nearby. Nonetheless so famous was she that in 1937, Gray was invited to exhibit her design for Le Corbusier's Esprit Nouveau pavilion at the Paris Exposition.
Then tastes changed and Gray's reputation seemed to fade. Only in the 1970s did scholarly journals and small exhibitions start her re-discovery.
Recently Gray's marketability has been hot! People were stunned at the Feb 2009 auction of Yves St Laurent and Pierre Berge collections in Paris. Her strange horned armchair, the 1922 Dragon chair, fetched an eye-watering €19.5 million/$A43 million, eclipsing all records for 20th century design! And a major retrospective opened at Centre Pompidou in Paris in 2013, re-confirming Eileen Gray’s status as one of the most brilliant designers of the C20th.
As ever, the timing is perfect. A documentary Great Matters (2015) has been made about the tense relationship between Gray and Le Corbusier. Directed by Mary McGuckian, it is showing throughout October 2015 at Melbourne’s ACMI.