13 October 2015

Eileen Gray, modern furniture designer: auction prices soar

Irish designer Kathleen Smithin aka Eileen Gray (1878-1976) was born in Co. Wexford. While studying at London’s Slade School of Art, where Gray was one of the first women admitted, she visited the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1900, the apogee of Art Nouveau. And the infl­uence of this can be seen in her early work. During the years 1900-6 she travelled between London, Paris and back home to Ireland.

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.

day bed

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?

dragon chair

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.

occasional table

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.


Pommy said...

$43 million for a single chair! Could the Sydney Morning Herald have got their sums wrong?

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, I am not surprised that Gray's pieces have taken off. Made in small quantities and with the highest quality and individual attention, the furniture represented the highest style of its time, yet still was not too apart from the "accepted" avant-garde as represented by Le Corbusier, etc. Sometimes we get used to seeing cheap copies of these designs, and examining the originals can be a revelation.

Another Student of History said...

I agree that rare, well made furniture will make a fortune if we wait for a few generations. Who could afford $A43 million for one chair. Maybe a wealthy private collector, maybe huge public gallery.

Hels said...


Christie's agreed with the sale price in euros (€21,905,000 incl taxes and auctions costs) but not in dollars. That might mean that the dollar price given by the Sydney Morning Herald was wrong OR that the relative values of the two currencies have changed since 2009.


In either case, that was one, very expensive dragon chair!

Hels said...


agreed. Plus there is another consideration which you yourself have mentioned before in the past. The dragon in Chinese iconography was often seen as a symbol of strength and goodness. So a dragon chair is not merely an object to sit on... rather it is an object with the power to protect and to guard.

I have seen this chair described as beautifully made, but ugly to look at. I suppose it depends (as ever) on the eye of the beholder.

Hels said...

Another Student,

I thought I would never find the buyer's name but it popped up very easily. Robert and Cheska Vallois opened an Art Deco gallery in 1971 at rue de Seine in Saint-Germain des Prés. Cheska owned the dragon chair in the past and sold it for a song, many decades ago. This time, when it came into the auction market again, Cheska Vallois was not about to let it go.

I too have sold art objects I later wept over, but there is a big difference. I would jump from $500 all the way up to $750, to get my beloved object back. Cheska jumped from $2,700 all the way up to $43 million *sigh*