Eileen Gray, Designer of Art Deco, Part Two

Eileen Gray (1878-1956)

Art Deco Furniture Design, Part Two

The story of Eileen Gray, who vanished from history, leaving behind some of the most famous and iconic designs of the early twentieth century, is a strange one. She possessed many names, Kathleen Eileen Moray Gray, but used only two. Marked by fame, followed by erasure, this Irish designer shifted from Ireland, her home country, to England, to Paris, back to London during the Great War, and finally back to her expatriate life in Paris. Unlike the British Isles, Paris was the best city for an ambitious designer and one of the few cities open-minded enough to support a business run by a woman. Although Gray worked with several men, she was not overshadowed by them nor, on the other hand, was she connected to a fellow artist. Therefore, unlike Sonia Delaunay, for example, there was no masculine fame to connect her to art history and gradually, she slipped from view, barely living long enough to be rediscovered. And yet, in her own time, Gray, like Delaunay, was a success, running her own business and designing for the wealthy and famous. The peak of her career was the decade before the Great War and the decade after the War, the period when she transitioned back and forth between design and architecture. By the 1930s, Gray was beginning her withdrawal from a world where she once led in innovation. Her furniture was left behind, part of elegant homes of the famous, and it was the fame of the clients that assured the survival of the art of Eileen Gray.

One of her early clients was Madame Mathieu Lévy, who designed the “Suzanne Talbot” line of couture dresses, hats, and other accessories. Today Lévy’s name is rarely uttered, and her work is displayed under “Suzanne Talbot,” a brand connected more to hat designs in the 1920s, she was one of the best-known couturiers of her time. Like Eileen Gray, the fashion designer was very interested in non-European cultures and her objects and clothing were difficult to “place” in fashion history. Madame Mathieu Lévy’s work was not obviously Art Deco in that it was not connected to late Cubism, but, in common with some aspects of Art Deco, her response to the culture of the twenties was one of global eclecticism. Ironically, like Gray, history has left Lévy stranded, and today she is one of the lesser known designers. But, in her own time, Lévy was among the numerous famous female designers of the years before the Second World War. She commissioned Gray, who also did not quite fit into a precise slot, to furnish her apartment on rue de Lotta. Because Gray designed labor intensive lacquer pieces for the apartment, this project took several years, with various sources citing periods from 1917 to 1921 or from 1919 to 1922. The time period of the commission was an unexpectedly fraught one, for a disruptive war would change the world of design from one of handcraft and art to one of industrial design, making it a challenge for Gray to fulfill the client’s brief: to make the apartment as up to date, as modern, as cutting edge as possible.

Dragons Chair (1919)

Today the most famous of her early hand-made works for Lévy is the Dragons Chair (Fauteuil aux Dragons) that dates from 1917 or 1919. The Dragons (or Dragon) chair took two years to craft. This small chair was only twenty-four inches tall and, when the brown leather chair came up for auction, Christie’s described it as “small.” Once owned by Yves St.-Laurent and sold from his estate for $28 million, the arms of the Dragons armchair are a pair of carved and spotted wooden snakes which wind around and become the feet of the chair. Christie’s described the complicated and unique chair: “In the form of unfurling petals, upholstered in brown leather, the frame in sculpted wood, lacquered brownish orange and silver and modelled as the serpentine, intertwined bodies of two dragons, their eyes in black lacquer on a white ground, their bodies decorated in low relief with stylised clouds.” The Dragons Chair had an equally unexpected companion: a dug-out canoe, its exterior lacquered in brown and its interior covered in silver leaf, repurposed into a day bed standing on twelve pointy feet. This Pirogue sofa bed, created after the Great War was made of brown lacquer with a tortoise shell overlay. The animal-like bed made sense of the arms of the Dragons Chair which were also brown lacquer, animalistic in that the arms wound themselves up and down the sides of the chair, becoming its legs. These very special pieces of furniture were homage to the client’s interest in Tribal Art in Africa, and frequently the so-called Dragons Chair is called the Serpents Chair. But during and immediately afer the War, the art scene shifted decisively. Gray had returned to England in 1915 to serve her nation and she had come into contact with the waning movement of Vorticism. Dedicated to machines and asserting the primacy of the British claim to the Industrial Revolution, Vorticism was a preview of the post-war machine aesthetic.

 

Rue de Lotta Apartment

The dedication to handwork and the insistence of Eileen Gray that household furnishings could be works of art changed after the Great War. Once the fighting stopped and the Treaty of Versailles was finally concluded, the international arts community regained contact with one another and the ideas of the new Russian Avant-garde and the Dutch De Stijl, not to mention the new German movement of the Bauhaus, began to circulate. Although Eileen Gray altered her aesthetic completely, the change was gradual. In 1922, she opened her own shop to show her own unique products. The elegant store, named Jean Désert was optimally located in the fashionable street, Rue )Fauborg Saint Honoré. At the 14th Salon des Artistes Décorateurs in 1923, Gray unveiled an entire room, a boudoir, with walls, ceiling, and sets of folding screens covered in white lacquer. The canoe daybed reappeared, complete with a fur throw for a texture contrast, placed near a long low table bearing ornaments and, on the other side of the room, a low carved wooden stool, called a “console,” with a concave seat that played off, curve for curve, with the swooping day bed. All three pieces of furniture appear to be floating on a white floor as if Gray had created a dream taking place in a cloud. By the mid-twenties, we see a fully mature artist not only changing her style but also hitting her creative stride.

Interior of Gray’s Rue de Bonaparte apartment

At this point, Gray was still making her lacquer designs but she was also transitioning to the new technology of bent stainless steel. In the photograph of the Lévy apartment, the new modern post-war chair was on right side the fireplace, opposite the Dragons Chair and the size difference is apparent. Making furniture by hand with laborious craft techniques is easier on a small scale while putting together a manufactured elements meant that the chair could be significantly bigger. In 2014 Richard Storer-Adam explained the origins of one of Gray’s early industrial pieces of furniture, the Bibendum Chair. He wrote, “The Chair’s back and armrests consists of two semi-circular, padded tubes encased in soft, black leather. The name that Gray chose for the chair, Bibendum, originates from the character created by Michelin to sell tires. The Michelin Man is called “Bibendum”, a word taken from the slogan “Nunc est bibendum” meaning “Now is the time to drink”. In this particular case, to “drink”, or absorb, bumps and obstacles found on the road. He was originally shown depicting bicycle tires, so he looked quite mummy-like.”

Marius Rosillion. The original Michelin Man (1898)

The author continued, “The frame of the Bibendum Chair, including the legs, are made of a polished, chromium plated, stainless steel tube. Stainless tube was a new highly innovative material. The first stainless steel was created in 1913 by Harry Brearley who created a steel with 12.8% chromium and 0.24% carbon.” The fact that Gray had created a chair designed from bent steel tubing in 1926 puts her chair squarely into the time period when Marcel Breuer and Mies van der Rohr were designing their tubular steel chairs, between 1926 and 1927. The Bibendum Chair is dated 1926, and yet Gray’s design is usually left out of the histories of modern chairs. Perhaps the two plump enveloping rings, stacked half-circles framing the round equally comfortably padded seat, was simply too comfortable. Chairs by Mies and Breuer were stunning to look at, but, like the famous Red and Blue chair of Gerrit Rietveld, were hard to sit in. The platform of the chair, which does not have the traditional legs, is another version of the E.1027 side table: two verticles resting on a half circle.

The E. 1027 house, which will be discussed in the next post, was an important site for Gray’s post-war chrome, glass and lacquer furniture that is multi-purpose and adjustable in ways that was unique in modern furnishings. The beautiful and spare Rivoli tea table of 1928 is a case in point. While Gray’s chairs are perhaps better known, this tea table allows us to view Gray’s work in its own right, without reverting to the inevitable and diminishing comparisons to Mies or Rietveld. The tea table, designed for her own home, was imagined from the point of view of functionality as the starting point for the components. The components or the elements of the table were then stripped down the bare minimum necessities, free of decoration and of opulence or of craft. Imagine the table as a drawing, a blueprint, with the ruled lines being transformed into a chrome structure that could slide to open wider or slide to become more compact. These are the verticals and horizontals but, in a move, now familiar in Gray designs, she imposed contrasting circles, in this case. two round serving trays mounted on rotating arms at two levels, so that those standing and those sitting could reach over and retrieve a tea sandwich or a petit-four. The Eileen Gray website that sells her furniture today described the tea cart in its alternative function, as a “Small dressing table. Polished chromium plated tubular steel frame. Cabinet fitted with two pivoting drawers and one hinged door. Top and cabinet in high gloss lacquer in various colours..Eileen Gray decided to have a special table to serve her guests tea in her new house E1027. She wanted to do this ‘elegantly while standing; serving tea sifting at a low table is rather awkward’; while at the same time displaying the cakes, tartes or fruits in an ‘interesting way.'” When folded in half, the lacquer panels of the table drop down and form what is now called a “waterfall” effect with the top lacquer panel. Few modern designers thought in terms of function in the sense of actual functionality. In other words, since, Louis Sullivan said, “Form ever follows function,” form has always come first, with function, as its supposed impetus, following along behind. Gray reversed the formula and based her form upon her own experience as a user–this is the kind of table she needed. The tea table could serve in a bedroom as a dressing table, in a bathroom as a toiletries table or in a living room to serve tea. It could be as accommodating or as compact as the room or the occasion demanded. The main surface was obviously for the tea service and the adjacent narrower surface was for the food. The host could preside over the table or s/he could let guests help themselves. Louis Sullivan’s assistant, Frank Lloyd Wright, in contrast, would fix furniture to the floor so the owners could not disturb his placement. Gray invited the client to invent uses for her designs, which are statements of functional modernity.

Rivoli Tea Table (1928)

As was noted, the laborious hand-made art objects that were one of a kind gave way over time to the machine moderne of the 1920s, but her penchant for repeating shapes continued for the furniture she designed for mass production. But as shall be noted, Gray did not share the adherence to architectural theory or modernist philosophy that drove her male colleagues. She used standard geometric shapes that were universal, like the radical architects, but her thought processes were quite different. It is possible to conjecture that Gray’s decade-long experience in working with individual clients and responding to their needs gave her a very different understanding of the role of modern design in a machine age. Her new post-war products were sold out of her own store, Jean Désert, named after an invisible male who supposedly was the owner and desert because Gray admired North African landscapes. However, in her old age, Gray gave Zeev Aram, of the Aram Store in London to reproduce her furniture. The authorized editions of the table are always manufactured in chromium plated steel tube and always have a signature stamp and an identification number. Both the chair and the table can be seen in the newly restored E. 1027 home, completed in 1929 and, after decades of vandalism, was brought back to its original condition in 2015. The next post will discuss this re-discovered architectural masterpiece.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

Thank you.

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Eileen Gray, Designer of Art Deco

Eileen Gray (1878-1956)

Art Deco Furniture Design

If Cassandre gave the Jazz Age its distinctive graphic style, then it was a woman, an architect and a designer who gave the decade its most memorable piece of furniture, still in production today. The E. 1027 side table, designed in 1927, is one of the few objects from Art Deco that is ageless and timeless and transcends its period and is still sold as “modern” furniture. The chrome frame does an efficient double duty–the lower level, an almost-closed circle, and the upper circle, elevated by a verticle slide that allows the height to be adjusted, is filled in with glass. The design is simple geometry–two circles and two straight lines–elegance in and of itself. The ingenuity of the operation, cleverly concealed and modestly articulated along the verticles, allows the table to be raised or lowered according to the height of the accompanying piece of furniture. This bent tubular steel table dates from 1925, coinciding with similar work by Mies van der Rohr and Marcel Breuer. Like Gray’s Bibendum chair, the table is made of circles, one at the top, a circle of bent steel topped with glass and at the bottom there is a broken circle as the base of an adjustable table that could be slide under a bed or pushed near a chair. The two circles are held together by an elegant long thin rectangle. The height could be adjusted with an elegant chain attached to a pin which can be slotted into the desired hole so that one could use it as a side table or as an over the bed table for having breakfast or an afternoon tea. The famous side table is one of those rare products that has never been altered. Indeed, in her own right, Eileen Gray was a rare individual in those days—a woman who became successful in fields that were owned by males: art, design, and architecture. The entrance of a woman into the field of architecture during the early decades of the twentieth century would be considered an effrontery to her male peers, but perhaps because she was an outsider, Eileen Gray simply walked into the discipline without any formal training and designed one of the most famous houses of the twentieth century, the E1027, after which her famous table is named.

E. 1027 Adjustable Side Table

Eileen Gray lived in multiple worlds, shifting with ease between the domain of the arts and the terrain of the wealthy, the class to which she was born. During the Jazz Age, Paris was one of the cultural centers where lesbians were allowed to live openly and productively, contributing to society with literature and art. As a member of the group of creative women, Gray was wealthy enough to accessorize her Garçonne look with elegant coats designed by Paul Poiret and stylish hats by Jeanne Lanvin that covered her short bob. The fashionable designer roared around Paris in a fancy car, accompanied by one of her lovers, the singer, Marie-Louise Damin, known as “Damien.” Damien owned a pet panther, who rode in the back of the car.

One of the modern artists of lacquer, the Irish artist learned of lacquer while she was a student at the Slade School in London. In 1900, according to her biographers, Jennifer Goff, Gray found a display of lacquer first at the Victoria and Albert Museum and later at the shops in SoHo, where she found a restoration shop on Dean Street. The owner Dean Charles took her on as a pupil. Two years later in 1905 Gray, resumed her education with the restorer. Discussing the 1688 book, A Treatise of Japanning and Varnishing, Goff wrote that “Gray would eventually import all of her pigments from China. The colors which were popular in the manual included ivory black, lampblack, verdigris, umber, indigo or yellow ochre. The manual advocated the use of only the best varnish which also could be used for varnishing light colors such as white, yellow, green, sky red, silver or gilded. A black ground was advocated, through grounds could also be, though rarely, white, which in the seventeenth century imitated porcelain.” This last sentence was interesting in its reference to the color white and the rarity of its use as a ground color, for some of Gray’s most famous work of the 1920s would be in white. From London, Gray traveled to Paris to continue her training in the difficult and labor-intensive craft of lacquer working.

Using her early work as an introduction, Gray apprenticed herself to the Japanese lacquer artist, Seizo Sugawara, a man as young as she was. Thanks to this specialized training, she was part of a modern revival of this ancient art form. For years, partnering with Sugawara, Gray perfected the demanding methods of producing perfect lacquer pieces. As Goff pointed out, as early as the turn of the century, France had been involved in an arts contest with Germany, which was especially strong in crafts and design. Thanks to the government’s interest in competing with an old foe, designers felt emboldened to form a Société Nationale des Artistes Décorateurs to promote themselves and their art. In this pre-war period, the Sociéte was a precursor of the Bauhaus in its concern with industrial design. After the Great War, France resumed the competition with other nations in the world of modern design and it was in the year of the famous exhibition, the International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts in 1925 that Gray joined the Société. The moment of modern Art Deco design had arrived, and, although the design achievements of this period discussed in traditional art history texts tend to be limited, the twenties was a golden age of design innovation. In a nation that used lacquer only for conservation purposes, this resurgence of an ancient craft attracted the attention of well-heeled clients and Gray herself became an established designer who specialized in the painstaking craft of lacquer which she transformed into a stunning art form. As the Phillips auction house noted, “Gray was devoted to Asian lacquer, which she first encountered in 1900 as an art student at London’s Slade while wandering the halls of what is now the Victoria and Albert Museum. From 1908 she worked in the medium with mentor Sugawara, originally a maker of Buddhist lacquer shrines. Whereas her modernist peers advocated a rejection of timeworn methods, Gray embraced those traditions, lacquer paramount among them: it grounded her high-flying experiments in form.”

In the years just before the Great War, Gray, now well known for her unusual art, acquired the French designer and art collector, Jacques Doucet, as one of her new clients. Doucet was at a turning point in his life and he suddenly decided, in 1912, to sell off the 18th-century contents of his 18th-century apartment and to become avant-garde. The story of the Doucet about-face is one of the legends of stylistic change. In 2014 Louis Bofferding wrote for Architectural Digest that “Eighteenth-century French antiques defined the taste of the Belle Epoque, and Doucet joined the throng. He commissioned society architect Louis Parent to build an 18th century-style mansion, completed in 1907, on rue Spontini in the 16th arrondissement. With the aid of Georges Hoentschel, the influential decorator-dealer, Doucet then conjured interiors replete with exquisite treasures.” In fact, Doucet had been collecting eighteenth-century furnishings for decades and this home was expressly built to display his treasures. And then something remarkable happened. A mere five years later, Doucet suddenly put his entire collection on the auction block, and, in a four-day extravaganza, the buying frenzy made him the equivalent of seventy-five million of today’s dollars. The auction was apparently an act of mourning on the part of the famous dress designer, grieving over the death of a woman he planned to marry. However, Doucet recovered and purchased a new home on the avenue Foch. Turning his back on the past, he hired the most trendy designers from Paul Iribe to Eileen Gray to design the furnishings. Apparently inspired by this new start in modern Jazz Age surroundings, Doucet married a younger–much younger–woman.

But it was his librarian future Surrealist André Breton who persuaded him to purchase Picasso’s painting, Les Demoiselles d”Avignon (1907). This painting had spent most of its life rolled up under the bed of the artist and had been shown publically only once, in a 1916 exhibition during the Great War. In 1924, Doucet purchased the now famous painting, which was eventually installed at his wife’s home. In 2004, Les Demoiselles, now at the Museum of Modern Art, was cleaned. According to The New Yorker,

John Elderfield thinks that Doucet’s restorer may have varnished “Demoiselles,” whose installation, on a landing at the top of a grand staircase in Doucet’s apartment in Neuilly-sur-Seine, left it somewhat vulnerable to bibulous dinner guests. There is no doubt that it was varnished, or revarnished, in 1950, by a conservator at moma, which had acquired the painting in 1939. “I do think it was done with preservation in mind.” James Coddington, the Museum’s chief conservator, said tactfully, “but in fact that doesn’t necessarily preserve it. This is a classic, robust, straightforward oil painting. Picasso used really high-quality paint, and he was very good in his craft. To remove a varnish does expose the picture to potential hazards.”

Much more compelling and modern, however, was his commission of an unusual work by Marcel Duchamp in 1924. The Rotative Demisphère, is one of his machines, a revolving disc inscribed with a spiral, which, once set in motion, gives an art viewer something to look at. “Olfactory art,” as Duchamp termed traditional art, was merely attractive, an act of good taste that nourished the senses and not the mind. Therefore, Duchamp argued one might as well look at a spinning line for all the intellectual nourishment “art” gives.

Sadly, Doucet had little time to enjoy his acquisitions. Just a few months after the apartment was completed, Doucet died in 1929. It has been said that his wife tired of the relentless gazes of the implacable five nudes, Les Demoiselles, glowering from the top of the stairs and sold the painting to the Museum in 1939.

Les Demoiselles d”Avignon (1907) at the top of the stairs

at 33 rue Saint-James, Neuilly-sur-Seine

An Irishwoman in Paris, Gray was a successful businesswoman, creating products for an aristocratic clientele and group of collectors. Part of running a business meant advertising her wares, which, in that period, would be done discretely in sites such as the 1913 Salon des Artistes Décorateurs, where Jacques Doucet saw her screens. During this period, Gray went beyond mere pattern or decoration and created narratives with mythological and mystical themes played across her screens. Competing in the heady company of Max Ernst, Joan Miró, Amedeo Modigliani, and Picasso, Eileen Gray contributed several pieces for the new décor for Doucet’s new decorative project, including a remarkable example of what was, at that time, her signature work, a red four panel lacquered screen, Le Destin. Doucet also commissioned several of her most famous earlier works for his new home. The Table modèle bilboquet is usually dated between 1915 and 1917. This premodern work is an early version of the E.1027 table in that it also is composed of two circles, one at the top and one at the bottom, both supported by four squared off legs, made of an ensemble of multiple wooden squares. The bilboquet in question is a simple game for children. The skill involved consists of a ball attached to the stick with a cord. The handle has a cup at the top and the ball is released from its perch, still on its leash, and is caught by the cup. The game is illustrated on the edge of the black lacquered top in red and silver, at the client’s request.

 

When Doucet came to Gray’s studio, she was working on a symbolic theme, Le Destin, which the collector understood to be a work of art and demanded that she sign the screen as a painter would sign a painting. Gray and Doucet came together at the height of the pre-war surge in design in which artists were stretching beyond Art Nouveau and searching for new modes of expression. Many examples of Gray’s work that were displayed at the Doucet homes were from the pre-war period or were made during the War itself. Le Destin, completed in 1914, the brilliant red folding screen, sold to Doucet, showed two silver and blue men, drawn in the style of a Greek vase on the front, while the back was a swirl of sharp cut curves, with some arcs filled in with slices of black and silver.

Gray, who was widely read, found inspiration as much from literature as from works of art. While this pre-war period of her early work can be described as the end-point of Art Nouveau because each piece of furniture was a unique exquisite work of art, the beautiful Lotus Table, also made for Doucet, was obviously inspired by Egyptian sources. Moreover, this unique green lacquered table with its golden lotus legs was distinguished by four hanging black cords ending in green tassels, topped by red beads, was designed over a decade before the discovery of the tomb of King Tut in 1925. The red lacquer Charioteer Table, which dates to the same year as the red screen, stood in the entrance foyer of the Doucet home at the bottom of the stairs. A floor above, Les Demoiselles loomed.

 

During the pre-war period, Gray custom-made, with her own hands, each and every piece of furniture for wealthy clients, giving herself unsparingly to perfection, no matter how long it took. This artist-crafted quality meant that each piece of her furniture is a work of art that was exclusive, non-replicable and non-repeatable, adding to the exquisiteness of her products. Sadly, few of these remarkable works of art are extant. During World War II, much of what she had made was warehoused in Toulon but the site was bombed and the art was destroyed. The Doucet collection is not only all the more precious because of this loss but also because the Great War interrupted the artwork of Eileen Gray. Gray returned to England in 1915, taking Sugawara with her, and even drove an ambulance as her contribution to the war effort. In London Gray would be exposed to a new form of Cubism or its antithesis, Vorticism. The further discussion of her artistic development will be discussed in the next post.

 

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

Thank you.

[email protected]