Design & Make

A Brief Bio: Eileen Gray

by Lisa Bartfai June 20, 2018
ReadA Brief Bio: Eileen Gray

“The biggest secret of E.1027 is that it offers spaces for secrets, having layers of interiors within its interiors.”Katarina Bonnevier

Eileen Gray designed E.1027  for herself and her then lover, art critic Jean Badovici. She chose an isolated spot on the French Riviera right on the water, and made a house where the sun and sea would be visible from almost every room. The sea and sky floats into E.1027 through giant windows and balconies. She blurred the boundaries of inside/outside, and also upside/downside: the pattern of the floor creeps up to the walls and ceiling. One distinction she made clear is the one between public and private — the building is almost invisible to passersby. E.1027 is perched on a cliff over the Mediterranean without any direct roads leading to it. Born to a wealthy Scottish-Irish family in 1878, Eileen Gray lived well outside societal expectations, and she designed for the different kind of life she lived.

Gray  moved to Paris in 1900 to go to art school, living most of her life in France. On the Left Bank of Paris she made fast friends with the intellectual avant-garde that gathered there in the 1920s and 30s. Gertrude Stein, Djuna Barnes, Radclyffe Hall, Natalie Barney, Elsie de Wolfe and others who came to shape modernism lived and worked in Paris alongside Gray. These people also moved in and out of relationships with both men and women creating a social circle where homosexuality became an accepted part of the creative life.

Although their same-sex desires were silently implied and quietly understood by those around them, homosexuality was still a crime in most countries in Europe and a strict taboo in France. The intellectual life and sexuality of the Left Bank would come to influence E.1027 and many of Gray’s other designs but also the need for privacy and a safe haven.

Eileen Gray was already a well known furniture and interior designer by the time she decided to build a house. For her it was another step in investigating her theories on style, this time on an bigger scale. The name E.1027 a code for the two collaborators and designers Eileen Gray and Jean Badovici. E as in Eileen, 10 for J, the 10th letter of the alphabet, 2 for B, and 7 for G, a mix of their names.

It was to be a vacation home, but also a sort of manifesto. The building was a concrete counter-argument to modernism, and especially Le Corbusier’s belief that a building was a machine. Gray thought a house should be designed after the life lived within its walls, something changing and organic. A life that was in constant motion where not everything is what it seems.

Gray used screens and sliding doors throughout the house so that the rooms could change and take new forms depending on use. The screens would also hide doorways, stairs and adjoining rooms from visitors while they provided privacy from outsiders. The ability to morph into new forms and hide things was important to Gray. She wanted a house that would suit a different kind of life and not be modeled after the needs of a conventional family. The flexibility of the screens to change a room allowed anyone living there to make some changes in the interior according to their lifestyles. The screens also provided the privacy and shelter that she sought.

Both Jean Bodovici and Eileen Gray knew Le Corbusier, considered the most prominent modernist architect of the time. Le Corbusier was intrigued by Gray as an artist and a person and developed an obsessive relationship with E.1027. In 1938, Le Corbusier — on Badovici’s invitation some say — entered the house and painted several murals on the walls. Calling it vandalism himself, he tried to appropriate the building and he didn’t stop there. In the early 1950’s Le Corbusier built a wooden shack close to the grounds of E.1027 so that he could look at the building all the time, thereby stripping Gray of the privacy she’d sought when she chose the location. This obsession would eventually lead to his death. Le Corbusier drowned swimming in the waters outside E.1027 on August 1965.

Gray left E.1027 in 1930 and built another house for herself, a smaller cabin that inspired her to develop a new line of space-saving furniture that would become design icons. During WWII, E.1027 and several of her other homes were looted and destroyed by Nazi occupiers. Gray withdrew from the spotlight and didn’t reappear in the public consciousness until 1968, when coverage in an architecture magazine sparked renewed interest in her furniture design.

Meanwhile E.1027 suffered violent attacks, petty vandalism and neglect for decades until a group of architects and historians formed “Friends of E.1027” in the late 1990s. The house is undergoing renovations that are slated to be completed in 2012.

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