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Centre Pompidou opens a retrospective of the unique work of Irish designer Eileen Gray
Ireland's president Michael Higgins (L) and his wife Sabina Higgins (3rdL), visit with France's Culture Minister Aurelie Filippetti (2ndL), the Eillen Gray exhibition at the Centre Pompidou art center in Paris. Eileen Gray was an Irish furniture designer and architect of the 20th century. AFP PHOTO / MIGUEL MEDINA.

PARIS.- From February 20th to May 20th 2013, the Centre Pompidou devotes a retrospective to the unique work of Irish designer Eileen Gray. Featuring a selection of works, pieces of furniture, photographs, scale models and documents brought together for the first time, this exhibition pays tribute to a designer of genius, whose work traverses the Art Deco period and the Modern Movement.

Along with Le Corbusier or Mies Van Der Rohe, Eileen Gray ranks among the architects and designers who have left a significant mark on the 20th century and defined modernity.

In an artistic world still largely dominated by men, Eileen Gray also embodies a new kind of femininity. A total designer, she continues to inspire a whole generation of artists to this day, in fields ranging from photography to textiles, from lacquer painting to architecture.

“The future projects light, the past only clouds”: it is with such firm determination that Eileen Gray fully engages herself in the modern impulse. A painter by training, an autodidact in many other areas, Eileen Gray, free above all else and evolving far from the conventional, continues to design projects her entire life and leaves behind her more than seventy years of creation. Never having developed an industrial production, each of her pieces is thus unique and therefore all the more rare. Her masterpiece, a manifesto of modernity, remains the house E1027, built in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin in 1929, in close collaboration with Romanian architect Jean Badovici.

The exhibition at the Centre Pompidou highlights the career and the work of an artist who managed to associate tremendous technical virtuosity with an inimitable poetic force, excelling particularly in lacquer and textiles, but also in a new conception of space and of the relationship to furniture and objects.

The Art of Lacquerwork

Eileen Gray discovers the art of lacquerwork at the turn of the 20th Century, while she is still a student of drawing and painting at the Slade School of Fine Art in London. Fascinated by the pieces in the collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum, she decides to learn the technique of this material with D. Charles, an artisan-restorer in the Soho district. A short time after settling in Paris in 1906, she meets lacquerwork craftsman Seizo Sugawara, with whom she would perfect her training. In 1910, the two unite their skills and work together at 11 Rue Guénégaud; their collaboration continues for over twenty years. From their studio would emerge such emblematic pieces as The Magician of the Night, the Siren armchair, the pieces commissioned by renowned fashion designer Jacques Doucet and by Mme. Mathieu Lévy – milliner of the boutique J. Suzanne Talbot. The union of their expertise, combined with Gray’s sensibility, daring and talent, would become the source of some of the greatest lacquerwork masterpieces of the Western world during the early 20th Century.

Jacques Doucet
Fashion designer, art-lover and collector Jacques Doucet takes notice of Eileen Gray’s first lacquer works at the Salon des Artistes Décorateurs in 1913. Fascinated by her creations, he visits her studio, studies her work and purchases from her a four-panel screen entitled Destiny, the only piece signed and dated by Gray’s own hand. Between 1913 and 1915, the pieces of furniture Doucet commissions from Gray will take their place in his apartment in the Avenue du Bois, and then, in 1926, in his studio in the Rue Saint-James in Neuilly: the Chariot Table in the entrance hall, the Bilboquet Table in the centre of the gallery and the Lotus Table in the Oriental Cabinet. The auction of his collection in 1972 at the Hotel Drouot will be the source of the rediscovery of Eileen Gray’s work.

Jean Désert
Eileen Gray opens the Galerie Jean Désert on May 17th 1922 at 217 Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, Paris, in the heart of a district dedicated to art and luxury. Her clientele consists of aristocrats, fashion designers, financiers, women of letters, and artists – Charles and Marie-Laure de Noailles, Philippe de Rothschild, Elsa Schiaparelli, Boris Lacroix, Henri Pacon, Damia, Romaine Brooks, Loïe Fuller… Pieces of furniture, carpets, designs for apartment interiors and their decoration are exhibited on the ground floor, while the basement accommodates a weaving workshop. This second workshop is added to the one created in 1910 with Evelyn Wyld following their discovery of the art of weaving in the Atlas Mountains.

The decade of Jean Désert, the designer’s most prolific period, would see the materials of lacquerwork and weaving evolve towards those of chromed tubular metal, glass, cork and rhodoïd. Gray is surrounded by the most talented artisans: Kichizo Inagaki, cabinet-maker and plinth-maker to Rodin; Abel Motté, editor of the furniture of Francis Jourdain; and textile designer Hélène Henry. It is during this period that she designs the famous decor of the Boudoir de Monte Carlo in 1923. In 1930, Eileen Gray definitively closes Jean Désert.

E 1027
Sitting high above the Bay of Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, the seaside villa is the fruit of the enigmatic collaboration between Eileen Gray and Romanian architect Jean Badovici. Its name, E 1027, is the only element which attests to the complexity of the role played by each in the development of the project: a combination of the first and last names of the architects – E for Eileen, 10 for the J in Jean (the 10th letter of the alphabet), 2 for Badovici and 7 for Gray.

The design of the villa E 1027 begins in 1926 and is based on a minimalist agenda: for a man, Jean Badovici, who enjoys work, sport and entertaining. The combination of a vertical axis (the spiral staircase providing access to the rooftop terrace) and horizontal planes (the two levels of the villa crowned by the rooftop terrace), the villa is organised around a central room, all the while bestowing genuine importance to its secondary spaces. Oriented in relation to the path of the sun, the interior spaces communicate with the exterior by means of various sliding window systems.

An organic entity endowed with a soul, E 1027 is a model of sensitive modernity. Here, Gray and Badovici intend that one should “find within the architectural construction the joy of feeling perfectly himself, as though part of a whole which both extends and completes the self.”

Tempe a Pailla
In 1931, Eileen Gray embarks upon the design of her own house, Tempe a Pailla (a Mentonasc proverb meaning “time for yawning”), which will remain the only project which she designs entirely independently.

Construction begins in 1934 on a site of old cisterns in the hills of Menton. Amidst vineyards and citrus trees, the house seeks to be hidden from view. While Tempe a Pailla borrows certain concepts from the villa E 1027 in its multiplication of references to ocean liners and in the addition of a diagram of wind patterns to the diagram of the trajectory of the sun, Eileen Gray nonetheless chooses an architectural treatment which lies at the crossroads of modernism and the vernacular. Her fierce independence of spirit incites her to satisfy her own desires and needs rather than to implement the “Five Points Towards a New Architecture” as defined by Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret. Developing the architecture/furniture relationship to its utmost in this project, she creates a series of prototype furniture: a mobile pant-rack, a seat-stepladder-towel-rack, a retractable bench, an extendable wardrobe. At the close of the Second World War, Gray undertakes a large scale restoration of the house which had been greatly damaged. She finally sells it to painter Graham Sutherland in 1955.

Lou Pérou
At the age of 76 years old, with the help of a local architect, Eileen Gray embarks upon her last architectural project: the restoration and extension of a country house which she had owned since 1939. In the heart of a vineyard, not far from the Chapelle Sainte-Anne and just south of Saint-Tropez, Lou Pérou would be her last summer refuge. The sobriety of the site, the simplicity of the volumes, the rustic nature of the materials and the proximity to nature all appeal to the designer who wishes to construct a modest and discrete project. In a clearly vernacular style, the basic architecture establishes a discourse with the gardens and the layout of the terraces. Interior and exterior spaces intermingle and echo one another with simplicity and elegance.

Personal Creation
Although considered secondary in the oeuvre of Eileen Gray, the practice of painting remains nonetheless consistent throughout her life. Her training as a painter at the Slade School of Fine Art, the Académie Colarossi and the Académie Julian leads her to exhibit a watercolour in 1902, and then a painting in 1905, at the Salon de la Société des Artistes Français held at the Grand Palais. Despite the fact that she abandons canvas and paper media for a period of time, she never stops painting and drawing. Lacquered panels and carpets become her new media for creation, through which she develops her research into geometric abstraction. Architectural drawing monopolises the greater part of her attention from the mid-1920s onwards, even if she continues to devote herself to photography, painting and collage until the end of her life. Letters addressed to her niece, painter Prunella Clough, bear witness to the keen interest with which Gray continues to view her initial training, although she is over 90 years old: “I can understand you ask yourself sometimes why go on, when painting seems to aim either at total facility or total destruction… I can see what Tapié means when he says it’s unnecessary that painting should express anything at all, but just be”.

Le Corbusier
Eileen Gray’s first contact with Le Corbusier occurs during the early 1920s. Their shared friendship with Jean Badovici results in their frequent encounter up until the presentation of Eileen Gray’s Vacation Centre project in Le Corbusier’s “Modern Times Pavilion” at the International Exhibition in Paris in 1937.

If each one recognises in veiled terms the talent of the other, their relations would always remain distant, and become even more so when, in 1937, Le Corbusier decides to paint imposing frescoes on the interior and exterior walls of the villa E 1027 without informing the designer. In 1952, it is in the shadow of Eileen Gray’s seaside villa that Le Corbusier chooses to build his Cabin.

Jean Badovici
Eileen Gray is believed to have met Jean Badovici in the early 1920s. If the nature of their relationship and collaboration remains enigmatic to this day, it is certain that they unite minds both to write and to build together. In 1923, Romanian architect Jean Badovici becomes the founder and editor in chief of the new magazine l’Architecture Vivante, which is published by Albert Morancé. Through his friendships with some of the most important architects of the period, including Le Corbusier, he permits Gray to have privileged access to this network. It is likely that Gray obtains a great part of her architectural training by means of these contacts and through the analysis of the projects received for publication in the magazine. The two remain close until Badovici’s death in 1956.

Le portfolio d’Eileen Gray
Between 1956 and 1975, Eileen Gray assembles a selection of her own projects in a portfolio. Following her own criteria, she includes black and white photographs, sketches, architectural plans, elevations and cross-sections. In a relative chronology, she annotates, labels, details and explains her work. Although she does highlight her lacquered furniture and interiors from the 1910s and 1920s, she equally emphasises the Galerie Jean Désert, the villa E 1027, the studio for Jean Badovici in the Rue Chateaubriand and Tempe a Pailla. She also devotes a large part of the portfolio to her architectural work, revealing finished projects that were never built, such as the Vacation Centre, the Cultural and Social Centre, the Ellipse House, the House and Studio for Two Sculptors, and a proposed theatre decor for the Ancient Irish Epic.

In this collection, she chooses to exclude some of her most famous projects, including the pieces of furniture created for Jacques Doucet. She also elects not to include her painting and photography work: her own private world of creation deliberately kept aside from her career.

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