Byline: CORINNE JULIUS
THE bright red chunky Lota sofa with its big wing-like arms looks as if it came straight from this year's Milan Furniture show, but is the work of the early 20th century designer Eileen Gray. It is just one of the iconic pieces of furniture by this shy, retiring designer and architect which has come to epitomise the contemporary home.
Although her work was appreciated by radical architects and designers of her time, such as Le Corbusier, she was rarely appreciated by the consumers of her epoch and only relatively recently by those of today.
The discovery of Eileen Gray owes much to Zev Aram, founder of the Aram Store and his passion for good design. "I read about her in a Dutch magazine when I was a student, forgot about her and then read what Joseph Rykwert wrote about her in Domus in 1968." It wasn't until 1972 that he saw Gray's drawings at an exhibition at the RIBA and fell in love with her work. "It was interesting, innovative, new - albeit designed years before - and it made you take a sharp intake of breath. I saw it and thought, 'Oh, my God', and this we don't know about."
Her work had only been produced as one-offs so Aram met Eileen Gray in London to discuss putting her designs into production. "She was surprised that anyone was interested in her work," he says. Most of her drawings and furniture had been destroyed in the war and in a fire in her home in Rue Bonaparte, says Aram.
"We made the production prototype of her Bibendum Chair from drawings and she loved it. She sat in it and smiled. She kept patting the chair and me.
She was very happy. She was so small and very fragile, but so brilliant."
So who was Eileen Gray? Born in 1878 to wealthy Irish parents, she studied at the Slade School of Art, and then in Paris. She returned to England in 1905 when her mother was ill and happened upon some antique lacquer screens in Soho. She persuaded the owner to teach her the basics of lacquer and he subsequently introduced her to a young Japanese lacquer craftsman in Paris, Seizo Sugawara, with whom she studied for four years. Gray designed her own furniture to show off the lacquer, which she applied in innovative ways.
In 1913 she exhibited at the Salon des Artistes Decorateurs, gaining a commission from the couturier Jacques Doucet. In 1919 Gray designed an apartment on the Rue de Lota, and created lacquered panels, which led to her famous Block Screen. The piece de resistance was the Pirogue bed, a silver and brown lacquered canoeshaped daybed.
In 1922 Gray opened the Galerie Jean Desert, named after her lover, the architectural critic Jean Badovici and the Moroccan desert. With her childhood friend Evelyn Wild she applied her love of colour and texture to rugs. In a vein that came to be seen as modernist she began to investigate industrial materials, particularly tubular steel, and used them in her furniture, exhibiting a bedroomboudoir in Monte Carlo in 1923. …