‘Eileen Gray’s story is remarkable no matter how many times you hear it,’ says Sonja Ganne, International Head of Design at Christie’s Paris. ‘She’s an icon not just for women in the arts, but for women everywhere.’
The youngest of five children, Gray was born in 1878 in the Irish town of Enniscorthy. After studying at the Slade School of Art in London, she moved to Paris, where she joined the so-called ‘English colony of Montparnasse’ where many fine arts students were gathered. It was in Paris that she’d embark on a successful career as a lacquer artist, creating several pieces for the famous collector and renowned couturier Jacques Doucet.
Gray would eventually move on, becoming more and more interested in Modernist art and architecture. ‘These were the early decades of the 20th century, and we are talking about fields that were completely dominated by men,’ Ganne explains. ‘Being a woman and accomplishing what she did at the time wasn’t easy. Eventually, though, she was able to break through gender barriers and make her own path. She maintained an independent vision, and what she created was truly singular and special.’
One of Gray’s most significant works was the Transat chair from 1927-30. According to the Eileen Gray archives, only 12 were ever made. Today only nine are known to have survived, two of them in museum collections (in Paris’s Centre Pompidou and London’s Victoria & Albert). One example — kept in a private collection for 30 years after resurfacing in a flea market in the 1980s — will appear on 20 June at Christie’s Design sale in New York.
If the Transat’s design was inspired by the deckchairs found on ocean liners, it was conceived for use on solid ground: specifically the first-floor terrace of E1027, the villa in the south of France that Gray was designing with — and for — her associate, the architect Jean Badovici. Completed in 1929, the villa was built on a slope at Roquebrune-Cap-Martin overlooking the Mediterranean: ‘an appropriately maritime context for a chair with “transatlantic” roots,’ says Ganne.
As the specialist explains, the chair represents a watershed moment in Gray’s career. In the use of lacquer and refined animal skin for the upholstery Gray retained some of the Art Deco sophistication that had marked her work in previous years. But the pure, straight lines of the structure, and the fact that the construction elements in nickel-plated metal are shown as part of the design, added a sleek, Modernist aesthetic that she and many others would adopt going forward. ‘The Transat sees Gray, and furniture design itself, in a moment of profound transition,’ Ganne says.
E1027, the villa designed by Eileen Gray between 1927 and 1929 at Roquebrune-Cap-Martin on the Côte d’Azur. Photo: akg-images/Schütze/Rodemann
Gray and Badovici agreed that comfort, practicality and functionality be central to everything about E1027, including its furniture. Reflecting this goal, the Transat boasted an adjustable headrest that could be tilted for comfort. ‘Nowhere did we attempt to create a line or a form for its own sake,’ Gray would explain. ‘Everywhere we thought of the human being, his sensibility, his needs.’
The furniture for E1027 that’s recorded in the archives was upholstered in a variety of fabrics and hides, with the example coming to auction being one of just two Transats in calfskin. According to Ganne, ‘The tactility and warmth of this skin together with the smooth, refined surface of the black, lacquered wood is offset by the pure design integrating the mechanism.’
Gray lived to the age of 98. By the time of her death in 1976, she had only recently been rediscovered by the cultural establishment, thanks chiefly to the famous Jacques Doucet auction of 1972.
‘Eileen Gray was a supremely talented and inquisitive figure, always looking to push boundaries. The Transat chair is a perfect example of this drive in her’
In the past decade, Gray’s stock has risen still further. In 2009, her ‘Dragon’ armchair sold for €21.9 million at Christie’s Paris, setting a world record for a piece of 20th-century furniture. In 2013, a major Gray retrospective was held at the Centre Pompidou; two years later, E1027 opened to the public after years of painstaking restoration. Also in 2015, The Price of Desire, a biopic about Gray, was released in cinemas.
‘Gray was a supremely talented and inquisitive figure, always looking to push boundaries,’ Ganne says. ‘The Transat chair is a perfect example of this drive in her, as well as marking a distinct new chapter for furniture design.’