A previously unpublished ‘Transat’
The 'Transat' chair was conceived by Eileen Gray for E1027, the house at Roquebrune, near Menton, that she designed with and for her associate Jean Badovici. The radical modern villa – built on a rocky slope overlooking the sea, initiated in 1926 and completed three years later – inspired Gray to explore new materials and new possibilities, both in the architectural structure itself and in its bespoke furniture and fittings. Her furniture for E1027 – including inspired experiments with tubular steel – tended to a greater simplicity and emphasis on practicality than had previously seemed her priority. That said, Gray's sensitivity is manifest throughout in the subtlety of proportions and details, and in the thoughtful touches that add metaphor to primary function. This furniture is visually light, often skeletal in construction, be it of metal or wood, and allows the gaze to pass through, enhancing the overall sense of spatial openness and fluidity. In E1027, Gray developed a distinct new chapter in her furniture design, evolving her ideas away from the rich surfaces and engaging, sometimes symbolist graphic motifs of her earlier work in lacquer, in search of a new aesthetic of delicate, elegant understatement. Her 'Transat' perfectly exemplifies this new spirit.
The portfolio E1027 – Maison en Bord de Mer, published in 1929 on completion of the project, illustrates a 'Transat' in two key positions, underlining its versatility: in one plate (12) it is sited in the centre of the main living area; in another (7), it is shown on the terrace. In the Table des matières it is formally introduced with its name 'Transat', meaning deck-chair, and referencing the maritime context and style of this streamlined modernist villa, its lines and its long slender terrace evoking the superstructure of an ocean liner. A graphic elevation of the chair in that same portfolio (p. 21) states 'Modèle 1927', confirming the year in which Gray created the model.
While the 'Transat' was evidently conceived for E1027, we should be mindful that this architectural project overlapped with Gray's commitment to her Paris gallery, Jean Désert, opened in 1922 as an outlet for her luxurious lacquer furniture and furnishings, including rugs. The gallery stock was to broaden its range in tune with Gray's creative evolution; telling period photographs reveal Gray's new designs co-habitant with earlier models – an adjustable tubular steel table for E1027, for instance, on a hand-made rug before a black-lacquered 'brick' screen. The 'Transat' became a part of the offer through Jean Désert and various surviving documents – including artisan invoices and records of sales – and the empirical evidence of surviving examples and their history suggest that around a dozen examples of the design were executed.
The present example has remained in private collections for nearly forty years. The piece was rediscovered in Paris in the early 1980s and was acquired by the leading New York design gallerist Barry Friedman. He initially sold the work to an American client, before re-presenting it at the New York ‘Modernism’ Fair in 1988, where it was acquired by the Time Warner Collection. They, in turn, de-accessioned the work in 1993, selling it directly to the present owner, in whose private collection it has remained unexhibited for the last twenty-five years.
This particular 'Transat' is a remarkable survivor that has preserved every aspect of its original finish: the lacquered frame, the nickel-plated fittings, and the rare animal-hide upholstery. This combination of lacquered frame and animal-skin seat correlates to an example documented in one of the above-referenced archive photographs. The likelihood is that the present chair, with its sophisticated black structure and tactile seat covering, was among the few examples made for sale through Jean Désert in the period 1927-1930.
The comparative study of other recorded examples of this model, sometimes referenced as 'fauteuil allongé', confirms the artisanal nature of their production, with certain very minor variations in their proportions and in their finish. Examples are recorded in plain sycamore, and both black and white 'Duco' synthetic lacquer, and upholstered in a variety of fabrics and hides. A small number can be specifically identified: two ‘Transats’ remained in E1027; another surfaced in 1981 from a private source in Roquebrune; another was used by Gray in her second house project, at Castellar, though destroyed in the War; a 1930 list of remaining stock on the closure of Jean Désert confirms that at least three examples were sold to clients at that time, including Gray's friend Kate Weatherby, M. Schiaparelli, and M. Claude Lévy; one, black-lacquered and upholstered in brown leather, was acquired by the Maharaja of Indore; another, also black-lacquered, was acquired by Jean Badovici for his Paris apartment; a further couple of surviving examples, plus the present chair take the total to around a dozen, of which two are in museum permanent collections.
Each of the few surviving 'Transat' chairs reminds us of the unique character of Eileen Gray's creative vision in the late 1920s; each has its own narrative and its own distinct character.