Maiden of Modernism

Fans of sleek buildings and furniture have always considered designers Mies van der Rohe, Marcel Breuer, and Le Corbusier as the main men of Modernism. Few realize that women were often behind the work of these successful men. Lily Reich helped Mies develop furniture and upholstery. Charlotte Perriand collaborated with Le Corbusier to produce his distinctive furniture. But close by one woman toiled alone: artist, architect, and designer Eileen Gray.

Gray, born in 1878 to a wealthy Irish family, never had to work. Nevertheless she attended art school and began her career making lacquer screens and panels that earned raves. When Gray left lacquer behind and moved into creating furniture and buildings, she made her mark as an innovator. The best known of her elegant-yet-kinetic furniture is the E-1027 table, a bold exploration of structure and materials. This oft-imitated piece, consisting of a glass disk surrounded and supported by chrome tubing, possesses unique qualities: Its height is adjustable and it can slide under other furniture. It literally seems to float in mid-air.

“Most phenomenal was her ability to translate furniture into sculptural form and not be a prisoner of convention,” says Naples interior and furniture designer Richard F. Geary. “She was so far ahead of her time.” This Thursday the Coral Gables mecca of Modernism, Luminaire, mounts a two-week retrospective of Gray's work. At the exhibition's opening, Geary will deliver a lecture about Gray, offering insight into the evolution of her work, its timelessness, and the social context in which she created it.

“She's really kind of heroic. She did her thing. She was very self-motivated, self-possessed,” Geary notes. “How many people can you think of that had all the money they needed to live, that would have created such an oeuvre that has stood the test of all of this time? Not too many.”

But Gray's classic furniture was virtually unobtainable until the Seventies, when French designer André Putman resurrected many of her works, thereby resuscitating her reputation as an important force in both modern theory and design. The happy result of Putman's tireless efforts: More Gray pieces are in production than those of any other designer from that period. Gray's buildings haven't fared as well. Almost all are dust. One of her architectural gems that hasn't met the wrecking ball is a vacation villa, also named E-1027, built on the Southern coast of France for architect/editor Jean Badovici. (Ironically Le Corbusier drowned in the Mediterranean in front of the house.)

Unlike her flashier Modernist brethren, Eileen Gray remained relatively obscure until very late in her life (she died in 1976 at age 98). “She never tooted her own horn, never did any self-promotion, not like Corbu, not like Frank Lloyd Wright, even Mies, or any of those people,” marvels Geary. “She sat back and waited for the world to find her, and they did. The neat thing is that she still lives on in every piece.”

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Nina Korman
Contact: Nina Korman