Shadows of Gray

 “I was not a pusher, and maybe that’s the reason I did not get to the place I should have had.”
Eileen Gray

As Le Corbusier’s heart failed him and he was lost beneath the waves of the French Riviera, he found himself – for one last time – in the shadow of Eileen Gray’s legacy: namely, her modernist villa, E-1027.

Eileen Gray, 1926

Eileen Gray was born into an aristocratic Irish family in 1878, she grew up in Wexford County, and divided her time between Ireland and London. Gray moved to Paris in 1902, focusing her career on lacquer screens and cabinets while also experimenting with fabric and carpet design. Her early works from this period were influenced by the symbolist movement, along with the abstract geometric principles of the Dutch art movement, De Stijl.

By the early 1920s, Gray had opened a shop under a male name, Galerie Jean Désert, allowing her to mask her gender and create ambiguity around the store’s management. It was around this time that Gray began experimenting with tubular steel, this was also happening in Germany within the Bauhaus school. Gray’s experiments, however, did not happen with the support of group conversations or metal factories, instead she worked autonomously, investigating the materials to facilitate her own design needs.

It was not until her late 40s that Gray transitioned to architecture. With no formal training she went on to design what is now regarded as one of the most famous modernist houses in the world, E-1027. This achievement was certainly not without controversy. E-1027 shares a strange chapter involving the French architect Le Corbusier that would go on to warp Gray’s true sentiment for the house.

Eileen Gray’s Villa E-1027 Image ©Mary Gaudin

Around the same time Gray built E-1027, Le Corbusier was exhibiting his designs in Paris, gaining acclaim for his radical architecture. Corbusier’s interiors, however, did not live up to his external building designs and he seemed to be unable to find a connection between the two. It was not until he visited E-1027 that he saw what he strived to accomplish, a modernist building that resonated both inside and out.

Gray moved out of E-1027 in 1932 after splitting from her lover, the architect Jean Badovici. Corbusier was a good friend of Badovici so he came to spend many weekends at the house, consumed with envy that a woman with no architectural experience had created such beauty and symmetry. During his time there he began to paint murals over the pure white walls, most of them erotic in nature. What Le Corbusier may have considered a celebration of art and inspiration, reeked more of narcissistic vandalism.

When Badovici died in 1956, Le Corbusier tried to purchase E-1027. Unsuccessful, he went on to buy the surrounding beach huts and permanently moved next door. His obsession was absolute. In 1957, whilst swimming below the house, he suffered a fatal heart attack.

As fate would have it, the murals of the now famous Le Corbusier would save the house from ruin. The artworks spurred the French government into buying the ruinous property in 2000, and following this, a complete restoration to its original designs.

Only truly finding public acclaim at age 94, Eileen Gray was a pioneer who carved out her space in the hostile, male-centric world of modernism. And, like it or not, we must thank Le Corbusier for his post-humous preservation of her work. Their relationship shares a strange symbiosis, and while he died in the shadow of E-1027, its legacy is secured under his.

Anna Grassham / Head of Modern Design

Top Banner Image:
Eileen Gray’s Villa E-1027
Image ©Mary Gaudin

February 2021