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Eileen Gray: a life restored

The innovative designer who should be world-famous

Michael Watts | March/April 2015

The undoubted star of a new movie called “The Price of Desire” is not a person but a house, a real house, a magical house, in the South of France: a whitewashed Modernist villa with a perfectly Modernist name, E.1027. Built into a cliff at Roquebrune-Cap-Martin on the Côte d’Azur, it sits on columns, or pilotis, with a flat roof and floor-to-ceiling windows. At its centre is a spiral staircase, like a ship’s companionway, as if the house were setting sail across the Mediterranean; but its interior is comfortable and ingenious in its illusion of space. Beds fold into walls, a table becomes a desk, and the hall has witty instructions for visitors—entrez lentement and défense de rire.

E.1027, Eileen Gray’s villa on the Côte d’Azur, was the first Modernist building completed by a female architect

“The Price of Desire” was shot here, with the original furniture replicated by the London dealer Zeev Aram, a friend of Eileen Gray, who designed the house and all its contents. It’s a trashy title for an art-house film about Gray, a designer of genius, whose long life and career were seldom trashy, but were brimful of tragedy, triumph and artistic conflict. Gray was a bisexual Anglo-Irish aristocrat who became a free-spirited member of the bohemian classes. She is said to have driven around Paris, where she spent most of her life, in a Chenard-Walcker roadster with Damia, her celebrity girlfriend, and Damia’s pet panther. Even at the age of 80, Gray thought of buying a Vespa scooter. When she died, in 1976, she was 98 and still painting and experimenting with materials such as Plexiglass.

In the last hundred years, Gray has been celebrated, forgotten, cult-worshipped, rediscovered and re-marketed, and now she’s being brought to a general audience by this Irish-Belgian co-production and other Gray happenings. What’s being called “the Eileen Gray Project” also includes a comprehensive documentary on her career, “Gray Matters”, a new critical study, a beautiful book of movie stills by Julian Lennon, and even an educational videogame, set in E.1027.

The film’s director is Mary McGuckian, a vivid and voluble Irishwoman whose credits include a bio­pic of George Best and a filmed play by Yeats. She came across the house while walking nearby, and eventually realised she had stumbled upon a great human drama. Gray’s stock has been rising steadily since her death. When her Dragon Chair (c.1917) came up for auction at Christie’s in Paris in 2009, it was expected to fetch €3m, and actually fetched €22m. This “small, brown armchair”, as it was described, has carved serpents’ arms, dotted with yellow lacquer, and came from the estate of Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé. It is fairly hideous, yet it is the most expensive piece of 20th-century design ever.

E.1027 is now routinely described as a masterpiece. Built in 1926-29, it is one of the most innovative and beautiful houses of the last century. Many have coveted it, from Aristotle Onassis to Brad Pitt. It even has a dedicated fan club, the Friends of E.1027, based in New York. It has been owned both by a nun and by the communist state of Romania. During the war, Germans used it for target practice; in the 1990s, another owner was murdered in situ. Thereafter, it was steadily, cruelly, abandoned, a decline that only now has been reversed, partly with proceeds from a Kickstarter campaign begun by McGuckian.

The house has played a big part in Gray’s story, thanks to an episode that has become the focus of books, essays, documentaries, a novel and even a course on the sexual politics of architecture. It concerns the visit in 1939 of Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris, aka Le Corbusier, the most influential architect of the last century—a founder of Modernism with his Five Points of a New Architecture, and also the creator of drab tower blocks and windswept plazas.

Le Corbusier makes his mark

Le Corbusier often stayed at E.1027, admired it, and even wanted to buy it. But he also chose to violate its pristine walls with garish Cubist murals of naked women, including one sporting a swastika—which flouted Gray’s express wish that E.1027 be free of any decoration. There is an alarming photograph of him at work in the villa, naked but for a pipe, a paintbrush and owlish spectacles, with a livid scar on his right thigh from a boating accident. He is staring down the camera, as if daring it to object to his graffiti. The Observer critic Rowan Moore has called it an “act of naked phallocracy” by a man asserting “his dominion, like a urinating dog, over the territory”.

Moore wrote that in 2013: almost 80 years on, Le Corbusier’s spasm of comic brutality is still hotly debated. Was this an act of vandalism, an infringement of the original architect’s intellectual property, or a bravura improvement, as Le Corbusier and his fans would have it? Can a great master make an existing work of art even better? Le Corbusier was an intellectual with grand visions for entire cities; and here was a little villa in need of his attention, as he saw it.

Or was his motivation just plain old snobbery and sexism? It was unusual that the architect of E.1027 was a woman. Eileen Gray was known as a designer of furniture and interiors who had a shop in Paris, Jean Désert. She had never built anything before. Although influenced by Le Corbusier, she was self-taught, without an architectural practice, and she was up against an overbearingly male hierarchy; even as she was building E.1027, the future architect Charlotte Perriand was being rejected by Le Corbusier’s studio with the words, “We don’t embroider cushions here.”

And then there was Gray’s sexuality. It has been suggested that Le Corbusier’s frescoes were triggered by a sexualised hostility to lesbianism.

Jean Badovici, Gray’s lover, who helped her build E.1027 but allowed Le Corbusier to deface it

E.1027 was deeply personal to Gray. She had built it as a love nest for herself and her Romanian lover, Jean Badovici; so entwined with the house were they that the E stood for Eileen, the 10 for Jean (J being the 10th letter of the alphabet), the 2 for Badovici and the 7 for Gray. But by the time of Le Corbusier’s murals, she and Badovici had split up, and with E.1027 all to himself, he was happy for his friend Corbu to indulge his “furious desire to dirty the walls”, as he had done in other houses.

The ensuing row was to obscure, for many years, Gray’s right to be recognised as the house’s sole creator, the first female architect to have completed a Modernist building. Feminists now see her as a woman wronged by men. A firm purpose of “The Price of Desire” is to address that wrong. Mary McGuckian, as its writer-director-producer, is clear that she has made a feminist film. “There was innate chauvinism,” she argues, “which is a pretty universal experience for professional women. The film tries to show what insidious chauvinism felt like for Gray. There was nothing you could go to court over—just a lifetime of little acts of omission or ignoring, and the sum of them meant that she was completely ignored, misunderstood, and not recognised for what she had achieved.”

Her film opens with a re-enactment of the Dragon Chair’s astonishing sale, as the successful bidder (acting for an anonymous collector) tries to explain the extravagant price-tag to a throng of reporters: “It can only be the price of desire.” It then flashes back through the highlights of Gray’s life, as told to camera by Le Corbusier—like Salieri, the unreliable narrator in “Amadeus”. The story gradually unfolds, and Gray’s own, very different version emerges.

The film becomes an intense chamber piece between Le Corbusier, Gray and her two main lovers. One is Badovici, the beakily handsome architect and writer, played by an Italian smoothie, Francesco Scianna. The other is Marisa Damia, a gendarme’s daughter who became a celebrated music-hall singer, a tragic chanson réaliste in the Piaf mould, with a voice described as “a sob mixed with a revolt”. Gray dedicated one of her most famous pieces, the Siren Chair, to Damia. Alanis Morissette, the Canadian singer-songwriter, plays Damia and performs her great noir standard, “On Danse à La Villette”.

With the help of thick glasses and a severe hair-style, Vincent Pérez, the Swiss-born sexpot star of many a French movie, becomes Le Corbusier, a ruthless self-promoter, an architect who saw the destruction wreaked by the war as a chance to build Europe anew. Gray herself is played by Orla Brady (pictured), from the BBC series “Mistresses”, who replaced Winona Ryder at an early stage of the production. “There is only one Irish actress in the world”, McGuckian says, “who’s around 50 but still looks very beautiful, who can play 28 to 98, and can speak French. So she was absolutely the right person to play Eileen Gray.”

Early photos of Gray show a tall Edwardian woman with an abundance of burnished auburn hair and a frank, sceptical gaze. Her best friend, the sculptress Kathleen Bruce, later to marry Scott of the Antarctic, said in her memoirs that Gray was the “most romantic figure I had ever seen”. Bruce also described her as “lovable but remote”. In other accounts, Gray created a damaging impression of hauteur; she was prone to self-doubt, and publicity-shy until her old age.

She had many male admirers, including the bad-boy occultist Aleister Crowley, to whom she may have been secretly engaged. He seems to have been genuinely lovelorn, writing her poems, which she briskly dismissed. “I don’t know how I put up with this nonsense,” she later reflected, “but he was very lonely.”

Celebrated, forgotten, cult-worshipped, rediscovered

Gray had been born in 1878 into Ireland’s Protestant Ascendancy in Wexford. After studying at the Slade in London, she left for Paris and the Belle Époque, living in the heart of the Left Bank at 21, rue Bonaparte, and mingling with Somerset Maugham, Wyndham Lewis and Arnold Bennett at the Café de Versailles and the Chat Blanc. As one of the new women of the post-Victorian age, she went ballooning with Charles Rolls, of Rolls-Royce fame (said to be the first Briton to die in a flying accident), and eventually took to wearing tailored trouser-suits and floppy bow-ties, her long hair now carefully shingled.

Such adventures did not undermine her seriousness as an artist. She had begun by designing beautiful lacquer pieces, especially screens, under the wing of a Japanese lacquer master living in Paris. A century ago, Art Deco lacquer work was in demand at upmarket stores like Liberty’s in London. It involved painting many layers of liquid resin, mixed with powdered stone, onto a wood base. Gray often dried lacquered pieces in her own bathroom. She was unusual in being a woman working on her own, yet she became highly successful, and by her 30s was enjoying public exhibitions and the patronage of rich clients. Le Destin (Destiny, 1913), a lacquer screen that conjures a hypnotic tension between three allegorical figures, made her name and triggered an explosion of creativity.

She tried her hand at carpets and wall-hangings after travelling to north Africa to learn weaving and dyeing techniques. Her workshop in Paris employed eight female weavers, making rugs whose abstract and geometric designs looked to De Stijl, the Bauhaus and the Russian avant garde. These she sold in her shop on rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré to a distinguished clientele that included James Joyce, Ezra Pound and the designer Elsa Schiaparelli. She designed architectural panelling and wonderful, Art Deco-style lamps with names like Rocket and Aeroplane, inspired by Gray’s own flights in early bi-planes. She was quick to embrace machine-age utopianism. Soon, functionalist designs in metal and glass began to pour forth.

Her new furniture could be light, portable and multi-functional—what she called her camping style. She made a comforting take on the blubbery Michelin Man, the Bibendum chair, with spare tyres of leather or rubber sitting on a chromed steel frame. Her tubular steel tables and chairs have since been copied to death in hotel foyers, corporate lobbies and luxury homes. “She had an idea of mass production for the everyday man,” says Marco Orsini, director of “Gray Matters”—and she has been grievously ripped off.

With her Modernist inclinations, Gray soon came to the attention of Le Corbusier and his friend Badovici, editor of the influential magazine L’Architecture Vivante. A romantic stereotype—gregarious, womanising and skint—Badovici was 28, and Gray 43, when they met in 1921. Although Gray bridled at any conventional romance, they became lovers and collaborators on designs for houses that remained unbuilt yet convinced Gray that she might become an architect. Badovici’s contribution was the technical know-how.

This is how E.1027 began, as their idea for a holiday home overlooking the Med, but its true authorship has been muddled until now. Gray intended that the house, her first, be seen as “an attempt at addressing the issues of modern domestic architecture”, perhaps giving Badovici the impression that it was not the finished article. Certainly, Le Corbusier painted his murals only with Badovici’s approval.

There was also a legal issue: a foreigner in France couldn’t wholly own property, so Gray bought the land for the house and put it in Badovici’s name, making him, in effect, her client. She then repaid his professional generosity by crediting him as collaborator. But when E.1027 was finished, Badovici devoted an edition of his magazine to it, and announced himself as its joint architect. This claim, disputed ever since, is now demolished in a scholarly new biography, “Eileen Gray: Her Work and Her World”. Its author, Jennifer Goff, a curator at the National Museum of Ireland, makes the critical point that all extant plans of the house were in Gray’s hand alone. “Despite inspiration being drawn from various architectural sources, notably Le Corbusier, Gerrit Rietveld and Adolf Loos, it is important to make clear that Gray was the sole designer of E.1027,” she states. “Badovici’s role was firstly client and secondly consultant architect.”

More ultimately damaging to Gray’s reputation was her bitter row with Le Corbusier. Although a mutual respect existed, she had always refuted his maxim that a house was simply a machine for living in. She believed that a house was also a home, that the inside was as important as the outside, but that “all detached painting or pictures would seem not only useless, but detrimental to the overall harmony”. She began an angry correspondence with Le Corbusier, calling the murals “an act of vandalism” that betrayed her principles and demanding their removal. “If not”, she wrote, “I will be forced to do it myself, thus to re-establish the original spirit of the house by the sea.”

Le Corbusier never apologised or removed them; instead, he upped the ante and photographed them for publication to establish his imprimatur. Later, in 1948, he went into print to denigrate the splendid house that had once made him welcome. The murals, he sneered, “burst out from dull, sad walls where nothing is happening”. He referred to E.1027 only as a “house in Cap Martin”, and left Gray’s name out altogether.

Her standing as an architect consequently sank under the weight of neglect by her peers. When Ernö Goldfinger stayed at E.1027, he assumed that it had been completed by Badovici, not Gray, and wrote, “I don’t think she had any architectural pretensions.” To the architectural historian Reyner Banham, she was a woman granted “a brief moment of transcendence” by Badovici and Le Corbusier.

And that was it: Gray was written out of the architectural record. There was one other house she built from scratch, near Menton, which she later sold to the painter Graham Sutherland, as well as numerous designs she made, after the war, for prefabricated social housing and civic centres. None was built, and she retreated. The world passed by her apartment on rue Bonaparte. She was so hard-up that she burned her precious furniture during cold winters, her name as a pioneer of Modernism and Art Deco cherished by few in the art world’s priesthood. “She became quite hardened,” says Goff, who thinks agoraphobia drastically curtailed her social life. “So many of the loves of her life had betrayed her. Everything she’d tried to achieve with [E.1027] was annihilated when Badovici invited Le Corbusier to paint the murals.”

 


In the 1960s, a revisionist historian, Joseph Ryk­wert, led Gray’s rediscovery, and now, in Orsini’s film, she has admirers clamouring to praise her. They include Zeev Aram, whom she entrusted with the global licence for her designs. He started reproducing the Bibendum armchair, the E.1027 table and other works in his Aram store, and got to know her. He notes how “bemused [she was] that somebody was interested in her work”; yet “with one eye she saw what many architects I know and admire couldn’t see with two.”

Gray in later life, at home in Paris and by now blind in one eye

She was in her 90s, suffering from Parkinson’s, when she re-emerged into the light, blinking from an injury to her right eye that she disguised with a black spectacle-lens. Yet the world had turned and once more wanted her. Suddenly, says Philippe Garner, head of 20th-century decorative arts and design at Christie’s, she was “the queen of the heap”. In 1972 her first retrospective, “Eileen Gray: Pioneer of Design”, was held in London, and the Le Destin screen was sold to an American for a record $36,000; in 1973 St Laurent bought her Dragon Chair (and promptly re-upholstered it). Her one and only British TV interview, for an engaging LWT profile, followed in 1975. She also spoke to the author Bruce Chatwin, an intriguing encounter that was never published but has been imagined in a novel, “The Interview” by Patricia O’Reilly, and now in “The Price of Desire”.

When she was 95, the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland made her an honorary fellow. Her feelings for Ireland grew stronger with the years, and now McGuckian and Goff are reclaiming her for the country of her birth. McGuckian sees Gray’s work ethic as “a very Anglo-Irish thing”, typical of women who were Irish in England and English in Ireland: “They didn’t fit in anywhere, they were always somewhat astray in the world, but they became forthright and independent.”

Badovici died intestate in 1956. E.1027 went to his sister, a nun in Romania, who passed it on, briefly, to the Romanian state. It continued to obsess Le Corbusier, who bought land nearby, and in 1952 built a one-room holiday shack with two small windows, to gaze upon the villa whose walls were splashed with his signature. E.1027 may have been the last thing he ever saw. In 1965 he died of a heart attack while swimming in the sea. His coffin was carried through the courtyard of the Louvre by soldiers bearing flaming torches.

Gray’s tubular steel tables and chairs have been copied to death in hotel foyers, corporate lobbies and luxury homes

No such pomp attended Gray’s death in 1976. Her niece, the painter Prunella Clough, and her first biographer, the film-maker Peter Adam, arranged a simple funeral at Père Lachaise in Paris, where her ashes were interred. Her grave is numbered 17616. But then her real monuments are the works held in the V&A, the National Museum of Ireland and private collections.

Damia died two years later. Their intimacy had been brief, and they had not spoken for 40 years, 
despite living close by in Paris; yet Gray always kept a framed photograph of Damia on her mantelpiece, which Julian Lennon has recreated in the film.

Gray once tried to regain E.1027. She went there with Peter Adam in 1967, but couldn’t bring herself to enter. “It is too late, anyway,” she told him. “Look what they did to this place.” But by the end she could see her past with magnanimity. “I like to create things,” she says in the film. “I don’t need to possess them.”

In 1999, the villa faced demolition, and was saved only by a coalition of the Conservatoire du Littoral, which protects the French coast, and the commune of Roquebrune, which manages the site. In 2000, France declared it an historical landmark, and in 2007 the restoration began; by 2013 it had cost €600,000.

It is scheduled to reopen in May 2015. Tourists will get to see Le Corbusier’s infamous murals, whose preservation he agreed with the French government. Gray’s fiercest advocates still argue for their removal. Some visitors may wonder what all the pain and anger was about. But history will say: it was worth it.

 

Eileen Gray: Her Work and her World by Jennifer Goff is out now

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