Last week we featured Eero Aarnio.

Irish-French designer Eileen Gray was one of the most prominent figures in early modernist design. She was born in 1878 in Wexford County, Ireland, but spent most of her life doing artistic work around Europe.

Gray was mainly homeschooled when she was a child, but received formal art training at the Slade School in London in 1900, when she was 22 years old. She moved to Paris in 1902 and studied at both the Académie Colarossi and the Académie Julian. She stayed in Paris until her death in 1976, just two years shy of turning a hundred.

Eileen Gray and the seeds of mid-century modernism

Eileen began a career as a painter, but did not find as much satisfaction on the craft as she thought she would. She quickly became inspired by lacquer work and learned the skills from master Japanese lacquer Seizo Sugawara from 1906 onward.

Her undisputable artistic talent and devotion allowed her to present collections and pieces at public exhibitions but the resulting fame started demanding more and more of her working hours. She then made a jump towards furniture and interior design.

Gray had many ideas cooking slowly in her extremely intelligent and dedicated mind. Her first commissioned interior design work came in 1919, and there she included a prototype of her Bibendum chair, which received a lot of praise among Parisian design circles. As an added curiosity, Bibendum is the original name of the Michelin mascot: a strange humanoid form made of white car tires.

That chair, many could argue today, was undoubtedly a predecessor for the work of many mid-century modernist designers. She’s considered a pioneer within this movement, and an important representative of Modernism itself.

Following her successes in furniture design, she started to work with architectural projects, including her house in Roquebrune, which she named E-1027.

Later life, works, and legacy

Gray’s house moniker was a reference to the relationship that she had with Romanian artist Jean Badovici. He was her lover, partner, companion, and the person responsible for introducing her to architecture as a career. A lot of people agree that there is a roughness to Gray’s work, a foreshadowing of the sleekness that would become an intrinsic part of mid-century furniture in the 1950s and 60s.

Photograph of Eileen Gray in her studio

After designing the E-1027, she went under the radar for a time, and most people in Parisian art and design communities forgot about her. She was rescued from oblivion a couple of decades before she died.

Gray’s most iconic works include the E-1027 glass and metal tables, incredibly coveted and renowned today. The Transat armchair (circa 1929), the folding hammock chair (1938), and many others. She even designed rugs, something that most designers couldn’t really brag about intheir work.

Not many people know that Gray and Le Corbusier were friends who became enemies after he painted murals in her house without her permission. Following this falling out, her house became vacant and later suffered years of neglect. A recent restoration project has brought the house to its former glory, and know Gray’s work shines again unsullied, like it was meant to be from the beginning.