Sex Orgies. Drugs. Lacquer Wood. Eileen Gray. Eileen’s life, but not in that order, was recently the topic of a lecture I ventured to at the John Soane Museum entitled: ‘Reflections: Tom Wilkinson on Eileen Gray’.
Let’s all get something clear from the offset. Eileen was a badass. Not only was she Irish (nod) and a woman (double nod) at a time where both things were considered irrefutably negative (shake of the head in disgust), Eileen was also a genius.
For one glorious hour, Tom took us on a tour of details of her life, her work, her psyche. Eileen was formidable and intelligent. Dividing her time between London and Paris, she studied lacquer wood under a Japanese craftsman, designed furniture that was inspired by Marcel Breuer of the Bauhaus, and co-designed a lovers retreat with Romanian architect Jean Badovici. You may know this retreat as E.1027 in Cote D’Azure. ‘Tis a beauty.
Tom continued to discuss her designs, her tumultuous relationship with Le Corbusier and her influence on his work. You heard it here first folks. Le Corbusier was intrigued and egotistically irrational about Eileen’s ability. He either undermined her or tried to ruin her love of minimal, clean, clinical lines by painting erotic murals within her carefully planned rooms. Eileen eventually abandoned her lovers retreat in Cote D’Azure, moving back to Paris and not returning. But here’s an Agatha Christie moment for you – who built their cabin to be situated directly behind E.1027? You guessed it, Le Corbusier.
But Eileen’s story doesn’t end there. When she died at the youthful age of 98, a doctor removed most of the furniture in E.1027 and auctioned it off. The villa owner was found dead two days later, and the same doctor who ran off with the furniture, inherited the villa. It then became a place of drug-fuelled orgies, until eventually he was murdered there in 1996. So this beautiful villa remained forgotten for a long time. After very little funding, it has now re-opened, but sadly not to critical acclaim (issues with shoddy finishes, just pay out for the door handles already! She deserves a door handle).
Among the discussion, the question arose as to why is Eileen having such resurgence at the moment? The issue of her being ‘hot property’ can be attributed perhaps as modernism is quite ‘in’ or the fact that gender in architecture is being discussed more than it did in her lifetime. In 2009, a private auction at Christie’s of San Laurent furniture saw Eileen’s original Fauteuil aux dragon chair fetching £19.4m. This makes it the most expensive piece of 20th century design to ever be auctioned.
Her work is exploratory, appearing simple with little elements but eventually throwing off the shackles of normality to show you something not only functional but multi layered. Also, she was hilarious. Her Bibendum chair (below) is based on the Michelin Man. You gotta’ admire the optimism. You can buy a replica from Aram. It’s only £2,650. Bargain.