If you know a bit about design, you’ve probably heard the name Eileen Gray or at least seen the pieces she has created. She was a badass designer in a time when it wasn’t okay to be one and carved her own path in a male-dominated industry on grit, determination and vision.
To celebrate Women History Month (which should really be every month), I’ve compiled a list of 15 fascinating facts about Eileen Gray, a woman who was an icon even before her last name became a color phenomenon.
To this day she remains one of the most influential female designers ever with her own life acting as a lesson for us all to follow our dreams and tell impostor syndrome to f*ck off.
1. The DNA of Eileen Gray
Born Kathleen Eileen Moray Smith on August 9, 1878, and died on October 31, 1976. Her father was a Scottish landscape painter and her mother was the granddaughter of royalty. Creative combo for sure. Her parents divorced when she was 11 and her father changed his name to Smith-Gray by royal license, thus deeming her known as Eileen Gray from that point on.
2. Not Like The Rest
She came from an affluent background and identified with many socialites at the time, donning typical flamboyant attire. However, her personal style evolved as she became immersed in the artistic culture and she adopted a more male-influenced aesthetic, even wearing men’s clothing and keeping her hair very short. During World War 1 she was an ambulance driver in Paris along with other progressive women.
3. You’re Never Too Old
She found acclaim at the age of 94 and passed away four short years later at the age of 98. A reminder that you’re never too old to live your dreams and also that it’s never to soon to start chasing them.
Despite her fame, however, only 3 people attended her funeral. Which just goes to show you it isn’t the quantity of people who surround you that matter, it is the quality.
4. Lacquered Beginnings
She was in her mid-thirties when she showed her first pieces of furniture design – lacquered screens with human figures on them in bold colors and later went more abstract with geometric shapes and muted colors.
5. Gray’s Big Break
In 1922, at the age of 44, she got her first big break in interiors while designing a home for Madame Mathieu-Lévy, a famous dressmaker at the time. She showcased an innovative idea using her screens as not only movable room dividers, but a way to break up and add interest to rooms.
6. The Carpet Sometimes Matched The Drapes
She also designed all the rugs in Madame Mathieu-Lévy’s residence, which spurred on a new creative endeavor for the designer and continued throughout her career.
7. Fortune Favors the Bold
She opened her own shop called Jean Desert, which sold housewares and her design services. Pronounced with a French accent, the name was created off of a fictional male figure because at the time, it was unheard of for a woman to be in this industry, much less successful at it. How’s that for some just desserts.
8. A Chair Inspired By A Tire
One of her most iconic pieces and one of my personal favorites, the Bibendum chair was inspired and named after the Michelin Man in 1926. Featuring leather upholstery and a bent tubular steel base, it is still a very popular choice for interiors today.
9. Just Do It
She became an architect in her late 40s with no formal training. Proving once again how badass she is and that women can do anything they set their minds to.
10. Home Sweet Home
She designed a house for herself in the South of France in 1924 and named it E-1027. It is perched on a side of a cliff and is designed to maximize the view of the Mediterranean from every room in the house. Little did she know at the time how influential this house would be on her life. From the furniture she created specifically for it that went on to mass acclaim to the drama with Le Corbusier that went down (more on that later).
The home fell into disrepair, but has been restored and was featured in the 2014 documentary about her life, Gray Matters and in 2015’s drama, The Price of Desire.
11. More Is Better Than Less
She designed not only for her projects, but also for her own personal needs at home and purely for experimentation. Many of her pieces were multifunctional and fun to interact with.
12. Breakfast In Bed Is Always In Fashion
The table she is most well-known for, the E-1027 tubular steel side table, was originally designed for her sister who liked to eat breakfast in bed. The base of the table is open which allows it to slide around the leg of a bed and the height is also adjustable. Perfectly allowing you to scoot your pancakes and coffee in close while you linger under the covers.
13. A League Of Her Own
The work she created throughout her life not only appealed to the aesthetics of the time, but were also way ahead of its time. Which is why I think it took her so long to find the acclaim and recognition she deserved. People had to catch up.
14. Don’t Call It A Comeback
After being displaced due to World War 2, Eileen became a bit of a recluse and disappeared from design. I mean, who can blame her, right?
But then in 1968, a magazine article reminded people how fabulous she was and it lead to a resurgence in her popularity. She went on to license her Bibendum chair and E-1027 table first and then eventually some other pieces she also created, releasing them to be mass produced some 50 years after they were first introduced.
15. The World’s Most Expensive Chair
One of her not-so-well-known chairs, the Dragon (or Serpent) Armchair, designed in 1919, was sold in 2009 for $28.3 million dollars and now lives in the Yves Saint Laurent library in Paris. What makes it even more astonishing is the fact it was last sold in 1972 for just a few thousand dollars.
Design Meets Drama
Eventually, Eileen moved on from the E-1027 house and built a new one. She left it to her lover who was also good friends with Le Corbusier, a well-known architect and designer at the time (and a guy). Le Corbusier started spending a lot of weekends at the house and took it upon himself to paint murals on many of the interior walls.
These weren’t just any murals either – they were erotic depictions of people engaged in all sorts of activities.
And he didn’t just paint them in his overalls. He painted them in his birthday suit. Yup. Naked painting.
Needless to say, Eileen was not pleased when she made this little discovery.
It was rumored that Le Corbusier was wildly jealous of Eileen and the success she had achieved as a female with no formal training. She could do something he had strived to do with his own showcase house, Esprit Nouveau Pavilion in 1925, but couldn’t bring his vision to life as beautifully or effortlessly as Eileen did.
Ironically, it was the murals, though, that ended up saving the house from being torn down decades later as the house was attributed to Le Corbusier instead of Eileen and deemed to be of historical significance.
And the irony continues.
Years later, the house went up for sale and Le Corbusier tried to buy it, but was unsuccessful. Instead, he lived next door in a wooden house and gazed upon it (lovingly, I’m sure, right…) daily. One morning, he was out for a swim, and while passing directly under the E-1027 house, he had a massive heart attack and died.
You know what they say – Karma’s a bitch.
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