We have launched a new website and are reviewing this page. Find out more
Open daily 10.00 to 17.45 Admission free Menu
Lacquer screen, Eileen Gray, about 1928. Museum no. W.40-1977

Lacquer screen, Eileen Gray, about 1928. Museum no. W.40-1977

Eileen Gray was born Enniscorthy, Ireland in 1878 and died in Paris in 1976.

Eileen Gray was born into an aristocratic Irish family. Independent and adventurous, she enrolled at the Slade School of Art in London aged 20. She then moved to Paris in 1902, where she was to spend most of her life.

In Paris she studied to become the first western practitioner of Japanese lacquer. Initially, she was known for her work in the Art Deco style but by the mid 1920s, under the influence of Le Corbusier especially, she became a proponent of Modernism.

Gray worked relatively little after 1930 and her work was largely forgotten until the 1970s. Today she is considered a pioneer of both Art Deco and Modernism.

Learning lacquer

In 1906 Gray met Seizo Sugawara, a Japanese lacquer master living in Paris. Although lacquer was a laborious and potentially toxic art, she became a devoted student and publicly exhibited examples of her work in 1913.

Jean Désert, the shop Gray opened in 1922 on the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, Paris, to showcase and sell her work (AAD no. AAD/1980/9. © National Museum of Ireland

Jean Désert, the shop Gray opened in 1922 on the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, Paris, to showcase and sell her work (AAD no. AAD/1980/9. © National Museum of Ireland

By the early 1920s Gray was creating not only lacquered screens but also architectural panelling and extravagant furniture in the Art Deco style. She had fashionable clients and set up a special workshop for furniture and lacquer.

Gray’s approach to lacquer, including her use of glossy surfaces, was original and did not always follow Japanese traditions.

Business model

As a designer and practitioner Gray was extremely unusual, not least because she was a woman operating on her own. In 1910 she created a workshop for the weaving of her carpets, which became her most successful products. As well as making lacquer work herself, Gray also hired craftsmen, eventually creating a separate studio for lacquer and furniture. In 1922 she opened a shop, Jean Désert on the fashionable Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, to sell the full range of her designs.

By the late 1920s, however, tastes changed and the shop closed. Gray then turned her attention mainly to architecture.

Folding hammock chair, designed by Eileen Gray, 1938. Museum no. CIRC.579-1971

Folding hammock chair, designed by Eileen Gray, 1938. Museum no. CIRC.579-1971

Defying categories

Gray was a designer who defied easy categorisation. In her early, Art Deco work she explored decorative surfaces and luxurious materials within a design vocabulary that could be either extravagant or restrained.

By the mid 1920s her architectural sensibility became more evident, in increasingly geometric, even abstract, furniture, carpets and lighting. Yet she maintained her interest in the feel and effect of materials. When Gray created her own Modernist house she put into practice her belief that ‘human needs’ should guide the designer. ‘The art of the engineer’ was not enough.







Armchair, designed and made by Eileen Gray, before 1929. Museum no. Circ.578-1971

Armchair, designed and made by Eileen Gray, before 1929. Museum no. Circ.578-1971

Amanda Levete, architect and furniture designer, discusses an Eileen Gray armchair

Download: mp3 | ogg View transcript

Armchair (back view), designed and made by Eileen Gray, before 1929. Museum no. Circ.578-1971

Armchair (back view), designed and made by Eileen Gray, before 1929. Museum no. Circ.578-1971

Christopher Wilk, Head of the Furniture, Textiles and Fashion Department at the V&A, discusses an Eileen Gray armchair

Download: mp3 | ogg View transcript

Audio description of the Furniture Gallery's Eileen Gray display

Download: mp3 | ogg View transcript

Interactive Map

Discover the many treasures in the beautiful V&A galleries, find out where events are happening in the Museum or just check the location of the café, shops, lifts or toilets. Simple to use, the V&A interactive map works on all screen sizes, from your tablet or smartphone to your desktop at home.

Launch the Interactive Map