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.
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.
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.
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.
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.