To carry on with our post last week on the Importance of Recognizing Women in Architecture, and in honor of Women’s History Month, today we salute modernist designer Eileen Grey, one of my very favorite Modernists.
Grey was not an architect in the strictest sense – her training was in painting and most of her work was furniture – but she worked in a time before formal licensing and when the cohort of modernist designers blurred lines between media as they experimented with art, craft and construction.
Among her cohort of early 20th century designers, Eileen Gray was that impressive rarity, a Modernist who believed in design for people.
She questioned many of the ideals and priorities of her contemporaries, commenting that, “external architecture seems to have absorbed avant-garde architecture at the expense of the interior. As if a house should be conceived for the pleasure of the eye more than the well-being of its inhabitants … Theory is not sufficient for life and does not answer to all of its requirements.”1
Architecture of Eileen Grey
Originally an artist and furniture designer, Gray began her study of architecture at 46. In 1925, she designed her first house in collaboration with her architect friend Jean Badovici, very much in compliance with Le Corbusier’s Five Points of the New Architecture which was published the next year. But she didn’t always agree with modernist theory.
“A house is not a machine to live in,” Gray contradicted Le Corbusier, “It is the shell of man, his extension, his release, his spiritual emanation.”2
“The poverty of modern architecture,” she wrote, “stems from the atrophy of sensuality. The dominance of reason, order and math leave a house cold and inhumane without some mediation of instinct, intuition or sense they produce unlivable space.”3
Her first venture into architecture was House E.1027, on the Mediterranean coast in France. The house combined sleek (bordering on harsh) modern lines with a consideration for the way it would be occupied that many other early modern buildings lacked. It was “house envisioned from a social point of view: minimum of space, maximum of comfort.”
Gray believed that, “the thing constructed is more important than the way it is constructed, and the process is subordinate to the plan, not the plan to the process. It is not only a matter of constructing beautiful arrangements of lines but above all, dwellings for people.”4 For a lovely analysis of her designs, check out the 2012 student blog, E.1027. As the diagram and plan below demonstrate, the floor plan was largely open, with important distinctions between public and private spaces delineated by heavier walls.
Mindful of the lessons of de Stijl, Grey often drew folded out elevations arranged around a plan of each room to really get a sense of the interior space rather than just focusing on facades and floor plans to create form. Like Loos, she was interested in the experience of being inside a space and really focused on materiality to produce her desired effects.
This was a huge departure from her modernist brethren who were largely focusing on the flowing of one space into each other.
Instead each space could be viewed as a microcosm of the whole building. Her representation methods included all the elements of the room as space making, including the placement and design of walls, windows furniture and carpets. Gray took a hand in developing all of these, designing all the furniture, much of it built in, for her houses.5
Gray’s architectural designs focused on the sensual experience of space. Her interest was consistently in making livable homes which could be easily adapted to suit the needs of the occupant.6 She sought to “enhance the human potential of modern architecture, overcoming its supposed cold and alienating qualities by reinstating fundamental physical, psychological and spiritual needs as primary.”7
A Complex Legacy
Unsurprisingly for a woman designer, her work has fallen victim to the conflicting legacy of her male contemporaries. E1027 has been recently restored but not to its original state. Instead it has been refocused to feature modifications made to the building after she left it, preserving not her original de Stijl inspired design but the series of eight bold murals added to the house by Le Corbusier. From the 2013 WSJ article covering the controversy:
“Even though he had once praised Gray for the subtlety of her design, Le Corbusier ended up painting eight large wall murals between 1938 and 1939, both inside and outside E.1027, all drawn in shallow depth with Cubist elements, some with charged sexual imagery.”
Proponents of Grey see the initial creation and the preservation of Le Corbusier’s murals as a desecration of E.1027 – at best disrespectful of a fellow creator and at worse a willful stab intended to wound. He is more famous than she, and for the moment, his murals have been deemed a priority over the house itself for preservation.
Still, Grey’s star is on the rise again. Her work has gained recognition over the past 40 years and she’s now (again) considered to be one of the influential moderns. Many of her furniture designs are available though British furniture designer ARAM and Design within Reach. A number of biographies and monographs feature her work and she’s been profiled and exhibited among other Great Moderns and is even the subject of a to-be-released biopic The Price of Desire which focuses on the conflict with Le Corbusier.
Paper references: 1. Caroline Constant, “E.1027: The Nonheroic Modernism of Eileen Gray,” The Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 53, no. 3 (September 1994): 265. | 2. Caroline Constant, Eileen Gray (London: Phaidon Press Ltd, 2000), 117. | 3. Constant, “E.1027,” 275. | 4. Constant, “E.1027,” 274-5. | 5. Constant, “E.1027,” 272. | 6. Constant, Eileen Gray, 115-16. | 7. Constant, Eileen Gray, 73.