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Eileen Gray


Gray was born as Katherine Eileen Moray Smith on 9 August 1878, near Enniscorthy, a market town in south-eastern Ireland. Her father, James McLaren Smith, was a painter who encouraged his daughter's artistic interests. Her mother was Eveleen Pounden, a granddaughter of Francis Stuart, 10th Earl of Moray; she became the 19th Baroness Gray in 1895, upon the death of her own mother, née Lady Jane Stuart. After that, Lady Gray, who had separated from her husband in 1888, changed her children's surname to Gray.
 
In 1898, Gray attended classes at the Slade School of Fine Art, where she studied painting. While there, she met Jessie Gavin and Kathleen Bruce. In 1900 her father died and she went on her first visit to Paris with her mother where she saw the Exposition Universelle, a World's fair that celebrated the achievements of the past century. The main style at the fair was Art Nouveau and Gray was a fan of the work of Charles Rennie Mackintosh which was on exhibit. Soon after, Gray moved to Paris along with her friends Gavin and Bruce from the Slade School. She continued her studies in Paris at the Académie Julian and the Académie Colarossi. For four or five years after the move, Gray travelled back and forth from Paris to Ireland to London, but in 1905, due to her mother's illness, she settled back in London. She rejoined the Slade but found her drawing and painting courses were becoming less satisfying.
 
Career
AGray's innovative Bibendum Chair was one of the 20th century's most recognisable furniture designs. Its back/arm rest consists of two semi-circular, padded tubes encased in soft leather. The name that Gray chose for the chair, originates from the Bibendum character created by Michelin to advertise tyres. The Bibendum Chair was relatively large; its depth approximately 840mm and its height 740 mm tall. The visible part of the frame of the Bibendum was made of a polished, chromium plated, stainless steel tube. The framing of the actual seat was made of beechwood and there was rubber webbing that was inter-woven across the base of the seat to provide added comfort. The seat, back and arm rests encased in soft, pale leather.
 
The Bibendum Chair was designed as part of the modernist movement which was completely different from Gray's earlier, more traditional work. She decided to make the change in style to simply make "progress". Gray designed the furniture as well as collaborating with Badovici on its structure. Her circular glass E-1027 table was inspired by the recent tubular steel experiments of Marcel Breuer at the Bauhaus (who had been inspired, in turn, by Mart Stam).
 
In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Gray was involved with the Union des Artistes Modernes which had well-known members. She designed and furnished herself a new home, Tempe à Pailla, outside Menton. This is another icon of Modernist architecture, a space designed for her to dwell and work, a living/working machine as she wanted it, a space which could be constantly changed with multi-purpose furniture. Le Corbusier was impressed by the house and built a summer house nearby. At Badovici's behest, Le Corbusier painted several colourful murals on the wall of the building. Gray vehemently disapproved of the murals as they destroyed the integrity of the wall planes.
 
Personal Life
Gray was bisexual. She mixed in the lesbian circles of the time, being associated with Romaine Brooks, Gabrielle Bloch, Loie Fuller, the singer Damia and Natalie Barney. Gray's intermittent relationship with Damia (or Marie-Louise Damien) ended in 1938, after which they never saw each other again, although both lived into their nineties in the same city. Gray also had for some time an intermittent relationship with Jean Badovici, the Romanian architect and writer. He had written about her design work in 1924 and encouraged her interest in architecture. Their romantic involvement ended in 1932. Gray remained active into her 90s, working up to fourteen hours a day refining her portfolio and organizing her various furniture designs and projects. Gray died in 1976, at the age of 98, in Paris. Her ashes were interred at the Père Lachaise Cemetery in eastern Paris.
 
Gallery
MLF Eileen Gray End Table