Eileen Gray (1878 – 1976) was an Irish furniture designer and architect and a pioneer of the Modern Movement in architecture.
Gray was born as Katherine Eileen Moray Smith on 9 August 1878, near Enniscorthy, a market town in south-eastern Ireland. Gray spent most of her childhood living in the family's homes in Ireland or South Kensington in London.
Gray's first commission for interior design came in 1919, a project for which she developed her famous lacquered "block screens." In 1922, she opened her own shop, the Galerie Jean Desert and that same year, exhibited work in Amsterdam where it drew the attention of Dutch architect, Jan Wils. The rational geometric forms of the De Stijl group in Holland impressed Gray deeply and her work began to convey a stronger sense of modernity and unconventional use of materials and forms.
Gray now began to create unique furniture, "suited to our existence, in proportion to our rooms and in accordance with our aspirations and feelings." A brilliant formal play on the concept of asymmetry, Gray's Nonconformist chair displays her sense of irony, while her famous side table – also asymmetrical – displays the rational principles of modernism that increasingly defined her work.
Eileen Gray's innovative Bibendum Chair was one of the 20th century's most recognisable furniture designs. The chair is very much for lounging in and socialising. Its back/arm rest consists of two semi-circular, padded tubes encased in soft leather. The name that Gray chose for the chair, Bibendum, originates from the character created by Michelin to sell tyres.
In 1924 Gray and Badovici began work on the house E-1027 in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin in southern France . The codename stands for the names of the couple: E for Eileen, 10 for Jean , 2 for Badovici and 7 for Gray. Rectilinear and flat-roofed with floor-to-ceiling and ribbon windows and a spiral stairway descending to a guest room, E-1027 was both compact and open. Gray designed the furniture as well as collaborating with Badovici on its structure. Her circular glass E-1027 table and rotund Bibendum armchair were inspired by the recent tubular steel experiments of Marcel Breuer at the Bauhaus. Le Corbusier was quite impressed by the house, and built a summer house nearby. Le Corbusier left his mark on the building in the form of several colourful wall murals. Gray vehemently disapproved of the murals, created at Badovici's behest, as they destroyed the integrity of the wall planes. When Le Corbusier died in 1965 he was swimming in the sea directly in front of E-1027.
After 1927, Gray worked primarily as an architect, designing a modernist house for herself for which she also created appropriately minimalist furniture. She also exhibited several architectural projects at Le Corbusier's "Pavillion des Temps Nouveaux" in 1937. Following that exhibition, Gray's name faded quietly away until 1970 when collector Robert Walker began buying up her designs. After 30 years of obscurity, the importance of Gray's work was again acknowledged. Today, she is recognized as one of the finest designers and architects of her day and pieces like the Eileen Gray Table have become icons of modern design.