Roughly four years ago during the Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé auction at Christie's, a round shaped brown leather armchair with a stylised lacquered wood frame and armrests modelled in the shape of two serpentine dragons was sold for a record sum - €21,905,000 ($28 million).
The armchair was a unique modernist masterpiece, dating between 1917 and 1919, also known as the "Dragon Chair" (View this photo) designed by Eileen Gray. Yet the fact that her iconic armchair had belonged to Yves Saint Laurent's collection wasn't the only link she had with fashion.
"Eileen Gray", a retrospective exhibition at the Centre Pompidou (significantly the first French retrospective) celebrates the Irish born designer through pieces of furniture, rugs, photographs and scale models.
Each item is rare and unique since she never left behind an industrial production, even though her masterpiece remains the house E 1027, built in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin between 1926 and 1929 and designed with Romanian archiect Jean Badovici.
Born in 1879, Gray lived in a world dominated by men; a painter by training and an autodidact in other areas, she first studied drawing and painting at the Slade School of Fine Art in London.
Gray collaborated with him for over twenty years, experimenting with new methods of applying pigments and creating blue lacquers, a colour previously unseen in that material.
Together they created iconic designs such as "The Magician of the Night", the "Siren" armchair and pieces commissioned by renowned fashion designer Jacques Doucet (who used to dress Sarah Bernhardt) and Mme Mathieu Lévy, milliner of the boutique J. Suzanne Talbot.
Doucet purchased Gray's four panel red lacquer screen called "Le Destin", decorated on one side with the figures of three men, and on the other with silver and gold forms (the only piece signed and dated by the designer), and also commissioned her various pieces including the "Chariot", "Bilboquet" and "Lotus" tables.
In the meantime, apart from the lacquer workshop with Sugawara, she opened a second workshop devoted to tapestry weaving, an art she had learnt with her friend Evelyn Wyld in the wilds of the Moroccan Atlas.
Lacquered panels and tapestries became her new media of choice, but rug weaving also turned into a sort of tool for her research into abstraction.
Gray, who favoured Poiret coats and hats by Lanvin, was featured on British Vogue in 1917.
Five years later, she opened the Galerie Jean Désert, catering to a clientele of fashion designers, women of letters and artists, including Elsa Schiaparelli, nightclub singer Marie-Louise Damien also known as Damia, Romaine Brooks and Loïe Fuller.
Litte by little she added to her favourite materials chromed tubular metal glass, cork and rhodoid and surrounded herself with the most talented artisans including Kichizo Inagaki, cabinet maker and plinth maker to Rodin; Abel Motté, editor of the furniture of Francis Jourdain and textile desiger Hélène Henry.
But, by 1925, she had moved onto modernism, designing for example the Bibendum leather armchair that recalls in its shape the Michelin Man.
Her gallery closed in 1930, but four years earlier she had already started working on the E 1027 home with Jean Badovici, creator of the avant-garde magazine L'Architecture Vivante.
The seaside villa had an emblematic name, E stands for Eileen, 10 for the J in Jean (the 10th letter of the alphabet), 2 for Badovici and 7 for Gray.
The villa was built with a minimalist aim and a vertical axis (the spiral staircase) intersecating with horizontal planes (the two levels of the villa crowned by the rooftop terrace), but the most notable features remain the expandable furniture (such as her telescoping glass and chrome table), walls and partitions that seemed to accompany the movement of the body.
In 1931 she independently designed her own house, Tempe a Pailla (a Mentonasc proverb meaning "time for yawning"): here she managed to realise a joint relationship between architecture and furniture, creating a series of multi-purpose prototype furniture, a mobile pant-rack, a seat-stepladder-towel-rack, a retractable bench, and an extendable wardrobe.
She also restored a country house south of Saint-Tropez - Lou Pérou - her last summer refuge, a sober site, characterised by simplicity of volumes and basic architecture with interior and exterior spaces intermingling with each other.
Between 1967 and 1975 she put together a porftofolio of her works that included black and white photographs, sketches, architectural plans, and finished projects that she never built.
The best thing about the Centre Pompidou retrospective is the fact that it analyses all her skills as lacquer artist, decorator, textile designer, architect, photographer and painter, examining through the objects showcased inspirations such as imagism and vorticism (the former helped her infusing in her pieces ideogrammatic forms; the latter allowed her to inject into her designs dynamic energy of lines).
An independent and determined woman in search of freedom, admired by Le Corbusier and Jean Prouvé, as the curator of the exhibition Cloé Pitiot remembers in the introduction to the exhibition catalogue Gray encouraged artists not to neglect any means of expression, to be simple and healthy and understand the meaning of each thing. In our times Gray's lesson could be summarised with her statement "the future projects light, the past only clouds", highlighting her dislike for dwelling in the past and her will to constantly project herself into the future.
Eileen Gray, Galerie 2 - Centre Pompidou, Paris, until 20th May 2013
Berenice Abbott, Portrait of Eileen Gray, Paris, 1926. Photo: Berenice Abbott / Commerce Graphics
Chariot Table, circa 1915 / © Photo : Vallois-Paris-Arnaud Carpentier
Cabinet with swivel drawers, 1926-1929 Furniture from the villa E 1027 © Centre Pompidou / photo: Jean-Claude Planchet © DR
Bibendum armchair, circa 1930. Photo: Christian Baraja, Studio SLB
Villa E 1027, Eileen Gray and Jean Badovici L’Architecture vivante, n° spécial, Paris, Éd. Albert Morancé, automne-hiver 1929
Villa E 1027, Eileen Gray and Jean Badovici. Photo: Alan IrvineMember of the Boxxet Network of Blogs, Videos and Photos
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