Eileen Gray at Bard Graduate Center

John Hill
7. October 2020
Photo: Bruce White (All images courtesy of Bard Graduate Center)

Following a seven-month closure, Eileen Gray reopens on October 13 for a brief run at Bard Graduate Center on Manhattan's Upper West Side. World-Architects got a peek at the exhibition recently and also explored the accompanying virtual exhibition and the companion catalog. Here is our take on the three-part presentation of an iconic modern designer.

The entrance to Eileen Gray at Bard Graduate Center (BGC). (Photo: Bruce White)

Designer Eileen Gray was born on August 9, 1878, in County Wexford, Ireland, and died 98 years later on October 31 in Paris. With her roots in Ireland and much of her adult life anchored in the French capital, it's not surprising that the largest collection of materials from Gray's life is at the National Museum of Ireland, while the most complete collection of works from her architectural masterpiece, E-1027, is found at the Musée National d'Art Moderne–Centre Pompidou in Paris. Accordingly, each institution has mounted major exhibitions on the famous designer: a permanent exhibition in Dublin and the retrospective exhibition Eileen Gray, curated by Cloé Pitiot at the Pompidou in 2013. 

The Pompidou show has been updated and mounted at Bard Graduate Center (BGC) in New York City, arriving forty years after the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) introduced Gray to New York audiences with Eileen Gray: Designer in 1980. Eileen Gray, Pitiot's update to her earlier show, is a small but impressive exhibition that opened at BGC in late February but was forced to close just a couple weeks later due to the coronavirus pandemic. It is reopening on October 13, but just for two weeks. Thankfully, those unable to visit the old townhouse on West 86th Street that BGC calls home can explore the Virtual Eileen Gray Exhibition online or read about Gray's life and work in the excellent Eileen Gray catalog that was edited by Pitiot and BGC's Nina Stritzler-Levine and features an amazing design by Irma Boom.

The Chronology of Gray's life. (Photo: Bruce White)

People visiting BGC between October 13 and 28 will benefit first from the specially made film that plays in the lobby. This introduction to the exhibition features audio excerpts from a 1973 conversation between then 95-year-old Eileen Gray and English designer Andrew Hodgkinson. Their talk follows a flip through Gray's portfolio, so Michael Pitiot's 24-minute documentary provides the appropriate visuals, zooming in, for example, on Le destin, the lacquered wood screen Gray designed in 1914, as she explains how she stopped liking its Art Deco-like figural aspects and switched over to abstraction soon after. The video literally, and importantly, gives Gray a voice, allowing her to speak about her work rather than having it defined by others.

The second way people will benefit from seeing Eileen Gray in person is being face to face with so many original drawings, rugs, furnishings, and other artifacts either created by Gray or documenting her work. It's one thing to see inside E-1027 through photographs, be they historical or contemporary, but to walk into a gallery that is filled with more than a dozen pieces of furniture Gray designed for the house is a rare treat. More than that, it's an invitation to understand the house as a complete work of art, as the revolutionary creation it was when completed in Roquebrune, France, in 1929. That the Transat armchair and other Gray furnishings — designed specifically for E-1027 or not — are in production and available for purchase does not diminish from their power when confronted in the gallery; such was the innovation and novelty of Gray's designs.

The lacquered screen (1921-23) on the first floor of the three-floor exhibition. (Photo: Bruce White)

Past the video is a chronology tracing Gray's 98 years. The information painted on three sides of a small gallery at BGC translates remarkably well into the digital environment of the virtual exhibition. The horizontal timeline in the gallery gives way to the vertical scroll of the computer screen, with the latter's interactivity enabling larger views of photographs of Gray, images of her work, and photos of clients, collaborators, and other important people in her life. Easily the most influential acquaintance and collaborator was Jean Badovici, the Romanian architect for whom she designed E-1027; the house's title intertwines their names (E=Eileen, 10=Jean, 2=Badovici, 7=Gray) and hints at an intimacy that historians have been unable to confirm with any accuracy. The duo met in the early 1920s, around the time Badovici founded the magazine L’Architecture Vivante, and through the magazine Gray met architects, including Le Corbusier, who would have an impact on her career, for better and for worse. That Badovici is the subject of one of the exhibition's handful of main rooms accentuates the outsize role he played in her life.

The chronology defines two aspects of Gray's life that serve to structure the exhibition, virtual exhibition, and catalog: "Being a Designer" and "Being an Architect." Even though Gray's experiences and ambitions pushed her over time toward the design of ever-larger architectural projects, few of which were built, she is known best for her furniture. After all, Gray designed the most expensive piece of modern design ever sold at auction: the one-off Dragon chair from 1919 that sold for £19.4 million in 2009. Understanding Gray's furniture means understanding lacquer, the material and process she learned early in life and used throughout her career, most notably with the "Brick" screens first designed for a Parisian apartment in the early 1920s. A few screens are included in the exhibition and their presence is stunning in person, especially the six-panel, hinged lacquer screen she displayed ca. 1923 at Galerie Jean Désert in Paris. Gray opened the gallery on rue du Faubourg-Saint-Honoré in 1922 but closed it in 1930, after E-1027 was completed and her interests gravitated to architecture.

The gallery on Jean Badovici, complete with prototype of Gray's famous "Brick" screen. (Photo: Bruce White) 

"Being an Architect" occupies the top floor of BGC, with one gallery devoted to E-1027 and another documenting Tempe a Pailla, the house she designed for herself in the 1930s in Castellar in southeastern France. With Lou Pérou, the house in Saint-Tropez she designed for herself in the 1950s, Gray realized just three buildings, though she designed many more, including other houses that remained on the drawing board and larger hypothetical projects not intended to be realized. Most prominent among the latter are a Vacation Center spurred by the 1936 election in France of a left-wing party that instituted paid holidays and a postwar Cultural and Social Center aligned with the government's attempts to encourage young people to remain in the French provinces. With circles, curves, and sometimes amorphous shapes, Gray's later unbuilt plans are more formally diverse than the rigid modernism of E-1027. A few models and drawings of this later segment of Gray's architectural portfolio are in the exhibition, but the catalog provides the most extensive information on her architecture and is therefore highly recommended for those interested in this aspect of her life.

BGC's three-part exhibition, virtual exhibition, and catalog on Eileen Gray builds on much of the scholarship that has unfolded this century, since her friend and biographer Peter Adam sold Gray's drawings to the National Museum of Ireland in 2000. Yet even with this "'Book of Kells' for architects in Ireland" and the works collected in France, so many of Gray's documents were destroyed in her lifetime that gaps in her life story opened, filled in by others. For far too long it was believed that Badovici designed E-1027. Now the house and its furnishings are known to be entirely Gray's work, even as she fails to explicitly take the credit when given the chance in her conversation with Andrew Hodgkinson. She also reluctantly admits to producing tubular steel furniture before Le Corbusier — by "not much, but a little" — the architect who defaced the white walls of E-1027 with his murals and died in the waters just beyond it, as if he wanted to be associated with the house more than Gray. The three parts of Eileen Gray increase the understanding of a fascinating figure and great designer/architect, and hopefully they will spur others to study Gray's life and work — for her definitive history has yet to be written.

The Tempe a Pailla gallery on the third floor. (Photo: Bruce White)
Eileen Gray is on display at Bard Graduate Center, 38 West 86th Street, from October 13 to October 28, 2020. Timed entry tickets are required. On October 17 (2pm EST), BGC is hosting a virtual talk, "Eileen Gray: Architectural Drawing as Spatial Praxis," with Gray scholar Caroline Constant and BGC curator Emma Cormack.
Models and drawings of unbuilt architectural projects, with E-1027 in the gallery beyond. (Photo: Bruce White)

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