As the work of Irish artist, furniture designer and architect Eileen Gray continues to command staggering prices at auction, her influence is being showcased in a retrospective at the Centre Pompidou in Paris.
It is difficult to pinpoint exactly when (Eileen) Gray became the new black in the world of high design. Neglected by the artistic community for most of her life (born in 1878, the first time her name was mentioned on the radio or TV was upon her death in 1976), a 1968 profile in Domus magazine is credited with “rediscovering” the work of the Irish artist, furniture designer and architect. That new found appreciation for her influence slowly but surely grew to reach a peak in 2009 when her Dragon’s Armchair set an auction record for 20th-century furniture when it sold for €21.9 million at the Christie’s Paris auction of the collection of Pierre Berge and Yves Saint Laurent. And now, in recognition of her red-hot status in the art market, Gray is the subject of a retrospective at the Centre Pompidou in Paris.
What is not difficult to explain is why Gray’s work – which traverses the Art Deco period and the Modern Movement – is achieving such high prices from collectors. Yes, they are beautiful and unlike much high design are easy to live with (“They’re such luxurious objects,” says Cécile Verdier, head of Sotheby’s 20th-century decorative arts and design department in Paris). And yes, Gray is now considered by critics as influential as Le Corbusier and Mies Van Der Rohe. But the real reason for her stellar performance in the auction room is the sheer rarity of her work. Having never turned to industrial production, each piece is unique. “She produced so little,” says Verdier of the market forces at work.
Exact prices for Gray’s pieces are difficult to ascertain due to the scarcity of sales. Cheska Vallois of Paris’ Galerie Vallois is arguably the expert on Gray, having sold her Dragon’s Armchair in 1971 for $2,700 only to buy it back at that record breaking price in 2009. Vallois was offering a series of objects by Gray at the Biennale des Antiquaires 2012 in Paris, all at discreetly unpublished prices. In the 2011 edition of The European Fine Art Fair (TEFAF) another important dealer of Gray, Galerie L’Arc en Seine, offered one of her iconic screens made of black lacquered blocks from around 1925 for approximately €1.3m. Less than a year earlier, a similar one went for $842,500 at auction.
For the collector with lesser means, relative bargains can be found in Gray’s drawings (she trained as a painter at London’s Slade School of Fine Art) and maquettes, which sometimes are available at under $10,000.
But the ultimate Gray trophy would be her E-1027 house built in 1924 on a cliff overlooking the Mediterranean at Roquebrune near Monaco. Created with the input of architecture critic Jean Badovici, the house showcased Gray’s pioneering conception of space with its flat roof, floor-to-ceiling windows facing the sea and a spiral stairway to the guest room. It was also home several pieces of furniture designed specially for the house, including her signature leather and tubular steel Bibendum Chair.
“Eileen Gray occupies the centre of the modern movement,” wrote Badovici at the time. “She knows that our time, with its new possibilities of living, necessitates new ways of feeling.” Yet some things are cannot be bought. The 1027 house is owned by the French government and is currently being restored, expected to open to the public in 2014 – the priceless Eileen Gray masterpiece.
Eileen Gray at the Centre Pompidou, Paris
February 20 – May 20
Peter Adam, the author of Eileen Gray’s biography, talks of his memories of his friend
You are the author of Eileen Gray’s biography, but what you and Gray had was primarily a long friendship. How did it blossom between a German journalist from the BBC and an Irish-born architect forty years his senior?
Eileen Gray was more interested in other people than herself. Her serious and calm nature had given her an infinite interest in everyone. She was keen on company and conversation, she was fascinated by the world of politics for instance. Many memories had faded in her. She did not like to dwell on the past, which incidentally seemed blurry to her, hers more than any other. She wrote: “The future projects light, the past only shadows.” I had met her through her niece, the painter Prunella Clough, in 1960; she was eighty-two years old. We became friends over time, we were often close, rarely intimate. She led a reclusive life, which in fact suited her disposition. She was a very active woman still, she had just finished an imposing cork screen. Her work was the only area where her passions and obsessions were reflected. She dedicated her life to creation.
How did she work?
She had a profound sense of the soul of objects, contemplating them, analyzing them, perfecting them. The various stages of her work manifested a free spirit, uncompromising, either with fashion or the trend of the day. She escaped the intellectual imposture of her contemporaries through a constant questioning of her work and herself. Her creations were the result of research conducted in the most absolute isolation. She drew her energy in solitude, far from the obligations imposed by society. She needed to submerge herself in her work in order to escape. Among her notes, she left these few words by Julien Green: “Generally speaking, this is the problem of any life: escaping. [...] Almost always, our restlessness is on the surface; deep inside us, there is a region of calmness, and happiness for whoever wants it.”
However, she designed E 1027 four-handedly?
E 1027 was conceived for life in community, for a man she loved, the Romanian architect Jean Badovici. He is the one who encouraged her to go beyond decoration and to launch into the architectural adventure in spite of her apprehensions. She had no training in the field. The Roquebrune villa ended up being the reflection of a certain lifestyle. There, she sought to set the beauty of things, wanting to imprint a feeling of irrevocable stability; no addition, no subtraction, only a feeling of eternal stability, in the image of their intimacy.
Once she completed her architectural adventure, she preferred to escape.
She said: “I like doing things, I hate possessing them. Memories cling to things and objects, so it is best to start all over again.”
So she embarked on a more personal project?
Tempe a Pailla, in Castellar, revealed her innermost self. More spartan, almost masculine, that villa was an ideal place for thinking and working. But its looting during the war, as well as the fire in her Saint-Tropez apartment, plunged her into absolute despair.
Was it anger that allowed her to move on?
She said: “In those days when the individual feels so divided, anger may be the best source of inspiration. It suddenly gathers you in one room.” She never gave up. I remember our talks and her thoughts on life, her work: “Plants and animals seem to naturally grow and reach their perfection; the better the environment, the better the result. Men, on the other hand, deteriorate in overly easy conditions; they must go down to hell to make progress, renounce themselves, lose ground before becoming accomplished.”
Buy the book:
Eileen Gray: Her Life and Work by Peter Adam