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Eileen Gray: A Short Biography of One of the 20th Century’s Modern Furniture Pioneers


                   Though she may not be as well-known as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier, or Walter Gropius, no one can deny that the Irish designer Kathleen Eileen Moray Gray was a major pioneer of modern furniture design of the 20th century. Also known for her work in architecture and lacquer, Eileen Gray is one of the few significant female designers of her time and her designs for tables, chairs, and other appliances were among the earliest examples of modern furniture design.


Eileen Gray

Eileen Gray

                   Eileen Gray was born on August 1878 near the small town of Enniscorthy in southeast Ireland. His father James Maclaren Gray, an amateur artist, saw Eileen’s interest for the arts at an early age and frequently took her to painting trips around Europe. Then in 1898, when she was twenty years old, Gray studied at the prestigious Slade School of Fine Art in University College London. However, when Gray’s father died in 1900 she moved to the Académie Julian and the Académie Colarossi in France and stayed there until 1905. It was also during this period that Gray studied lacquerwork under the tutelage of Seizo Sugawara, a Japanese immigrant and lacquerwork restorer working at the Exposition Universelle in Paris. 

                   Eileen Gray seminal moment as a furniture designer came in 1917, when she was commissioned by milliner and boutique owner Mathieu Lévy to redecorate her apartment in Rue de Lota. Gray spent four tedious years on the apartment, furnishing everything from the rugs to the “Block Screen” lacquered wall panels on the moulded walls. But probably her most famous work on Rue de Lota would be that of the Bibendum Chair, a large red leather chair with a back and arm rest made from two rolls of padded cushions. The chair’s rounded shape was a far cry from Gray’s traditional design, a change of style which she attributes simply to progress.

                   Eileen Gray died on October 31, 1976 in her home at Rue Bonaparte, France. Today several of her furniture designs are still being produced by a variety of manufacturers.

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