One of the most intriguing Irish designers was Eileen Gray (1878 – 1976), an Irish aristocrat who inhabited a bohemian world and who was neglected for much of her career but whose work and achievements has been greatly appreciated with hindsight, particularly in Ireland where she was largely unknown in her lifetime as she mainly lived and worked in France. Eileen Gray is regarded as one of the most important furniture designers and architects of the early 20th century and the most influential woman in those fields. Her work inspired both modernism and Art Deco. Her design style was as distinctive as her way of working, and Gray developed an opulent, luxuriant take on the geometric forms and industrially produced materials used by the International Style designers, such as Le Corbusier, Charlotte Perriand and Mies Van Der Rohe, who shared many of her ideals. Her voluptuous leather and tubular steel Bibendum Chair, and clinically chic E-1027 glass and tubular steel table are now as familiar as icons of the International Style as Le Corbusier and Perriands classic Grand Confort club chairs, yet for most of her career she was relegated to obscurity by the same proud singularity that makes her work so prized today. From her early laquer work to design classics like the Bibendum chair and her architectural masterpiece, E-1027, Eileen Gray’s work was as individual as it was exciting. The Dutch magazine, Wendingen, declared in 1924: “Eileen Gray occupies the centre of the modern movement. In all her tendencies, visions and expressions she is modern.”
Le Corbusier, arguably the greatest architect of the 20th century, was obsessed and haunted by E-1027, the seaside villa Eileen Gray built at Roquebrune Cap Martin in 1929. Over the decades, he sought to possess her “maison en bord de mer” in a multitude of ways. It may have been the last thing he saw before dying of a heart attack while swimming off the rocks beneath E-1027 in 1965. After he died, the footpath serving the area was designated Promenade Le Corbusier. In time, as Gray’s reputation faded, some would even credit him with the design of her villa.
In 1907 Gray – the only Irish person wholly immersed in the pioneering work of the modern movement – moved to Paris, taking an apartment at 21 rue Bonaparte, which she maintained until her death on October 31, 1976, at the age of 98. The furniture from her Paris apartment now forms the centerpiece of the Eileen Gray exhibition at the National Museum, Collins Barracks in Dublin.
Eileen Gray was born Kathleen Eileen Moray Smith in Brownswood near Enniscorthy, County Wexford on August 9, 1878. The family changed their name to Gray in 1893, after her mother, Lady Eveleen Pounden, inherited a peerage from an uncle in Scotland and claimed her title, Baroness Gray. Interested in art and wishing to live beyond the boundaries of conventional expectations, Eileen left home for Paris in 1902. She had already attended art school in England, and in Paris she continued her education, developing her talents as a painter and ultimately as a great designer. Gray was first to become know for the lacquer technique she developed, a technique that combined the Asian lacquer tradition and its motifs with a contemporary modernist aesthetic.
By 1912-1913 she was already becoming a name, and her luxurious screens, tables, and door panels sold well and were exhibited. Throughout this time she was also designing striking rugs decorated with geometric shapes and patterns. Like her early lacquer work, these rugs, and later her famous chairs – particularly the Transat chair, the non-conformist chair, the Lota sofa, and the Bibendum – secured Eileen Gray’s place as one of the most influential designers of the 20th century.
In 1922 Gray opened her own shop, Jean Désert, where she exhibited her furniture and designs as well as those of her contemporaries. At around the same time she met Jean Badovici, a Romanian architect and editor of the influential journal “l’Architecture Vivante,” with whom she formed a very close personal and professional relationship. Her friendship with Badovici was to dramatically affect the course her artistic practice was to take, for it was he who suggested to Gray that she try her hand at architecture, and it was for him that she built her first house and one of her most enduring achievements, the Villa E-1027. Later in her life she explained: “Badovici said to me: why don’t you build? I laughed in his face. I had always loved architecture – more than anything – but I didn’t think myself capable of it.”
In 1925, the pair began to explore the area around Saint-Tropez, seeking an appropriate site on which to build a summer refuge for Badovici. She subsequently discovered an isolated plot – inaccessible by car, but within walking distance of both a railway station and a sandy beach – along a rocky stretch of coastline. Gray bought the site and spent three years in Roquebrune, taking prime responsibility for both design and construction, while Badovici visited frequently to assist in technical matters. The name of the villa, E-1027, is a cipher for the architects’ intertwined initials: following the E, the numbers 10, 2 and 7 represent the alphabetical order of the letters J, B and G, respectively. Built between 1926 and 1929, E-1027 was a unique experiment in architecture and design. Eileen Gray combined built-in furniture with ingenious spatial planning to engage the user with the building and site, incorporating the sun and the sea into the very experience of the house.
Gray declared: “This house has been built for a person who likes work, sports and receiving friends.” E-1027 looks much bigger than it is. It has two bedrooms, a maid’s room, utility rooms and a large space, partitioned with screen furniture that could serve as a living room, dining area and cloakroom or guest room. The main living area overlooks Monte Carlo harbour and the bedrooms face the rising sun. Service spaces are isolated: the kitchen, adjoining an outdoor cooking space, is separate from the rest of the house. Gray felt that each room should remain independent of the others, arguing that “everyone, even in a house of restricted dimensions, must be able to remain free and independent. They must have the impression of being alone, and if desired, entirely alone.” Each room has a balcony and access to the garden.
See; Eileen Gray’s Armchair
In the most intricately detailed portions of the house – the bathroom, stairway, and the passage linking the dining alcove and bedroom – Gray filled every surplus cubic metre with concealed storage compartments, each designed to accommodate a specific item. The villa provided what she called the “minimum of space, maximum of comfort.”
Her Transat “deck chair” (inspired by transatlantic liners), tubular steel bedside table and Bibendum (Latin for “now is the time to drink” but named for its resemblance to the “Michelin Man”, a motoring icon with a drink in one hand and a cigar in the other!) armchair – all designed for E-1027 – have become timeless items of furniture that are still manufactured. She produced a second furniture type for the house, which she termed “le style camping.” These items are flexible, light and portable, capable of assuming different configurations to accommodate a range of activities. Cabin-like furniture, conceived as a series of extrusions from the wall that break down the boundaries between architecture and furnishings, contained pillows, mosquito netting, books, a reading light and tea things.
Gray admired Le Corbusier’s architecture, even if she remained unconvinced by his polemical assertions. Responding to his well-known maxim, she concluded: “A house is not a machine to live in. It is the shell of man, his extension, his release, his emanation.” She used Corbusian stencils to inscribe admonitions on the walls of E-1027 – “entrez lentement” (enter slowly) by the main entrance and “defence de rire” (no laughing) on the foyer partition.
A friend of Badovici’s, Le Corbusier visited E-1027 on numerous occasions and admired it very much, so much so that he was moved to add his own touch to the clean white villa, painting a series of murals on its walls between 1937-39. This intrusion onto her design infuriated Gray, who considered the murals outright vandalism. Whether he painted these murals out of admiration for her work or jealousy of her accomplishment, Le Corbusier became intricately tied with the future of the house. Failing to purchase it himself, he eventually bought a piece of properly just east of E-1027, where he built a small, rustic cabin, “Le Cabanon.” Here he would go for work and quiet contemplation, taking daily swims on the beach outside the house. After he died in those very waters, the whole area was declared a “Site Moderne,” or “Modern Site,” and deemed an area of cultural and historical importance and international interest. Today E-1027 is recognized as the founding element of this site.
Jean Badovici lived in the house until his death in 1956. In 1960, fearful for the future of E-1027 and his murals, Corbusier persuaded Madame Marie-Louise Schelbert of Zurich to buy the villa. He took an active interest in preserving both the house and its contents, retaining Gray’s furnishings and restoring some of his paintings in 1961. When Schelbert died in 1982, the villa was left to her doctor, Peter Kägi, who removed Gray’s furniture to Switzerland and eventually sold it through Sotheby’s in Monaco on October 13, 1991, for the equivalent of €390,000. The Pompidou Centre pre-empted the sale of several lots – a common practice in France when a state body wishes to buy a particular item at auction. Most of the 29 lots went to France and Germany. Kägi died a few years later, unfortunately After his death the house remained empty and susceptible to vandals and squatters who incurred serious damage onto the already ailing edifice, leaving it in dangerously precarious shape.
Today, after years of neglect and vandalism, the house is in a serious state of disrepair. Friends of E-1027 is cooperating closely with the French government and the township of Roquebrune-Cap Martin, who have recently purchased the villa in partnership with the Coastal Conservancy, on both the exterior and interior restoration of this important work of modern architecture. The first phase of the renovation is already underway, supported in part by funds raised by Friends of E-1027. Once the house is fully restored and refurbished with copies of its original furniture and decorations, it will be maintained as a museum with a study and exhibition center for contemporary design near the site.
There is another Irish connection with Roquebrune as the poet William Butler Yeats was buried there just after the outbreak f the Second World War. W.B. Yeats was born in Sandymount, Co. Dublin in 1865 and educated in London but he spent his childhood holidays in Sligo and developed a deep affinity for the area.
See; William Butler Years and The Cold Eye
Yeats died in Menton, France in 1939 and was buried in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin after a private funeral but according to his wishes his body was moved after the war in 1948 to Drumcliffe, Co. Sligo. In his poem “Under Ben Bulben” Yeats outlined how and where he was to be buried and even included the epitaph he wanted inscribed on his gravestone:
Under bare Ben Bulben’s head
In Drumcliff churchyard Yeats is laid.
An ancestor was rector there
Long years ago, a church stands near,
By the road an ancient cross.
No marble, no conventional phrase;
On limestone quarried near the spot
By his command these words are cut:
Cast a cold eye
On life, on death.
Horseman pass by.
Today Roquebrune Cap Martin is not just the retreat of the idle rich and their servants but is easily accessible by road and rail from Nice Airport where there are frequent budget flights by the likes of easyJet who we travelled with. By road head along the A8 from Nice (16km.) take exit Menton La Turbie. If you are coming from Menton take exit Monaco Roquebrune. By the cliff roads take Grande Corniche (D2564), Moyenne Corniche (RN7), Basse Corniche (RN98). But the easiest way is on SNCF from Nice on the costal railway which passes by Bono’s back garden as it goes through Eze-bord-de-Mer! Roquebrune Cap Martin is situated 2 kilometres from Menton and Monte Carlo, this seaside resort rises to 300m. altitude starting at the water’s edge and going all the way up to its perched village. The luxury of the villas, some of which resemble palaces remind us that here, in Roquebrune, statesmen, royalty, writers, and artists all came looking for inspiration and rest: Winston Churchill, Coco Chanel, Sacha Guitry, Jacques Brel, Silvana Mangano et al. Today the atmosphere is more Euro trash with Russian Oligarski and good time girls from Kiev and grimy Wolverhampton on the make or as Somerset Maugham tellingly remarked about neighbouring Monte Carlo “A sunny place for shady people” !
See; Villa Torre Clementina
Further along the costal path you come to the viewing gallery built onto the rocks at the end overlooking Monaco for the magnificent Villa Cyranos, the Residence de l’Imperatrice Eugenie.
The Empress was the ravishing young aristocratic Spanish wife of the Emperor Louis Napoleon and she was Empress of France from 1853 – 1870 when Louis Napoleon was deposed and took refuge in England as a result of France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War. He died there in 1873. His son, also Louis, is commemorated by the pub “The Prince Imperial” in Chislehurst in Kent where they lived in exile, their mansion in exile is now the rather spendid clubhouse of the local golf club. He was a cavalry officer in the British Army and was rumored to have been friendly with Princess Beatrice, youngest daughter of Queen Victoria, and there was much speculation of a marriage between them. That did not have a chance to occur as the Prince Imperial was killed when fighting for the British in South Africa in the Zulu Wars on June 1, 1879. Beatrice sent a beautiful wreath for his grave at Farnborough, which fueled the speculation that she had been hoping for a match. She went on to marry Prince Henry of Battenberg in 1885 who coincidentally also died in Africa. Ten years into their marriage, on 20 January 1896, Prince Henry died of malaria while fighting in the Anglo-Ashanti War in what was the Gold Coast, now modern Ghana. Her daughter married the King of Spain and is Juan Carlos’s grandmother. The Empress Eugenie returned in time to France where she lived in some magnificence to the ripe old age of 95, a testament to the clement marine climate of Roquebrune Cap Martin. She is buried beside the Emperor and the Prince Imperial in a specially constructed crypt at the Monastery of St. Michael in Farnborough, England.
Cap-Martin, within the commune of Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, is a beautiful wooded peninsula on the Mediterranean, just below the perched Roquebrune village. The train station is down here, along with the beach, some campsites and shops. The peninsula itself is largely covered with very expensive walled estates, some dating back to the 19th century and the Belle Epoque. To inhale the atmosphere of that era head along the Avenue l’Imperatrice Eugenie or on the costal footpath to Monaco down below. The Sentier Littoral offers an invigorating two hour walk around the length of Cap Martin all the way to Menton. En route you will catch just the barest glimpse of the superb villas whose estates cover the main area of the Cap. Somewhere above is the ravishing Villa Torre Clementina restored by Frederick R. Koch, an American collector and philanthropist. Designed in 1904 by the architect Lucien Hesse for the writer Ernesta Stern (who is buried in Menton churchyard) this neo-Romanesque confection and superb gardens with pavilions and a pergola are on the French register of historic monuments.
Today Roquebrune Cap Martin is still a beautiful place which reposes gracefully on the Riviera and in W.B. Yeats and Eileen Gray’s remarkable E-1027 it has two significant Irish connections.
See also the Eileen Gray exhibition from the Louvre at the IMMA, Dublin