The Skibbereen Eagle has previously championed the Irish Designer Eileen Grey who designed many famous furniture pieces and the seminal Moderne building E-1027 at Roquebrune Cap Martin. She is now in the news because an armchair she designed sold by the estate of Yves Saint Laurent has sold at auction for almost €22m, the highest price ever paid for a piece of 20th Century furniture.
Wexford-born Eileen Gray was one of the most important architects and designers of the 20th century. She was 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. From her early lacquer 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.”
After her father’s death in 1900, Gray moved to Paris with two friends from the Slade, Jessie Gavin and Kathleen Bruce, and continued her studies at the Académie Julian and the École Colarossi. For the next few years she shuttled between Paris and the family’s homes in London and Ireland, but moved back to London in 1905 when her mother became ill.
During her stay in London, Gray returned to the Slade but found drawing and painting less and less satisfying. One day she came across a lacquer repair shop run by a Mr Charles on Dean Street in Soho. Allured by the antique Chinese and Japanese lacquer screens in the shop, Eileen asked if she could learn the rudiments of lacquer working. By the time she returned to Paris in 1906, she was obsessed by the art of lacquer and, thanks to Mr Charles’ contacts, had an introduction to a young lacquer craftsman, Sugawara. He came from Jahoji, a village in northern Japan famous for its lacquer work and agreed to teach her. In 1907, Gray found a spacious first floor apartment at 21 rue Bonaparte where she could live and work and persuaded her mother to increase her allowance so that she could afford the rent. Three years later, Gray bought the apartment outright and thereafter it became her main home.
Gray studied with Sugiwara for four years. Lacquer work was not only painstaking, but perilous. Like many people who come into close contact with it, she contracted a painful ‘lacquer disease’ on her hands. Slowly she refined her technique to create stark forms with simple geometric decorations. This simplicity was, however, as much a product of the complexity of the process as of Gray’s aesthetic preferences. It was not until 1913 that she felt confident enough to exhibit her work by showing some decorative panels at the Salon des Artistes Décorateurs. They attracted the attention of the Duchess of Clermont-Tonnerre and the couturier Jacques Doucet, who bought one of her panels at the Salon and commissioned other pieces of lacquer work from Eileen for his Paris apartment.
The leather armchair standing at just 24 inches high and designed by Eileen Grey 90 years ago has been sold for almost €22m. It is a record for a piece of 20th century furniture and, in fetching six-and-a-half times its pre-auction estimate at Christie’s in Paris, the chair proved a welcome tonic for a world art market worried about the economic climate.
“We’re absolutely amazed by what’s happened,” Edward Dolman, Christie’s managing director, said of the sale. “There are still a lot of extremely wealthy people out there.” The unique piece, created by Wexford-born designer Eileen Gray between 1917 and 1919, was the highlight so far of a three-day sale of artworks collected by the late designer Yves Saint Laurent and his partner. The first two days have brought in more than €300m in sales, another world record.
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. In the hour before the chair was sold, another piece by Ms Gray briefly held the title of the most-expensive piece of 20th century design sold at auction, when a New York dealer paid €4m for a sideboard dating from 1915 to 1917.
But there was no doubting the real star item on offer. Known as the Fauteuil aux Serpent or “snakes’ armchair” because of the ornate sculptures on its sweeping armrests, the one-off rounded brown leather piece was designed by Ms Gray when she was in her early 30s and after she had moved from Enniscorthy to London to study art.
She became renowned for the luxurious finish of her lacquered furniture, but it was not until after her death in 1976 that she was truly recognised as one of the most important furniture designers and architects of the early 20th century. The buyer was the same dealer who had sold it to Mr Saint Laurent in the early ’70s. Cheska Vallois raised his bid in increments of €500,000 to see off a phone rival with a bid of €21.9m, and was applauded by the 1,000 people present.
The highest amount ever paid for a piece of furniture was €27.5m – paid for an 18th century Badminton cabinet in 2004. “It is a fabulous price,” Philippe Garner, Christie’s international head of 20th Century Decorative Art and Design, said yesterday.
“The sale was an homage to the great personalities, designers, collectors and patrons who so marked their era in Paris in the 1920s and 1930s and to the pioneering vision of Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé as collectors.”
Ms Gray flitted between London and Paris for much of her life and had a colourful personal life, taking both male and female lovers, but never marrying. She died at the age of 98.
Yves Saint Laurent was hailed as a 20th century cultural icon who revolutionised the way women dressed. The reclusive Saint Laurent’s couture creations won global fine art status and he was widely considered to be one of an elite club of designers including Christian Dior and Coco Chanel who made Paris the fashion capital of the world. From Princess Grace of Monaco to the actress Catherine Deneuve, Saint Laurent’s creations adorned many famous women but he was also the first designer to make luxury labels accessible to a wider audience through innovative read-to-wear collections.
Saint Laurent and Mr Bergé began collecting art in the 1950s, at a time when the young designer was gaining a worldwide reputation with the fashion house Christian Dior. He needed art “like water to survive”, in the words of one dealer, and acknowledged that his creations were inspired by his passion for paintings. Yves Saint Laurent died of cancer aged 71 in June last year.
Mr Bergé said the decision to sell the collection was taken because without him “it has lost the greater part of its significance”. The proceeds are to help create a new foundation for Aids research. Yves St. Laurent and Pierre Bergé were wonderful patrons of the arts and in 1980 purchased the wonderful gardens and house laid out by the French Painter Jacques Majorelle in Marrakech. St Laurent, who was born and grew up in Algeria, had a particular affinity with the Maghreb. They had been visitors to and admirers of the Majorelle garden and they saved it from speculators who had devastated the inheritance of Marrakech’s gardens. Jacque Majorelle’s former house now contains a museum of Islamic art collected by Yves and his partner.
For more about Eileen Gray and the house she designed which became Le Corbusier’s obsession see;
Restoration of Eileen Gray’s ground breaking villa E-1027