Sei sulla pagina 1di 13
“ The Non-Conformist Chair by Eileen Gray on permanent display at The National Museum of

The Non-Conformist Chair by Eileen Gray

on permanent display at The National Museum

of Decorative Arts, Collins Barracks.”

Brendan Madden, Core Studies

(First Year), December 2006.

The piece I have chosen for this essay is a brave, avant-garde item of furniture

that speaks clearly and loudly for itself and it’s creator, Eileen Gray.

It’s title, the Non-Conformist Chair, is its most accurate description.

As with Eileen’s famous adjustable side table and the villa she built to share

with Jean Badovici, the Non-Conformist Chair is a perfect symbol of what later

came to be known as modernism. This perfect harmony of beauty and function

was never intended as a mere artwork. It was always Gray’s intention that her

work be mass-produced and available at a low price to all. The Decorative Arts

movement in 1920s Paris rejected this kind of practical functionalism which

adds to the unconventionality of this piece. Although the chair was designed

eighty years ago in 1926, it is still current today and in fact, sells far better now

than when originally launched.

Gray was born on August 9 th , 1878 in the family home, Brownswood near

Enniscorthy, Co. Wexford. However, at the time, her name wasn’t

Eileen Gray, but Kathleen Eileen Moray.

Interestingly, most publications incorrectly give Eileen Gray’s year of birth as

1879. Once, on television, Gray was asked whether she was ninety-six or

ninety-seven. “Is there a difference?” she retorted, clearly not bothered by such

minutiae. She saw such details as being so irrelevant that towards the end of her

life she burnt all her letters and diaries.

She wanted her life to be seen through her work instead.

Eileen’s mother, Eveleen, was from a distinguished family and her ancestor,

the first Lord Gray was master of the household of King James II.

Eileen’s father, James Maclaren Smith was an amateur painter from a middle

class background, ten years older than his wife, a poor match for her.

Nonetheless, the two ran away together to Italy when Eveleen was 21.

In 1863 they married. They had five children. Eileen was the youngest.

When Eileen was a child, the marriage eroded and James returned to Italy and

remainined abroad for the rest of his life.

Eileen had a lonely, unhappy childhood.

She later wrote, “I have instinctive fears, fears of ghosts, of people. This fright

never left me and I have often tried in vain to conquer it.”

Especially as a teenager, Gray felt trapped by her elitist social class, particularly

when her sister’s husband insisted that Eileen’s mother claim her title,

Baroness Gray and the family, including Eileen’s father, change their name to

Gray. When she was 17, Brownswood was demolished and replaced with a

pompous Victorian mansion. This was the final straw for Eileen who said: “As a

child I loved the old Irish house, but that was pulled down and a horrible brick

structure built in its place, so I went to live in France.”

Eileen loved her father deeply and regularly traveled with him around Europe.

He instilled in her a great sense of independence and a deep love of art.

In 1900, both he and Eileen’s brother Lonsdale died.

Eileen persuaded her mother to allow her to attend the Slade Art School in

London, where she lived in the family’s Kensington home. Later that year, Eileen

and her mother went to the Exposition Universelle in Paris.

Paris captivated Eileen and she was determined to return to study.

In 1902 Eileen and two friends moved to Paris, enrolling at the Académie Julian

where there was a vivacious freedom in contrast to the austere Slade.

Paris was the Mecca of the cultured world and Eileen had an active social life,

meeting all the celebrities of the day, but her shyness kept her from entering into

elitist social cliques which she actually found stifling and boring.

Gray never married, but had long-term affairs, male and female.

Two relationships had a huge influence on her work and life: the famous singer

Marisa Damia, and the architect Jean Badovici, both 15 years her junior.

Although Eileen was sensitive and passionate she found it difficult to express her

love and for various reasons she and Damia eventually broke up.

They only saw each other once after the relationship ended but they never

stopped loving each other. Eileen kept every gift from Damia until she died.

In 1905, Eileen’s mother grew ill and Eileen returned to London to care for her,

One day Eileen found a lacquer repair shop in Soho run by Mr. D. Charles.

Captivated by the elegance and smoothness of the antique oriental screens,

she asked if she could work there and was given a job.

When she returned to Paris, she took samples of the materials and names of

contacts including Seizo Sugawara, a Japanese student who had come to Paris

to restore lacquer screens at the Exposition Universelle. Sugawara became her


Throughout the 1910s and 20s, Eileen was renowned for her pioneering use of

Lacquer. 1 Her clients were the richest and most discerning in Paris.

In 1917 a full page of British Vogue was dedicated to her.

Eileen had rented an apartment at 21 Rue Bonaparte in 1907. She bought it in

1910 and retained it until she died.

1 Lacquer, the medium which so intrigued her, is a resin drawn from varieties of tree peculiar to the Far East. In its natural state…it is a dense translucent liquid which hardens slowly to form a hard, impermeable surface which can be buffed to a deeply lustrous finish. Gray applied it to a wood base. The wood had to be smoothed, the grain filled, then concealed with a layer of fine silk pasted with rice gum, before the long process of building up the twenty or so coats of lacquer needed to achieve the desired result. Each layer had to be left to dry in a damp room over several days, then pumiced smooth before the next application. (Garner, 1993: p.12)

Surprisingly, she changed very little in her seventy years at Rue Bonaparte. She

was not allowed make changes when she was renting and later never bothered

but often made up plans to do something. The items on display in Collins’

Barracks, bought for £900,000 in 2000, include the original Non-Conformist

Chair and are mostly from this apartment.

In 1917, Eileen refurbished and decorated the apartment of Mme Mathieu Lévy

whom she met through Jacques Doucet.

This was Gray’s first complete interior and was widely acclaimed and received

international media attention. 2

In 1922, Gray opened a gallery called Jean Désart where she sold lacquer

screens, furniture, lamps, mirrors and carpets. The carpets were the popular

item. Due to their cost however few of her elaborate lacquer pieces sold.

2 The apartment attracted considerable attention. Baron de Meyer photographed Mme Lévy in the sofa as a promotional image. Harper’s Bazar published a feature on the scheme – “Lacquer walls and furniture displaces old Gods in Paris and London” – in September 1920, this well before work was completed, since finishing touches were still being put to the hall in 1924. In 1922 the Duchess of Clermont-Tonerre published her article on Gray’s work, “The Lacquer work of Miss Eileen Gray” in Les Feuillets d’Art. Although she does not identify the apartment in her text, she illustrates it and her effusive critique discusses the very specific achievements in this interior. (Garner, 1993: p.20) The success of these rooms [in the Rue de Lota apartment] and further press attention around this time, in TheTimes and The Daily Mail in England and The New York Herald and The Chicago Tribune in America, must have strengthened Gray’s resolve in the decision – first contemplated in 1922 – to open a retail gallery for her work. (Garner, 1993: p.22)

In 1923, Gray exhibited her “Bedroom-Boudoir for Monte Carlo,”

a development of ideas from the Rue de Lota apartment and a further foray into

the world of Architecture.

Gray first met the Romanian Architect Jean Badovici after the end of the Great

War when he was studying in Paris. According to Gray’s biographer, Peter

Adam, ‘their relationship marked Eileen deeply, personally and professionally,

and shifted her entire life into unforeseen directions.’ (Adam, 2000: p.149)

In 1923, Badovici, along with the Greek journalist Christian Zervos launched an

Architecture magazine, L’Architecture Vivante which became the most

distinguished magazine of its kind. Contributors included Frank Lloyd Wright,

Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, Bruno Taut, Adolf Loos and others.

Through Badovici, Gray met many of these celebrated architects.

She studied their works and writings diligently, experimenting with and

developing their ideas, gaining increasing confidence in her control of space.

Due to a lack of self-confidence and lackluster drawing skills, she had

previously shied away from a career in architecture, but Badovici changed this.

Eileen was always the first to try out new materials though her clients preferred

the traditional decoration with which they were comfortable.

Regardless, she moved away from Lacquer towards chrome and tubular steel.

In 1926 she designed the piece we focus on here, her non-conformist chair.

Gray designed the chair for the house that she built to share with Jean Badovici,

She named the house E.1027 which is a combination of their names. 3

From 1926-29, Gray meticulously designed every detail of E.1027 including its

furniture. She even spent two years searching for the perfect location for it and

in 1927 found a beautiful site between a railway line and the sea at Roquebrune

(near Monte Carlo). Badovici loved the site, which had stunning views and

wasn’t overlooked, but was accessible only by foot.

Gray bought it in his name and began building. 4

Le Corbusier, one of the most renowned architects the world has ever known

had a very interesting relationship with E.1027 and with Eileen Gray.

He became obsessed with E.1027. He kept plans of the house on his office wall

and very much craved it, his greatest regret being that he had not designed it

himself. He eventually built his own house directly above E.1027, thus

damaging its architectural integrity even more than he had already done when

he painted nine sexually explicit murals on its walls.

3 E – Eileen

10 (J) – Jean

2 (B) – Badovici

7 (G) – Gray

Gray had done this before with a pair of carpets, E and D for Eileen and Damia.

4 Alice Rawsthorn, director of the Design Museum says this about E.1027:

The world of architecture and design is so infuriatingly male-dominated that Eileen Gray still stands out. In 1923 she build a house called E-1027 at Roqueburne, in France, which was the most innovative building of the time, the landmark modern house. She was certainly one of the first women, if not the first, to design such a building and she did it very, very early on in the modern architecture movement, without any formal training. (Rawsthorn, 2004)

Gray was so upset by the painting of the murals that she refused to ever visit the

house again. Something that I was quite shocked to learn is that E.1027 was

most probably the last thing le Corbusier saw before he died of a heart attack on

the beautiful sandy beach below.

The Non-Conformist chair measures 67 centimeters wide, 77cm high, and 57cm

deep, thus occupying quite a small footprint for an armchair.

It is manufactured from a chrome plated tubular steel frame with a hardwood

base and foam upholstery. It is covered either with leather or cotton.

The amount of research that went into creating this chair is inspirational.

Eileen Gray said of it, "An armrest was omitted in order to leave the body more

freedom in movement and to allow it to bend forward or to turn to the other

side unrestricted."

Research shows that people are inclined to rest their elbow on one side of an

armchair and curl their bottom up on the other side and thus this chair allows

it’s sitter to obtain the most comfortable seating position possible.

Gray kept the original chair (which is upholstered in yellow cotton) in her

apartment not because it was beautiful or because it was her favourite, but

because it was so functional. Though the original is a little frayed today as it sits

in a glass box in Collins’ Barracks, there is little doubt that it is every bit as

comfortable today as in 1926

Alas, for the purpose of “practical research” we have to make do with a 1250

black leather replica.

The NCAD College Library has a wide range of material relevant to Eileen Gray.

There are eight books in the main collection and several more in the National

Irish Visual Arts Library (NIVAL).

NIVAL is staffed and funded separately from the main library and its purpose is

to collect all available material on Irish Artists and artists of Irish interest.

The Eileen Gray file contains exhibition catalogues; invitations to shows;

leaflets; original newspaper, journal and magazine articles; obituaries, books

and letters. This is an extremely valuable resource and adds to our

understanding of the artist. The Dublin Public libraries contained very few

books on Gray, and none that the college library did not have.

Disappointingly, the museum itself had almost no information on Eileen Gray

that could be taken away. The shop sold just two books on her, one by Caroline

Constant and the other by Penelope Rowlands. In the exhibition area itself there

was a computer terminal displaying the two articles from,

both of which are well written and enlightening.

There is normally a leaflet available but they are currently being reprinted.

Of all the books on Gray, I found Philippe Garner’s had the best illustrations

and was the most concise and informative.

There was little variation in the opinions presented in the various books, as most

of them were based on the biography of Eileen Gray by Peter Adam.

(Adam, 1987)

There were differences in the description of Eileen’s family history and also of

the relationship she had with Le Corbusier.

The first time I saw the non-conformist chair, I loved it. I thought it to be quirky,

unusual, and appealing, and that was based only on its physical appearance.

Now, having explored both the chair and its creator, and having spent a great

deal of time sitting on it, albeit in the form of an authentic reproduction, I can

conclude that not only is it beautiful, it is also amazingly well researched,

functional and extremely comfortable.

A visit to Haus in Temple Bar, where many of Gray’s pieces (produced by the

Munich firm Classicom) are sold will confirm this for yourself.

In conclusion, the work of Eileen Gray has had a far greater influence on the

world around us than she is credited for. To see this, one need only look at how

the greatest architect of the 20 th Century, Le Corbusier, obsessed over her work

and was so jealous of it. I have come to realize that the Non-Conformist Chair

speaks for itself, exactly as Eileen Gray intended. You do not need to know the

details of her life, or even to have read this essay to understand her.

You simply have to sit in the chair.

Total Word Count: 2098

Bibliography and Reading List for essay entitled “The Non-Conformist Chair by Eileen Gray” by Brendan Madden.


• Museum of Decorative Arts and History (2001) “Museum Exhibitions: Eileen Gray”


(Accessed 02.12.2006)

• Saunders Stonor, Frances (21.07.2001) “The House that Eileen Built”,,524083,00.html

(Accessed 05.12.2006)

• Various Authors (2006) “Architects of Ireland: Eileen Gray (1879-1976)” (Accessed 19.11.2006)

• Lutyens, Dominic (23.02.2002) “Bohemian Rhapsody”,,901005,00.html

(Accessed 02.12.2006)

• O’Toole, Shane (17.03.2002) “Eileen Gray: E-1027, Roquebrune Cap Martin”

(Accessed 02.12.2006)

• McCarthy, Fiona (20.03.2006) “Designs for Living”,,1734910,00.html

(Accessed 02.12.2006)

• McCarthy, Fiona (10.09.2005) “Future Worlds”,,1566540,00.html

(Accessed 05.12.2006)

Websites (Continued):

• Mangan, Lucy (08.08.2004) “The Way We Live Now” Interviews with prominent women asking what has been the most important development for women in the past 100 years. Incl. Alice Rawsthorn, director of the Design Museum,,1188167,00.html

(Accessed 05.12.2006)

• Museum of Decorative Arts and History (2001) “Museum Exhibitions: Eileen Gray”


(Accessed 02.12.2006)

• Design Museum Collection EILEEN GRAY: Architect + Furniture Designer (1878-1976)

(Accessed 02.12.2006)

• Friends of E.1027 (2005)

(Accessed 02.12.2006)

• Classicom (2006) “Eileen Gray” (Accessed 02.12.2006)

Exhibition Catalogues:

• Sothebys (1980), Collection Eileen Gray, Sothebys, Monaco

• Sothebys (1989), Important Twentieth Century Furniture at Philip Johnson Townhouse, Sothebys, New York

• Johnson, Stewart, 1979, Eileen Gray: Designer: 1879-1976, Victoria and Albert Museum, London

• Johnson, Stewart, 1979, Eileen Gray: Designer: 1879-1976, Museum of Modern Art, New York

• National Museum of Ireland, 2001, Eileen Gray, National Museum of Decorative Arts, Dublin

Magazine and Journal Articles:

Nevins, Deborah F, (1981) ‘Eileen Gray’, Making Room: Women and Architecture, Heresies II, Vol 3, No. 3, Pp. 68

Blume, Mary, (1974) ‘Eileen Gray’ Réalités, No. 281, Pp. 42-47


Baudot, François, 1998, Eileen Gray, London: Thames and Hudson

Hecker, Stefan and Christian F. Müller, 1993, Eileen Gray: Works and Projects, Barcelona: Editorial Gustavo Gili, S.A.

Adam, Peter, 1987, Eileen Gray: Architect/Designer, A Biography, New York: Harry N. Abrams.

Adam, Peter, 2000, Eileen Gray: Architect/Designer, A Biography, Revised Edition, London, Thames and Hudson.

Constant, Caroline and Wilfried Wang, 1996, Eileen Gray: An Architecture for all senses, Tübingen: Ernst J. Wasmuth Verlag

Constant, Caroline, 2000, Eileen Gray, London: Phaidon Press

Garner, Philippe, 1993, Eileen Gray: Designer and Architect, Berlin:

Benedikt Taschen Verlag.

Rowlands, Penelope, 2002, Eileen Gray, San Francisco: Chronicle Books

Viguier, J.P, 1984, Eileen Gray: Architecture Design, Paris: Editions Analeph

Adam, Peter, 1998, The Adjustable Table E 1027 by Eileen Gray, Frankfurt am Main: Verlag Form