Women from History: Original Gray

By Julia Ritson Eileen Gray (1879-1976) was born in Ireland but lived in Paris. A thoroughly modern lady designing furniture while surrounded by the world of French couture.

After studying art at the Slade School in London, she moved away from painting saying she 'wanted to do something useful.'

Gray made friends with Japanese lacquer expert Seizo Sugawara and became deeply involved in the art of lacquering. It is a brutally hard craft with at least 22 steps required. Gray filled numerous notebooks with recipes for achieving different colours and surface textures in lacquer.

For this striking chest-of-drawers, Eileen Gray's recipe book gives directions for distressing wood to give it the appearance of an ancient sarcophagus. So I suppose it makes sense that the handles are made of bone!

Eileen Gray, chest-of-drawers made for Jean Désert, 1921

A grand couturier of the day, Jacques Doucet, purchased a table and Gray then began taking on commissions.

As a real lover of craft, Eileen also took an interest in rug making. She travelled to North Africa with Evelyn Wyld in 1909 to learn how to hand weave.

I love her rug work. Especially this gorgeous tribute to Kilkenny.

Eileen Gray, Kilkenny rug

Gray created pieces which were to inspire many designers. Joe Colombo's 1970 Boby Trolley was most definitely inspired by her wonderful pivoting storage cabinet.

Eileen Gray, Pivoting Drawers, c 1920s

This side table was one of Gray's favourite pieces and remained with her until her death at the age of 98. It's made of oak and sycamore. Full of lovely cantilevered planes that would characterise her architectural experiments in later years.

Eileen Gray, Small table in oak and sycamore, 1922

There are many contradictions in modernism. In the 1920s it was all about the machine age and taking out the human touch. But Gray was charmingly able to add a human element and still express modernist ideas.

A very useful talent.

Julia Ritson is a Melbourne artist. Her paintings investigate colour, abstraction and a long-standing fascination with the grid. Julia has enriched and extended her studio practice with a series of limited edition art scarves. She also produces an online journal dedicated to art and scarves and architecture.