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DESIGN : Shades of Gray : A Publicity-Shy British Woman Crafted Art Deco Chairs and Modern Houses

December 27, 1987|PETER ADAM

DURING THE LAST few years of her life the world again took notice of Eileen Gray. Much to her surprise, and not always to her liking, she was suddenly newsworthy. The big sale of the contents of the Doucet flat in 1972 had propelled her into the forefront of the so-called Art Deco designers and made her furniture a rare collectors' item. She received the news with incredulity, considering it totally absurd. The first serious appreciation of her work by an architect, Joseph Rykwert--first in Domus in 1978, then in England's Architectural Review in December, 1972--gave her far greater pleasure.

Her modesty was totally genuine, almost to the point of naivete. She expressed her joy that her chairs would be part of the permanent collection at the Victoria and Albert Museum (in London) and found it extraordinary that Roy Strong, the director of the museum, had time to write to her personally to thank her.

In 1972, she received the Distinction of Royal Designer for Industry, an honor limited to only 70 people, which allows one to place "RDI" after one's name. There was no question of Gray's making use of the privilege, and when asked for some information about herself for an official press release, she wrote, "A press release is quite unnecessary." Gray would not go to the official ceremony but asked friends to collect the scroll.

There were other official honors. In 1973, the Royal Institute of Architects of Ireland elected her an Honorary Fellow in "recognition of her outstanding contribution to the development of modern architecture and design." Gray, too frail to attend the ceremony, wrote a letter: "I feel unworthy to receive this honour and I am so touched that at the end of my life I have been accorded this distinction, but I accept it with gratitude as a tribute from the people of Ireland and I will endeavor to justify its acceptance by future efforts." Those who knew how much of bitterness and professional insults lay behind her read this with amazement--"at the end of my life," indeed.

Maybe these official honors gave her little pleasure because when she could have used them to help establish herself as an architect and to enable her to realize a few of the plans, she had none. There was never an official body in France or England or anywhere in the world that had taken the slightest notice of her. Now there could not be enough magazines, newspapers, even television programs, all trying to step into the gap; many repeating the same meager data she chose to reveal.

Gray did have considerable pleasure from the fact that during the last years of her life her work was at least shown in exhibitions. The first one was in 1970, in Graz and Vienna. It showed photographs of her houses, some plans and models. It had been arranged through a friend who was an architect. In 1972, the Royal Institute of British Architects also began to take notice and gave her her first show in England. She had written to Alan Irvine, who was responsible for the show, "I have many doubts about the maquettes. Your colleagues will consider them both from an architectural point of view and in their present state unworthy to exhibit and I shall not be surprised by their refusal." Fortunately, Irvine and his colleagues had a better opinion about her models than she had. It was a handsome show featuring photographs, architectural plans and some of Gray's furniture.

Of course, Gray would not go to the opening. But she had traveled to London, and secretly she sneaked in to have a critical look, finding the show "interesting," well presented and "well done." But then her always-censorious eye spotted little defects in the cover of a chair. And it would not let her rest. Gray was charming and pleasant, but she was not a person one could easily satisfy.

She had also some small shows in the States--a touring exhibition, sponsored by the Architectural League of New York, which went to Princeton University, Columbia University and Boston.

The eagerness that collectors of Eileen Gray pieces displayed amused her. The prices they paid she found absurd. It was a pity she did not live to see her E. 1027 table appear in a Hennessy advertisement for "Very Special Cognac" or in a commercial for French toilet paper.

From "Eileen Gray: Architect/Designer," by Peter Adam. Copyright 1987 by Peter Adam. Used by permission of Harry N. Abrams Inc., New York.

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