Design Icon: Eileen Gray

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By Emily Shapiro
The modernist designer generated an oeuvre that is gentler and more sensuous in spirit than many of her competitors.

Modernist design is not often associated with opulence and luxury, but Eileen Grey, an Irish lacquer artist, interior designer, and architect, combined the lavishness of art deco design with the geometric forms of the international style, creating an aesthetic of her own. Through her celebrated lacquered folding screens, expanding side tables, industrial lamps, and modernist architecture, Gray integrated stark forms and geometric decorations with luxurious materials and traditional techniques, constructing dark, sensual objects and interiors that communicated a distinctly unique modernity.

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The voluptuous Bibendum chair, named after the Michelin man for its soft, comfortable cushions, is a perfect example of Gray’s decorative union between Art Deco and Modernism. Combining cold, pure tubular steel with the luxury and warmth of natural leather, Gray fuses the two styles into one. Image courtesy of

Born in 1878 to an aristocratic family, Grey was exceptionally talented. She studied with a Japanese lacquer artist for years in order to perfect the painstakingly difficult technique, experimenting with colors and textures in variations on traditional Japanese inlay decoration. Still, Gray’s work was largely overlooked until late in her career. She was overshadowed by modernists like Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius as she worked without a male mentor or partner like many better-known female artists of her time. Gray nonetheless generated an oeuvre that is gentler and more sensuous in spirit than many ofher competitors.

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Gray studied the craft of lacquer work under the Japanese master Seizo Sugawara. Although she drew directly from the technique, she incorporated distinctly modern elements into this 1928 screen’s design, decorating the sleek piece with geometric designs against a stark black background. Image courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum.

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Gray designed her famous Pirogue daybed for the Rue de Lota apartment between 1920 and 1924. The lacquered daybed was inspired by Polynesian dugout canoes. It is a delicate, feminized piece, recalling exotic designs, luxurious materials, and historical French forms. Image courtesy of Design Museum.

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The Rue de Bonaparte apartment, which features the Bibendum chairs along with a collection of striking animal hide blankets and rugs, provides a sense of the modernist atmosphere within which the designer worked. White walls and open spaces, as well as a clear geometricity in the floor tiles and organization of the room, give the apartment a Le Corbusier-like airiness. This tone is complimented by Gray’s interest in femininity and comfort, which she incorporates through natural materials and delicate lines, differentiating her from her contemporaries. Image courtesy of Design Museum.

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A fierce, independent woman and an innovative designer, Eileen Gray wove art, design, and architecture together into distinct projects that celebrated femininity and inspired both Modernism and Art Deco. Image courtesy of Design Museum.