Eileen Gray: A Foothold in History

Eileen Gray’s rug designs

Irish by birth, Eileen Gray spent the better part of her life in France, dying in 1976 at the age of 98 largely unrecognized for contribution she made to modern architecture. But in recent years new enthusiasm and interest has grown around Gray’s work, which included only two realized architectural projects but many studies, as well as furniture and rug designs. Nonetheless, examples of Gray’s work remain scarce. Libby Sellers, curator of the current Eileen Gray exhibition at the Design Museum in London admits that the challenge in elevating Gray to what many now consider to be her rightful position in design history lies in “a general lack of information on most of her designs due to the various unfortunate consequences of her career.” Sellers suggests that many fates conspired to keep Gray’s talent shrouded in obscurity, from her nationality – or more precisely the lack of a clear one – and her gender to the second world war and, ironically, the transitional space between art historical movements that her work occupies: “As a woman working in male dominated fields, the importance of her influential discoveries and forward thinking solutions, were often negated by her male contemporaries. As an Anglo-Irish émigré who lived the majority of her 98 years in Paris – the French, Irish, and British all stake claims on her legacy and her archives have been split between all three countries. As a designer who bridged the distinct worlds of Art Deco and Modernism, design historians falter as to how best to classify her. And as a designer working between the two world wars, many of her original designs were destroyed, stolen or looted from her houses.”

But if Gray’s contribution to the history’s of modern architecture and furniture design are now beginning to enjoy the recognition many believe she deserves, her rug designs perhaps epitomize the overlooked in her career. Along with Seller’s observations, it could be suggested that the fact Gray’s rug designs in particular have gone unnoticed by historians is simply confirmation of the struggle textiles have long faced to receive equal attention and recognition to that of other design fields. For a woman considered to have lived and designed with a flare and sensibility much before her time, working with fibre and designing textiles could arguably be seen as the most conventional discipline she worked within; certainly the least ground breaking in terms of gender. That said, the designs Gray produced starting in 1909, continuing through the late twenties when her first major architectural project E.1027 at Roquebrune in the south of France consumed her attention and, in the form of gouche studies, continued until the end of her life, can only be described as anything but conventional, particularly when one keeps in mind the decades from which they hail.

Gray’s first love was not textiles. Nor was it architecture or even the compact, multifunctional furniture for which she is now enjoying sound recognition. Rather it was the time consuming and esoteric discipline of lacquer work. Her interest in the craft is attributed to the influence of Asian lacquer work she saw as a student (one of the first women) at the Slade School of Fine Arts during visits to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in the early 1900s when Gray and her family who split their time between a country home in County Wexford in Ireland and a flat in Kensington. The V&A collection, as well as a lacquer shop she came upon in London during this time, were her introduction to this labour intensive craft. It is interesting to note that along side several new colours Gray is considered to be the first to have achieved with lacquer, she often embedded silk fabric into her lacquer work. The effect created a subtle grid, which can been seen in many of the test samples on display at the Design Museum in London and, I would argue, suggests an affinity to cloth and woven structures long before she turned her attention to weaving.

In fact several design historians have noted connections between Gray’s textile designs and her lacquer work, recognizing in particular the layered qualities of both. Sellers notes, “textile design offered Gray a similar opportunity to work with colours and textures and the layering of two-dimensional surfaces that she relished in lacquering.” Similarly, architectural historian and author Caroline Constant explains, “The range of colour, texture, and length of fibres gives Gray’s carpets a degree of tactility that is rarely found in the work of her contemporaries; moreover, the resulting layered effect suggests analogies with her lacquer work.” But unlike her passion for lacquer, which we know Gray mastered with her own hands because of the health problems the materials caused, it is unclear if she learnt to weave herself. Her American biographer, Peter Adam, explains that she designed her rugs “on large sheets of paper, indicating exactly the color she wanted to achieve. Those designs were then painstakingly copied on the rue Visconti by Frenchwomen under the supervision of Evelyn Wyld who would ‘weave away at their looms’.” The suggestion is that Gray may not have known how to weave, or at the very least did not devote hours to weaving as she had done with her lacquer work.

At its height, Gray’s atelier on rue Visconti had eight employees, run under the direction of Evelyn Wyld, working solely with hand-knotting techniques. The two became interested in weaving during a trip to Morocco together and in 1909 Wyld brought looms and wool for weaving, along with a teacher from the National School of Weavers to Paris from England, to set up the atelier. Later years saw bad feelings between the two, with Wyld eventually leaving in order to design her own textiles, something that had begun to occur while still in Gray’s employment. But while Wyld was drawn towards the floral, Gray’s rug designs struck a distinctive tone similar to that of her furniture design and architectural ideas: spare and clean with a touch of humour to lighten the burden of pure function. The rugs were sold on commission and at Jean Désert, a store Gray opened in 1922. While Jean Désert never proved profitable (and eventually closed in the mid-30s), it did provide a considerable public platform for Gray’s design ideas as well as those of a few selected colleagues she chose to promote. In fact of all the items sold, the rugs should be the last to be blamed for the shop’s lack of financial success as they consistently remained the best sellers.

Abstract in style, Gray’s rugs are infused with the human connection that so much of her work exhibits, in part through their names. Constant suggests that each name “originates either from the fertile depths of her imagination or, in the cases of private commissions and exhibition installations, from the site for which the carpet was intended”: Magie Noire (Black Magic), Footit (referring to a pair of famous circus clowns), Ulysse, Hannibal, Macedoine, Penelope, Centimétre to name a few. These rugs and their preliminary gouache studies are, like much of Gray’s work, undated making it difficult to suggest an evolution in her textile design. The design historian Wilfred Wang does propose an evolution in the subject matter of the rug designs, but how he comes to the chronology he has applied is unclear: “The early rugs combine identifiable geometric forms in a range of saturated colors,” he writes in Eileen Gray: An Architecture For All the Senses. “Numerals, icons such as fragmentary elements of everyday objects – allusions to an incipient architecture – can be found in the designs of the late-1920s.” He goes on to note, “more abstract color fields in carpets of the mid-1920s anticipate the later screen designs that are more architectural than painterly…. The carpet designs of the 1930s explore the precision and refinement of weaving techniques while reflecting direct parallels with Gray’s non-representational painterly compositions of the period.” Whether this is in fact a true chronology of the work, it nonetheless does suggest groupings that can be applied to her rug designs. What can be agreed upon is the problem that Gray’s contribution to the history of textile design has yet to receive thorough research attention. In his substantial revised “catalogue raisonné of furniture” Adam does not include any rug designs. Instead he determines the entire output to be in need of thorough research: “The whole area of rugs, rug designs, and graphic works on paper is extremely complex, and not enough information is available to treat them in depth in this catalogue. A special study will have to be made to ascertain which rugs were executed.”

For the moment, Gray’s rug designs remain imbedded in an understanding of her larger output of architectural ideas and furniture design. Matilda McQuaid, Head of Textiles at the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in New York City sees a direct relationship between Gray’s textile work and her other designs. “The designs relate very directly to some of her design work; very architectural in their geometry. They seem almost like floor plans of buildings or plans of furniture. Her work had a lushness of materials and colours but a simplicity of form, which I think is reflected in these rugs.” Seller concurs, with the suggestion that “the abstract nature of Gray’s rug designs corresponded with her move towards a more modernist aesthetic and use of materials in her furniture designs.”

Today the rugs today can be appreciated for their contribution to a sense of total design, but Gray, late in life, was dismissive of their importance. In 1970, producing scrapbooks of her life’s work she commented, “It seems rather silly to have made these big portfolios giving all importance to carpets and early decorations that can interest no one. Whereas Tempe a Pailla and the Centre de Culture et Loisir and the Maison au Bord de la Mer plus some croquis (if I manage to finish them) might still interest some students and are much more important to me.” Seller’s similarly acknowledges that the rug designs were far from a priority for the designer: “The rugs were extremely pivotal to her developing career. However, while Gray designed many rugs and was a fan of using them to punctuate spaces with different tactile and sensory experiences I personally don’t think she prioritised them over the furnishings and architectural designs. Rugs were, for Gray, part of an overall affect in which everything worked together – they contributed to the tableaux and her desire to design with human needs in mind – and not to simply lionise the product she had created.”

In spite of her own dismissive attitude, late in life, towards her rug designs, Gray’s work was not entirely forgotten by the design community. British Vogue published a flattering article in August of 1917 and the first retrospective of her work, mounted at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1979, travelled to the Scottish Arts Council Gallery, Edinburgh and the Museum of Modern Art, New York City in 1980 and included a rug (displayed on the wall rather than its functional role on the floor) designed for E. 1027. In 1984, the French interior decorator Andrée Putman included reproductions of Gray’s rugs in New York City’s upscale Hudson Hotel. Today Zeev Aram, based in London, holds the worldwide license of Gray’s designs. Mr. Aram worked closely with the designer late in her life to put several of her furniture designs into mass production and is largely attributed with the resurrection of Gray’s rightful place in the design history books. Of his championing of Gray’s designs he admits, “it has been an uphill struggle, but very satisfying. When we introduced her work in 1973, she was not known by the public.” Several years ago Aram expanded their Gray collection to include reproductions of several rug designs: Castellar, Kilkenny, Roquebrune, Bonaparte, Blue Marine, St. Tropez and Wendigan. True to their original colours, the hand knotted wool rugs are produced in India by artisans working under fair trade practices and are available through Aram’s celebrated Convent Garden store.

Beyond their iconic status to those in the know of design history, these rugs continue to be appreciated not only for the severe geometries that lend themselves to contemporary spaces, but also the attention Gray paid to texture and layering, something already suggested by many as very much akin to the sensibility evident in her lacquer work. Certainly the devastation wrecked by World War II is partly responsible for the time it has taken for Gray’s name to become commonplace among architectural and design historians, but only time will tell if her rug designs will find a permanent place, as E.1027 now enjoys, in the history books.

Modern Carpets & Textiles (spring 2006: 46-49)