I discovered Eileen Gray when I was doing research on modernist housing typology for my masters thesis. I like both her work and her personal history. Although she wasn’t, strictly speaking, an architect – she was more an general artist who dabbled in painting, furniture designs, interiors and the occasional building – she can serve as a female role model in the design world.
Eileen Gray was that impressive rarity, a Modernist who believed in design for people. She questioned many of the ideals and priorities of her contemporaries, commenting that, “external architecture seems to have absorbed avant-garde architecture at the expense of the interior. As if a house should be conceived for the pleasure of the eye more than the well-being of its inhabitants … Theory is not sufficient for life and does not answer to all of its requirements.”1
An artist and furniture designer, Gray began her study of architecture at 46. In 1925, she designed her first house in collaboration with her architect friend Jean Badovici, very much in compliance with Le Corbusier’s Five Points of the New Architecture which was published the next year. But she didn’t always agree with modernist theory. “A house is not a machine to live in,” said Gray, contradicting Le Corbusier, “It is the shell of man, his extension, his release, his spiritual emanation.”2 She was critical of modernism’s over-dependence on order.
“The poverty of modern architecture,” she wrote, “stems from the atrophy of sensuality. The dominance of reason, order and math leave a house cold and inhumane without some mediation of instinct, intuition or sense they produce unlivable space.”3
House E.1027 was displayed at the first exhibition of the Union des Artites Modernes in 1930. Gray’s description read, “House envisioned from a social point of view: minimum of space, maximum of comfort.”
Gray said that, “the thing constructed is more important than the way it is constructed, and the process is subordinate to the plan, not the plan to the process. It is not only a matter of constructing beautiful arrangements of lines but above all, dwellings for people.”4
Mindful of the lessons of de Stijl, she often drew folded out elevations arranged around a plan of each room to really get a sense of the interior space rather than just focusing on facades and floor plans to create form. Like Loos, she was interested in the experience of being inside a space and really focused on materiality to produce her desired effects.
This was a huge departure from her modernist brethren who were largely focusing on the flowing of one space into each other.
Instead each space could be viewed as a microcosm of the whole building. Her representation methods included all the elements of the room as space making, including the placement and design of walls, windows furniture and carpets. Gray took a hand in developing all of these, designing all the furniture, much of it built in, for her houses.5
Gray’s architectural designs focused on the sensual experience of space. Her interest was consistently in making livable homes which could be easily adapted to suit the needs of the occupant.6 She sought to “enhance the human potential of modern architecture, overcoming its supposed cold and alienating qualities by reinstating fundamental physical, psychological and spiritual needs as primary.”7