Recalling the life of Eileen Gray - the Irish mother of Modernism

Francesco Scianna and Orla Brady in the Price of Desire

A new film unveils the bitter fallout between Eileen Gray and Le Corbusier over their iconic villa in the south of France, writes Ellie O’Byrne

THE tension in the auction house mounted as bids passed the €10m mark. A middle-aged woman in glasses was bidding on a piece of furniture against phone bids. With a wry half smile, she indicated her bid again and again; €13m, €14m… by the time the bidding closed at €22m, the auction house was filled with gasps and applause.

On the steps outside, the purchaser, Cheska Vallois, was asked what had possessed her to pay the highest ever recorded price for a piece of furniture at auction. She smiled, and responded simply: “It’s the price of desire.”

The piece of furniture was the “dragon chair”, designed by Enniscorthy-born modernist designer and lacquer-worker Eileen Gray. A new film, The Price of Desire, rediscovers Gray’s architectural work and unravels the tale of dispossession, love, and “insidious chauvinism”, as director Mary McGuckian puts it, that robbed Gray of her legacy as the architect of the historic modernist villa e1027 on the Côte d’Azur.

Mary McGuckian
Mary McGuckian

Gray’s bold and ground-breaking design for e1027, built for the object of her desire, her lover, architectural journalist Jean Badovici, threw her into an unwitting and one-sided rivalry with architect Le Corbusier, who coveted the house and eventually, in an act of outrageous territorial vandalism, daubed the villa with lurid phallic murals.

McGuckian opens her tribute to Gray’s life and spirit, which includes an IFTA-nominated performance for Orla Brady as the aristocratic “Mother of Modernism”, with a reconstruction of the fabled dragon chair auction, and, true to her immersive, no-holds-barred filmmaking style, re-united the real-life bidders and auctioneer for the re-enactment.

A research project which began for McGuckian five years ago grew to encompass an enormous, multi- disciplinary recognition of Gray as the designer of e1027.

“It became more than a movie and more of a movement,” says McGuckian, listing the various sister-projects that emerged in parallel with The Price of Desire, including a photography book by Julian Lennon, the restoration of e1027, which opened its doors as a historic attraction last May, and a musical contribution from Alanis Morissette, who plays singer Damia — one of the bisexual Gray’s lovers — in the film and who recorded a song popularised by the chanteuse in the 1920s.

A companion documentary by Marco Orsini, Gray Matters, provides a more detailed and methodical look at Gray’s life and work, liberating McGuckian to explore nuance and emotional intricacies.

“I like to think that we remained true to the spirit of Eileen Gray’s story, but really we are aiming to evoke rather than create a documentary account,” says McGuckian. “It was a unique process to try and create that aesthetic and that performance.”

Art director Emmanuelle Pucci, herself a former architect, ensured Gray’s design elements and ethos are reflected in the film, and her work also contributed to the real-life restoration of e1027.

“She created an extraordinary thing, which was one set that was entirely malleable and could function as six different interiors,” says McGuckian. “The walls moved and the entire thing fit in to Eileen Gray’s design principles.”

The erosion of Gray’s authorship of e1027 was gradual, from her name being misprinted as Helene Grey in an architectural magazine, to Badovici attributing himself as co-signatory to the designs, to the eventual complete obscuration of Gray’s role and the villa being attributed instead to Le Corbusier, who coveted it and eventually died by drowning while swimming in the sea in front of the property.

“You have to remember that the events in the film took place over a period of 30 years,” says McGuckian.

Gray was made a fellow of the Royal Institute of Architects of Ireland in recognition of e1027 in 1995, and a floor of the National Museum of Decorative Arts and History at Collin’s Barracks in Dublin is dedicated to her work.

  • The Price of Desire is released on May 27. Among the venues showing the film are Triskel, Cork from May 29


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