Focus on tubular steel furniture

Who would have thought that one of the first people to design and make tubular steel furniture would be Irish — and a woman?

Eileen Gray, a native of Wexford started a revolution in furniture design in the first half of the 20th century, and her coup was made all the more significant as she was the only woman among a circle of brilliant new designers in the 1920s — a list which included Le Corbusier, Marcel Breuer and Mies van der Rohe.

What was probably one of her greatest talents — an aesthetic that singles her out to this day — was taking the geometric furniture forms so popular in the modernist period of the 1920s and ’30s and adding a luxuriant quality. The Bibendum chair is a perfect example, with its composition of semi-circular tubes finished in leather, and, rather wittily, being named after the character created by Michelin to sell its tyres.

Today, her furniture designs are probably among the most copied, though they never had the exposure of mass production or the associated audience. Authentic designs can still be bought today, produced under licence, whereas early versions are somewhat damaged and rendered less attractive.

Nevertheless, they are also some of the most valuable: In 2009, Gray’s Dragon chair sold for a whopping €21.9m during an auction of the estate of the late fashion designer, Yves St Laurent in Paris. This was the highest amount ever paid for a piece of 20th century furniture. Not bad for a girl from Enniscorthy.

So why isn’t she a household name in the same way as, say, Arne Jacobsen is in Sweden? It’s hard to explain, but perhaps different countries place importance on different cultural developments, and post civil war de Valera’s Ireland was probably not the place for appreciating someone influenced by European artistic sensibilities and Modernism, and who was resident mainly in London and Paris, though a frequent visitor here.

In France, her work in furniture and architecture is highly regarded to the point where the Pompidou Centre has just concluded a detailed retrospective. But we haven’t ignored her completely. Just 40 years ago an exhibition entitled ‘Eileen Gray: Pioneer of Design’ staged at Bank of Ireland acknowledged her contribution to design and gave her recognition at home.

But of more permanent value was a move by the National Museum of Ireland in 2000 to purchase Gray’s private furniture collection from her Paris apartment. An earlier attempt had been made by the museum before her death but it seems the cost of such a purchase would have used the museum’s entire acquisition budget for the year at that time. A programme of purchases of work by Irish designer/ makers is ongoing and is on permanent exhibition at the museum. This represents a modern history, if you will, of a new legacy of design and, as with the purchase of the Gray collection, a move of great foresight by the museum.


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