Portrait of Eileen Gray
Whilst having a little wander through Hampstead the other day I spotted an iconic piece of furniture as part of a display in the corner of a chic boutique. It got me thinking about what exactly it is that constitutes a ‘design classic’. It’s something that we at Tree Couture and no doubt every designer in every medium always aspires to create – but it’s a hard one to pin down in terms of criteria that have to be fulfilled to earn this ultimate accolade.
There are icons in every area of design – the Aston Martin DB5, the Chanel suit and of course her No. 5 perfume, the Anglepoise lamp and Concorde – and there are some stunners in furniture design. The most obvious ones that spring to mind are the Le Corbusier table, the Eames and the Mackintosh chairs and the Noguchi coffee table.
The furniture design classic in question and on display here in North London was an adjustable side table, the E-1027 – a gorgeous creation of chrome-plated steel tubing and glass that has a purity of form, tremendous functionality and great versatility, and succeeds in achieving that rare combination of looking both timeless (classic) and contemporary. What clinches its furniture design classic status is that it was designed and produced over 80 years ago and it still looks as fresh and relevant and fits as effortlessly into our lifestyles today as it did in the 1920s. And what gives me that extra frisson, is that it was the brainchild of an incredibly talented and inspirational Irish woman – furniture designer (and architect) Eileen Gray (1878 – 1976).
But her little table, the E-1027, was not alone in standing up to the test of time. Her whole body of work, from the moment she embraced Modernism, oozed with original thought and creativity, marrying high quality materials (such as had previously rarely been seen together) with exciting new forms and lines.
Take for example her Bibendum Chair – clean, sexy and bold with horseshoe rolls of buttery leather sitting plump on a polished chrome frame, or her spectacularly striking black lacquer Brick Screen (part of the permanent collection at both London’s V&A and New York’s MOMA). But despite her pioneering accomplishments, she didn’t gain the recognition that she deserved outside specialist circles. Like so many great artists, the greatest publicity she achieved was posthumous, when in 2009 her Transat Chair sold at the auction of Yves Saint Laurent’s vast art collection for a record-breaking £19 million, the highest price ever attained for a work of 20th century decorative art.
This amazing woman’s ‘effortless’ style has always inspired me in my furniture design and what’s more she reins me in when I’m overworking it, trying too hard. I guess form and beauty, originality and functionality are just some of the many boxes that need to be ticked for a design to enter the realms of the design classic but what makes a piece ‘timeless’ is one of those wondrously mystical questions, and maybe even our perception of these very criteria will change with time (eye of the beholder and all that). But whatever it is, my heroine Miss Gray had – and still has it all.
Eileen Gray – telegraph.co.uk