Today The Conran Shop celebrates the 140th birthday of the late, great Eileen Gray: one of the 20th century’s most iconic designers, and a favourite of our founder Sir Terence Conran.
Renowned as a pioneer of both Art Deco and Modernism, we discover Eileen Gray’s life in design, and her unique connection with The Conran Shop.
Born in County Wexford, Ireland in 1878, Eileen Gray grew up in London with her artistic father supporting all her creative pursuits. Going on to become one of the first women to study at the Slade School of Art, Gray soon discovered a passion for painting and lacquer work.
A highly specialised medium, she was first introduced to the technique while undertaking an apprenticeship with Soho lacquer specialist Dean Charles. Soon after, Charles introduced Gray to the famed Japanese lacquerist Seizo Sugawara and she subsequently travelled to Paris to continue her training with him.
Painstakingly mastering the technique, Eileen Gray went on to open her own workshop in 1910 and her own store twelve years later. The store was based the fashionable Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré and named ‘Jean Désert’ to reference Gray’s love of the North African desert.
Just one year later, Gray amazed peers and visitors at the 1923 14th Salon des Artistes Décorateurs by displaying a stark white lacquered boudoir, a feat that assured her a place in history as one of the great lacquer artists and a game-changing designer.
Turning her eye towards design and architecture, Eileen Gray designed the E-1027 villa between 1926 and 1929. Conceptualised as a retreat for herself and her partner, the architect Jean Badovici, the villa sits on the shore of Cap Martin and its name is derived from the interlinking of their initials: E for Eileen, 10 for the J of Jean, 2 for the B of Badovici, and 7 for the G of Gray.
Years later, over the course of several visits to the villa, Le Corbusier painted a total of 7 murals on the villa’s stark white walls, which Gray’s biographer Peter Adam slated as having, ‘without her consent, defaced her design’. While Gray had previously honoured Le Corbusier as one of the main inspirations behind the Bibendum Chair, this event is considered to have been a turning point in their relationship.
The Bibendum Chair itself is a timeless modern design classic that has undoubtedly inspired scores of future designs. Described by Aram’s founder Zeev Aram as Gray’s ‘feminist answer to Le Corbusier’s LC3 Armchair’, the chair was designed to be as comfortable as Le Corbusier’s classic but with softer, more rounded edges.
Ultimately, the design pays homage to the French figure Monsieur Bibendum, also known as ‘The Michelin Man’, whose form mimics the Michelin tyres he came to represent. The Bibendum Chair’s segmented design, accented with chromium-painted steel tubing, mirrors the icon’s distinctive silhouette and ensures it remains a unique creation to this day.
Adorned with the iconic Michelin Man in stained glass, The Conran Shop’s flagship store in Michelin House creates a unique connection with Eileen Gray, the Bibendum Chair and her lasting influence on design. It is no wonder that Gray is noted among Sir Terence Conran’s favourite designers given their shared appreciation for the iconic figure and Michelin mascot.
Today, Gray’s designs remain incredibly popular across the world. Honoured with pieces in permanent collections at the V&A in London and New York’s MoMA, original pieces by Eileen Gray are rare and highly sought after among collectors.