We’ve been talking a lot in school recently about how important it is for girls to have role models. Recent research shows that girls actually have fewer role models across a variety of fields including technology, sport, finance and science. Historically, women are often overlooked socially for their achievements and so the fact that girls have fewer role models may be a sad reflection of our collective neglect of women’s ground-breaking work and creativity. I am sure we can all think of examples of women whose great contribution has been overlooked or worse, deliberately obfuscated.
I happened to catch Fiona Shaw on Radio 3 the other night remarking about how few role models had been available for her during her childhood in Ireland. I think the three she mentioned were the Countess Markievicz, Maud Gonne and the Virgin Mary. But she introduced us to another fascinating candidate – the Irish architect and designer Eileen Gray (pictured). Neglected for most of her career, Eileen Gray is now regarded as one of the most important furniture designers and architects of the early 20th century and the most influential woman in those fields. Her work inspired both modernism and Art Deco.
Gray was born in 1878 into an aristocratic family in South East Ireland, and apparently lived a lonely childhood in a large Georgian property, isolated from the society around her. She later studied at the Slade School of Art in London and in Paris, where she made her home during most of her working life. She was highly Modernist in her style, designing the famous Bibendum chair and several other chairs and tables that we’d all recognise as modern classics.
Her most famous piece of architecture is the so-called E.1027 house, built around 1928, which is perched on a cliff overlooking the Mediterranean near Monaco. With no road to the property she carried many of the materials down to it herself. The name E.1027 comes from her first initial followed by the positions in the alphabet occupied by the initials of her partner at the time (Jean Badovici – J, B) and her last initial ‘G’. The architect Le Corbusier was a regular visitor and clearly had a hard time with her, one way or another, to the point that he created a number of salacious murals on the walls in her absence (possibly at the behest of Badovici). Eileen was very distressed and rarely visited the property afterwards, living a largely withdrawn life in Paris, forgotten by the art world. Le Corbusier, on the other hand, became legendary and – tellingly – designed a famous cabin right behind E.1027. In fact he died while swimming in the sea just below it.
Since Eileen Gray’s death in 1976 at the age of almost 100, her reputation has soared and the behaviour of Le Corbusier has increasingly come into question. Eileen’s original pieces now sell for tens of millions of Euros and she has emerged from the shadow of her rival. But, like so many other talented women, she almost became a footnote to history – one that suffered very conscious abuse from her male rival in the form of the assault on E.1027, through the infamous ‘murals’, and perhaps also through his leaving the house to become dilapidated even though he lived almost next to it for so long.
As we celebrate Women’s History Month in March, we should search for our forgotten role models. It is really important that we recognise and celebrate women like Eileen Gray and I urge you to raise awareness of her, as I intend to.