Eileen Gray and E.1027
E.1027 in the south of France encapsulates the design philosophy of an important woman designer whose legacy was almost lost, writes interior designer Charlotte Hughes-Hallett.
When you Google ‘top architects’ the plethora of male muses is all-consuming. Apart from high-profile successes such as Zaha Hadid and Jeanne Gang, the accounts of females are dubious, making the list an inaccurate representation of female influence on the profession. The list becomes even more sparsely occupied by females as soon as you refine the search to the late 19th and early 20th centuries when Modernism prospered. There is a gender gap in architecture and this gap has caused some women to miss out on their rightful acclaim.
As one of the finest artists, designers and architects of the 20th century, Eileen Gray is one of the many unsung pioneers who laid the groundwork for women in architecture. Gray was a protagonist of the Modernist Movement, yet her influence, unlike that of counterparts such as Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, the De Stijl artists and Frank Lloyd Wright, has not received the consistent attention or acknowledgement it so justly deserves. Gray’s contribution has been repeatedly celebrated, forgotten and rediscovered. After years of publications and the Internet providing anecdotal evidence of Gray’s craft, dexterity and artistry, her reputation still wallows in the wake of male modernists.
From lacquer artist to furniture designer to architect, Gray spent most of her designing life in France. Influenced by various designers and architects, Gray luxuriated in the masterpieces of Toulouse-Lautrec, Cézanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Seurat and Bonnard, and revelled in the works of Le Corbusier. Her respect for the architect later turned into reciprocal admiration and a tremendously convoluted relationship.
Gray’s first built architecture was E.1027, the modernist villa situated on the rocky Côte d’Azur in the south of France. In his essay “Eileen Gray (1878–1976)”, English architecture writer Tom Wilkinson suggests that the narrative of Eileen Gray’s villa is more reminiscent of a Hollywood thriller than architectural history.  When people hear ‘E.1027’, they commonly recognise the name because of the vandalism inflicted by Le Corbusier, or for the house’s associations with drugs, wartime shootings and murder. A variegated history, during which the house passed through numerous neglectful owners, led to decay and near-terminal disrepair.
Completed in 1929 as a lover’s retreat, E.1027 takes its name from an encrypted combination of Gray’s initials and those of her lover at the time, the French architect and critic Jean Badovici: E for Eileen, 10 for Jean (J being the tenth letter of the alphabet), 2 for B(adovici) and 7 for G(ray). Along with the encoding of its inhabitants’ names, the name is an ironically appropriate summation of the home’s spatial strategy, a strategy caught between what critic Beatriz Colomina would later characterise as the opposing poles of privacy and publicity. E.1027 was built for intimacy and magnetism.
The house is basically a cube that sits atop delicate white pilotis. There is a canny manipulation of surfaces, both on the exterior and within the interior, that play with light and shadow through their degrees of shine, roughness and pigmentation. As Tom Wilkinson describes in his book Bricks & Mortals: Ten Great Buildings and the People They Made (Bloomsbury, London, 2014), Gray’s design was more opaque and more contrived to provide modesty. Ribbon windows expose the interior but, unlike her fellow modernists who all believed in uninterrupted spaces, Gray incorporated in the plan for E.1027 a series of definite planes and obstructions to promote privacy.
E.1027 is architecture in motion, with elements designed to possess multiple personalities: wardrobes extend to become walls, the living room re-forms into a boudoir, and beds fold into walls. The design was a resolution to four problems Gray identified: window profiles; excessive exposure and lack of shutters; the independence of rooms; and the kitchen. Gray’s design put into practice ideas that were new and essential, ideas that the architecture designed by her counterparts lacked.
Gray’s architecture evolved from furniture into a building. She designed many custom loose and built-in furniture items for E.1027. Cupboards and storage units were designed and laid out with consideration of how light would fall on the ornaments displayed. Mirrors were arranged so both the front and back of the body could be observed. Windows were scaled and positioned to ensure that the house’s inhabitants could see the view irrespective of their posture (sitting, standing or laying down). Veiling devices such as shutters were modulated to create shadow and invite the breeze in. The fireplace was located adjacent to a large glass door to the exterior so that one could see the firelight and natural light in one frame.
Gray’s thinking, and her objective to provoke the senses, pushed her architecture to expand beyond being inert matter and instead reflect the art of living. Her reserve comes across in every detail. Every component was premeditated to ensure that her design did not fall victim to the atrophy of sensuality Gray observed in modern architecture.
The villa outlived the sensual relationship between Gray and Badovici. As Gray grew tired of Badovici’s drinking and philandering, she vacated the house, but Badovici stayed. While he was in residence, E.1027 was frequented by Le Corbusier. After his first visit, Le Corbusier wrote to Gray, expressing his admiration of the house and praising her aptitude. E.1027, Le Corbusier told Gray, had a “rare spirit”. But behind closed doors, Le Corbusier changed his story; he told Badovici that elements of the design were flawed and suggested that the house’s screens and partitions should be removed. Le Corbusier grew envious and started to perceive Gray as a threat to a style that he considered his own.
Gray and Le Corbusier’s mutual admiration for each other’s craft was disrupted when Le Corbusier painted eight erotic cubist murals during one of his visits, without Gray’s knowledge or consent.  Le Corbusier wilfully painted one of the murals on the partition that hid the living room-boudoir that he once told Badovici to remove. In a symbolic removal of the designed obstructions Gray introduced, the imagined objects of Le Corbusier’s desires rendered the wall transparent.
Adding insult to injury, photographs show Le Corbusier painting the murals naked. For long time the defacement of E.1027 was overlooked as Gray left the villa under Badovici’s name; despite her unease, the house belonged to Badovici. Even worse, due to Le Corbusier and Gray’s relationship, the architecture of E.1027 and some of its furnishings were often incorrectly attributed to the male architect. Le Corbusier’s fascination with the house did not stop there: he built his ‘cabanon’ to perch above E.1027 and spent his summers there, every day overlooking the villa that consumed him.
For much of the latter half of the 20th century E.1027 was left to decay. The house was damaged by German troops who used it for target practice during World War Two. Then, when Badovici passed away unexpectedly in 1956, without a will, the villa was passed over to his sister, Schelbert, who had little interest in its upkeep. Le Corbusier had to stop her from hurling Gray’s custom furniture into a bonfire.
In 1980, Schelbert’s physician, a Dr Kägi, removed much of the original furniture from the villa, took it to Zurich and sold it at auction. A couple of days later, Schelbert was found dead in her Zurich flat and Kägi inherited the villa. Under his ownership, the villa rapidly deteriorated. In 1996, Kägi, who hosted promiscuous drug parties at E.1027, was found murdered in the boudoir. In the following years, E.1027 was defaced and pillaged by squatters.
When Gray died in 1976, she had designed and built only two more buildings, both residences for herself on the Côte d’Azur: one in the village of Castellar and one outside Saint-Tropez. None of her other more socially-focused concepts, including low-cost houses, a workers’ leisure centre and a cultural centre, materialised. Gray’s limited architectural production is, I believe, the result of her personal diffidence, and the profound sexism of an era that gave inordinate opportunity to men at the expense of women. These factors not only limited Gray’s ambitions, they also distorted and almost erased her legacy.
But E.1027 never quite disappeared, and after decades of disregard, the villa was rescued from near inexistence in 1999 when the French Government’s heritage agency Conservatoire du littoral purchased the site and began to restore the villa. The work proceeded slowly as it became mired in bureaucracy and ran into numerous impasses. What stands now is not quite the vision Eileen Gray created. Some past damage remains unrepaired and some of Gray’s intentions are irrecoverable; a testimony to architecture’s inability to stand immune to the passage of time. The murals by Le Corbusier that offend the subtleties in Gray’s design remain, as they themselves are protected artworks. Although work on E.1027 is ongoing, the villa opened to the public in 2015.
Despite the controversy that encircles its renovation, E.1027 can continue to inspire and leave onlookers in awe of the vanguard figure that was Eileen Gray. E.1027 is a tribute to a time when women triumphed and began to gain the power to design and build. It also stands for something else: resistance to the rhetoric of transparency and visibility that pervaded Modernism. Gray took Corbusian transparency and simultaneously refused to compromise on her desire for privacy. Once sidelined and eclipsed by her male counterparts, Gray’s profound influence on Modernism is gradually framing her as one of the rightful authors of the style.
1. Tom Wilkinson, “Reputations: Eileen Gray (1878–1976)”, The Architectural Review, September 2016. This essay draws, gratefully, on information provided in this article.
2. Michael Watts, “Eileen Gray: A Life Restored”, 1843 (The Economist), March/April 2015.