“The poverty of modern architecture stems from the atrophy of sensuality.
Everything is dominated by reason in order to create amazement without proper research. We must mistrust pictorial elements if they are not assimilated by instinct.
It is not a matter of simply constructing beautiful ensembles of lines, but above all, dwellings for great people.”
– Eileen Gray –
Some of you may remember A-Gent of Style ‘s stay in Paris last spring and his accompanying series ‘A Londoner in Paris’. For some hazy reasons, what didn’t make it to this blog was the remarkable show at the Pompidou Centre celebrating the career of the 20th C iconic designer and architect Eileen Gray which regrouped unique pieces and was aimed at reaffirming this design luminary’s recognition, influence and reputation today. A-Gent of Style felt slightly troubled over the last months to have missed the opportunity to write about this seminal retrospective and not to have featured some of his own (amateurishly and perilously taken) photographs
(“Les photos ne sont pas autorisées, monsieur!”). But thanks to today’s subject,
A-Gent of Style can rectify this oversight.
A forthcoming Irish-Belgian feature film called ‘The Price of Desire’ will tell the controversial story of Eileen Gray’s pioneering life between 1923 and 1956, of how her influential contribution to 20th C architecture and design was almost entirely effaced from history by the egotistical Franco-Swiss polymath Le Corbusier (real name Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris), and of how her relationship with Romanian architect and architecture critic Jean Badovici further fuelled the rift between the two architects, both personally and professionally, thus consigning her legacy to a century of neglect and long-overdue recognition (Eileen Gray was difficult to pigeon-hole and was never strictly part of Art Deco).
Directed by Mary McGuckian, the movie which is due to be released this year and currently in post-production (the trailer has yet to be released) will star Irish actress Orla Brady as the private and elusive figure Gray, Swiss actor Vincent Perez as the malevolent Le Corbusier; Italian actor Francesco Scianna will play Jean Badovici and Canadian singer Alanis Morissette will be Gray’s lover, the French cabaret singer Marie-Louise Damien, better known as “Damia” (Gray was openly bisexual). Julian Lennon was commissioned to be the artistic stills photographer.
Filmmaker Mary McGuckian with Vincent Perez as Le Corbusier at the villa E1027
Actress Orla Brady as Eileen Gray during make-up
The hunksome Vincent Perez as Le Corbusier
The other hunksome Francesco Scianna as Jean Badovici
Alanis Morisette as “Damia”
Damia / Alanis Morisette on set as “Damia” (Instagram)
Francesco Scianna and Orla Brady
Julian Lennon at Villa E-1027
The other significant star of the film is Gray’s most abiding project,
the Villa E-1027, now recognized by many as a milestone and the first Modernist house ever constructed. ‘The price of Desire’ will explore the events and details surrounding Le Corbusier’s effacement, defacement and eventual erasure of Gray’s very ownership of the actual physical villa she so lovingly created. What was originally conceived as a peaceful, seaside lover’s nest and refuge (E-1027 was a gift from Gray to Badovici) ended up being obscured by artistic conflict, jealousy, rivalry, betrayal, strife, violence and even murder (a bit like Dynasty really).
A friend of Badovici’s, Le Corbusier visited E-1027 on numerous occasions and admired it very much, so much so that he moved in to add his own touch to the clean white villa, painting a series of sexually graphic and explicit murals on its walls between 1937 and 1939. This intrusion onto her design infuriated Gray who considered the murals outright vandalism. Whether Le Corbusier painted (sometimes in the nude except for his trademark glasses and a palette and paintbrush in hand) these murals out of admiration for her work or jealousy of her accomplishment,
he became intricately tied with the future of the house.
Failing to purchase it himself, Le Corbusier eventually bought a piece of property just east of E-1027, where he built a small, rustic cabin, “Le Cabanon.” Here he would go for work and quiet contemplation, taking daily swims on the beach outside the house. After he died in those very waters in 1965, the whole area was declared
a “Site Moderne,” or “Modern Site,” and deemed an area of cultural and historical importance and international interest. Today, E-1027 is recognized as the founding element of this site.
Situated in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin in an isolated stretch of the French Riviera overlooking the Bay of Monaco, the site for E-1027 was chosen by the Irish designer and the Romanian philanderer in 1924 for the beauty of its views.
Wishing to build a house that interacted with the natural elements,
Eileen Gray developed the design to incorporate an evolving relationship with the sun, the prevailing winds, and the sea. Inside and outside flow together. Delicate, white and ship-like, the L-shaped and flat-roofed building with floor-to-ceiling windows, a sunken solarium and spiralling sky-lit staircase was completed in 1929. Gray was responsible for much of the design and for overseeing its construction;
Badovici provided conceptual inspiration and assisted in technical matters. Not only does every room give out onto a balcony or terrace and the bedrooms get the morning sun but the shutters and windows are also adjustable, allowing the inhabitant to harmoniously engage with the sea and the hills surrounding the villa. Gray went on to develop innovative avant-garde architecture and design in line with the pure aesthetic of the modern movement combined with her personal sense of interior comfort and practicality. E-1027 makes indistinct the border between architecture and decoration.
The living room of E-1027 designed by Eileen Gray in the late 1920s
The same living room in the late 1930s with the mural paintings by Le Corbusier
The living room reconstructed for the film
According to Gray, “A window without shutters is an eye without eyelids”
The alphanumeric encoded Villa E-1027 (typical example of the modernist obsession with the rational and industrial) was named by Gray and a way of showing her relationship with Badovici at the time when built (they ended their ten-year long romance shortly after the completion of the house): E standing for Eileen, 10 being the tenth letter in the alphabet, J, standing for Jean, 2 is letter B, for the first letter of Badovici and 7, the seventh letter, for the G in Gray.
Gray was so slow at putting her name forward as being the architect of the house that for many years it was assumed by many historians and journalists that Le Corbusier was in fact its designer. It is worth noting that Le Corbusier’s murals were preserved due to his greater fame as arguably the most famous and influential of the early modernists. Gray’s career was largely forgotten until after her death in 1976 despite her long-lasting influence nowadays; it is only in 1972 that the sale of the collection of internationally revered couturier, Jacques Doucet, specifically the Destiny screen, restored Gray and her works to their rightful place in the decorative arts.
After her beginnings designing sumptuous lacquer furniture, wool carpets and draperies that reflected the sensual luxury of traditional French decorative arts,
Eileen Gray turned to architecture in the mid-1920s, influenced by the modern movement. But Gray’s talent was not always appreciated. In 1923, French authorities on the decorative arts and design use such words as “strange,” “abnormal,” “tormented,” and even “nightmarishˮ and “caligaresque” to describe the now iconic Monte Carlo ensemble she exhibited that year at the Salon des Artistes Décorateurs.
Having fallen into dereliction and dilapidation in the 1990s, E-1027 was acquired in 1999 by Le Conservatoire du Littoral, a French public organisation, and the township of Roquebrune after its last private owner was mysteriously murdered in 1996 in one of the bedrooms (an event dramatised too in the movie). The original furniture that Gray had designed herself specifically has now been removed from the villa. Some of her products have now become iconic, timeless and ubiquitous (A-Gent of Style has her iconic circular, adjustable table at home). There has been a lot of criticism as to whether Le Corbusier’s murals should have been removed or not.
London furniture retailer Zeev Aram, who became a close friend of Irish-born Gray in her later years, and who owns the rights to her designs, provided furniture for the film such as the Bibendum chair, the eponymous E-1027 adjustable table and
the Rivoli table – to complement the renovation. Aram have just recently launched a fantastic website dedicated to Eileen Gray and all of her designs.
The Bibendum chair
The E-1027 adjustable tubular steel table designed to enable Gray’s sister to eat breakfast in bed without leaving crumbs on sheets, due to an adjustable top that caught the crumbs.
The Rivoli table
Another scene to look forward to will re-stage the moment Sotheby’s sold the infamous Eileen Gray’s ‘Fauteuil aux dragons’ that belonged to Yves Saint Laurent
and Pierre Bergé for a staggering $28m in 2009 and which broke the record for 20th C furniture. Cheska Vallois of the respected 20th C antiques Galerie Vallois in Paris plays herself in the production as the anonymous private client who buys the chair and famously explains the high price-tag to reporters immediately after the auction by saying “it can only be the price of desire” hence the title of the film.
Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé with ‘the Dragon chair’ behind him. You can see A-Gent‘s latest review on the new biopic and their storied Paris apartment here.
The renovation and refurbishment have proved to be lengthy and a burden. In 2008 the site was in full renovation spate and due to be opened in 2009. But money ran out and it lay dormant until now and McGuckian’s intervention. It was hoped the film’s fundraising would help contribute to this work.
Summary timeline of E1027
1926-29 Eileen Gray designs and builds E1027 in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin for Jean Badovici
1931-35 Eileen Gray designs and builds Tempe à Pailla, a house for herself in Castellar; she leaves E1027
1938-40 Le Corbusier paints eight large-scale overtly sexual frescoes on the walls of E-1027
1952 Le Corbusier builds his Cabanon next to E-1027
1956 Badovici dies; E-1027 is inherited by his sister in Romania
1958 The Romanian government offers the house at public auction
1960 Marie-Louise Schelbert purchases E-1027 at auction at the bidding of Le Corbusier
1965 Le Corbusier dies of a heart-attack during his daily swim in the waters just in front of E-1027
1982 Dr. Kaegi claims title to E-1027 by bequest after the death of Marie-Louise Schelbert
1991 Dr. Kaegi sells 28 pieces of furniture from the villa at a Sotheby’s auction in Monaco – The Pompidou Centre (Musée National d’Art Moderne, Paris) pre-empts the purchase of some of the more important proto-types
1996 Dr. Kaegi is violently murdered by a gardener after a dispute
1996-99 Left empty for several years, the villa is overtaken by squatters and vandalized
1999 The Conservatoire Du Littoral, a public entity charged with the preservation of the French coastline, purchases the property
2000 The villa, its garden and the surrounding land are classified as Historic Monuments by national decree on March 27th
The Conseil Général has since tried to undertake the restoration project with the commune Roquebrune-Cap-Martin Alpes-Maritimes.
“The Price of Desire” sounds like an intriguing dramatisation of a turbulent period and the checkered history of a seminal building. Focusing on E-1027, it will manifest Gray’s most fundamental contribution to modern design and architecture and should reaffirm and recognises her evolution as a major and influential artist.
A-Gent of Style looks forward to the release of “The Price of Desire” which will hopefully receive the resonance and relevance it deserves today.
As Gray professed: “The future projects light, the past only clouds”.
The major retrospective ‘Eileen Gray, Designer Architect Painter’ of
the Pompidou Centre from last year moved to Ireland until the end of last month at the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin.
Away from the buzz of Paris Déco Off and Maison & Objet, the only evening off
A-Gent of Style managed to get was on Sunday when he, like one million or so French cinema-goers in the last fortnight, went to see the Yves Saint Laurent movie, the first of two French biopics to be released this year. And A-Gent though it was
un chef d’oeuvre. Do see it when it is released in your country or on DVD.
Loosely based on the Laurence Benaim’s biography and approved by Pierre Bergé, Yves Saint Laurent, directed by Jalil Lespert, recounts the passionate and turbulent life of one of the most famous French couturiers, whose work was heavily influenced by his personal life and traces the events of the precocious talent who took over from his mentor, Christian Dior, in 1957, when he was only 21 from the beginning of his career in 1958 when he met his lover and business partner, Pierre Bergé until the designer’s death in 2008 (the movie focuses mainly though on the 1950s, 60s and 70s). Their relationship somehow mirrors Valentino Garavani and Giancarlo Giammetti’s who together also created an iconic fashion house, amassed an incredible art collection and sustained a personal relationship for over 50 years. You can see A-Gent of Style‘s feature of Giammetti’s latest New York apartment here.
Actor Pierre Niney, boundless talent of the Comédie française (the French equivalent of the RSC, more or less) doesn’t play Yves Saint Laurent so much as embody him.
His performance is riveting and impeccable. The movie is intimate, insightful and entertaining. Wait to see a young Karl Lagerfeld mingling with Saint Laurent’s muses, Loulou de la Falaise and Betty Cattroux (interestingly enough, Catherine Deneuve is not featured). And the physical similarities between the actors and the actual persons are sometimes uncanny (Now, A-Gent of Style is very much aware that his adoration for Hamish Bowles – see the last post – is worryingly turning into an obsession but don’t you think he looks very much like Monsieur Saint Laurent?! The lanky figure, the floppy hair, the black-rimmed spectacles and of course la mode??).
The other show-stopping factors of the film are the visually sumptuous interiors.
Be it Saint Laurent’s childhood mansion in Oran, Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé’s Paris apartment or their villa in Les Jardins de Majorelle in Marrakesh, the décors are ravishing and breathtaking. Whilst they are not faithfully accurate, they certainly capture the spirit of the museum-quality objets d’art the A-Gay couple surrounded themselves with over five decades.
AD France has just featured new photographs of the arts patrons and aesthetes’s nine-room duplex apartment at 55 rue de Babylone, on Paris’s Left Bank,
one of the superlative interiors of the 20th century. After Saint Laurent’s death,
his and Bergé’s interiors were auctioned and sold at Christie’s in 2009 for an astounding $484 million—the Eileen Gray ‘Dragon’ chair alone brought just over
$28 million. It is still referred today as ‘the sale of the century’.
You can judge by yourselves here:
– Photos of interiors by AD France –
A-Gent of Style – and most of the London design scene or so it seemed – descended in the French capital last week to attend Paris Déco Off, Maison & Objet but also a private tour of the ‘1925, When Art Deco Dazzled the World’ exhibition and so much more! For those of you who didn’t follow A-Gent‘s adventures live on Twitter and Instagram, all will be revealed soon in his series
‘A Londoner in Paris‘. Stay tuned!