If you ask people what is Bristol is famous for, you will get a myriad of answers as this west country city is famous for many things. Most likely answers would include Isambard Brunel’s, Shipbuilding and the term ‘Shipshape and Bristol Fashion’ and the graffiti artist Bansky.
Something that may not immediately spring to most people’s minds is blue glass. However, Bristol Blue Glass is, in fact, world famous.
What is Bristol Blue Glass and why is it famous?
Although no one is exactly sure when Bristol Blue Glass was
first made the story is thought to begin in the 18th century. A
Bristol merchant and potter, Richard Champion, began working with a chemist
called William Cookworthy. Champion was
working with porcelain and, with Cookworthy, searched for high quality cobalt
oxide, which creates a deep yet
bright blue. Champion wanted this blue
glaze decoration on his white porcelain.
Consequently, Cookworthy was able to gain exclusive import
rights to all the cobalt oxide from the Royal Saxon Cobalt Works in Saxony.
Richard Champion illustrated in Hugh Owen’s 200 years of Ceramic Art in Bristol (1873)
The incredible beauty and quality of Bristol Blue Glass saw its popularity rise swiftly, so much so that seventeen glass houses were set up in the city. The most famous makers in the 1780s were father and son team Lazarus and Isaac Jacobs.
Lazarus was a Jewish immigrant from Germany who had a glass cutting firm at 108 Temple Street, Bristol. In 1774, Isaac joined his father’s company at the tender age of seventeen. He was instrumental in turning Bristol Blue Glass into a national brand using the cobalt oxide Cookworthy imported. Isaac oversaw the growth of the company and the expansion of their goods to achieve great success. Notably, their company held a royal warrant and were making glass for the aristocrats of Europe.
Bristol’s glassmakers were invited to demonstrate their skills at the Great Exhibition of 1851, opened by Victoria and Albert. It was during this exhibition that Ruby Glass was made for the first time. They added 24-carat gold to lead crystal to give the glass its ruby red tones.
Despite its rapid rise and huge popularity production of Bristol Blue Glass ended in 1923 due to an economic recession.
The Revival of Bristol Blue Glass
Glassmaking declined for several decades after the 1920s. That is, until James Adlington and Peter Sinclair, held their Hot Glass exhibition in 1988, at Hand Made Glass, Bristol. This directly led to a revival of Bristol’s hand-blown glass industry. The Original Bristol Blue Glass Company was created and it has spawned the careers of many other studio Glassmakers in the Southwest.
The Original Bristol Blue Glass Company
Today, Bristol Blue Glass is produced by The Original Bristol Blue Glass Company based in Brislington. The factory is open 7 days a week, where they offer Daytime tours, evening displays and offsite talks as well as special tours for groups and schools.
of glass blowing are held and the manufacturing process is explained in detail
from start to finish. There are a glass museum, a public viewing gallery and
There is, of course, a wide selection of glass is available for purchase. In addition, the highly skilled in-house engravers offer a wide range of engraving so customers can personalise their purchases.
the glassmakers still make glass the way it was made over 300 years ago.
Bristol Blue Glass is entirely free-blown and handmade, without the use of
moulds and machinery. Therefore, each piece is unique and highly collectable.
Raku ceramics originally gained fame in Japan before spreading across the world. It is known that during the 16th century, the Japanese tea master, Sen no Rikyu started to make a hand-moulded tea bowls for use in the wabi-styled tea ceremony. These tea bowls had a seal that bore the Chinese character for ‘raku’, which can mean ‘ease’ or ‘enjoyment’ and so became the name for that type of bowl. The Raku name and ceramic style was passed down through the generations to become influential in both Japanese culture and literature.
Raku Fired Pottery
Unlike normal pottery firing, where the pieces cool down slowly in the kiln and are removed with gloves, the Raku process means the pots are removed while they are at their maximum temperature. In traditional Japanese Raku firing, the pots are removed while still glowing from the heat and put directly into water or allowed to cool in the open air.
Type of Clay and Glazes used for a Raku Firing
In theory, any sort of clay can be used for Raku ceramics although specific Raku clay can be bought and generally gives the best results. Another important factor when creating Raku ceramics is to consider the types of glazes. Raku is a low fire kiln process, which means that pretty much any low fire glazes should give good results.
Raku Ceramic Art
Raku Ceramic Art House by Jacqui Melhuish
Ceramic raku art, and in particular Japanese Raku ceramics, utilizes smoke and fire in the Raku kiln to create an unpredictable and unique style. After rapid removal from the kiln, the pots are covered with inflammable materials such as sawdust to produce the characteristic cracking effect. Also, the glaze colours take on a more metallic appearance.
The unique and unpredictable results form the basis for its name ‘Raku’ which means “happiness in the accident.” It is also thought to derive from the Japanese characters for “ease” or “enjoyment”. Artists who utilise ‘Raku’ pottery firing may say their work is ‘accidental’ but do not be fooled by their humility. A huge amount of skill and craftsmanship is involved in creating Raku ceramics. Unsurprisingly, Raku ceramics are incredibly popular with lovers of art and interior design.
Street art, which encompasses graffiti art, is typically used to describe images or text drawn on walls and/or buildings. Most street artists tend to favour spray paint, although many are also using standard acrylic paint and brushes. Chalk is favoured by others, although you will notice that they tend to use the pavement as their canvas. Of course, chalk images are temporary, and a few rain clouds put an end to the artwork! Street style graffiti art, by comparison, can last for years as it is difficult to remove.
Graffiti Artists – Vandals or Visionaries?
Graffiti art of some form has been around for centuries, with examples dating back to the ancient Greeks and Egyptians. However, the style we recognise today really started to take off in 70’s New York. Young people began to spray stylised monograms (tags) or bright graphic images (wildstyle) on buildings and subway trains. These young people would use graffiti for different means. For some, it was simply a way to mark their territory (tags).
This was particularly true for New York’s gangland culture. Others were, most likely, simply bored and disenfranchised with society and wanted to deface a property just because they could. But for some, the medium was key for making a social or political point in a public place. Together with the rise of Hip-Hop culture, graffiti artists brought urban Black/African American culture into the mainstream.
However, regardless of motivation, marking or painting property without the owner’s permission is considered an act of vandalism. Indeed, it is a crime in many countries to this day. Therefore, most graffiti artists worked under cover of night and hid their identity to avoid arrest. Keeping one’s identity secret can be helpful in other ways as seen for the Bristol-based artist Banksy.
Street Art in the Mainstream – Banksy & Beyond
Banksy, is a graffiti artist, political activist and film director.
He became famous for his satirical and subversive street art . He combined dark humour with graffiti using the distinctive stencilling technique. You can see his work dotted across Bristol on various buildings, walls and boats to name a few. One of his images outside a sexual health clinic was famously destined for removal. After a public outcry, however, the city council backtracked. Banksy’s popularity has grown ever upwards. His work has featured in many exhibitions across the world even though we still don’t know for sure who he is.
I would argue, as do others, that the fact that Banksy’s identity remains unverified is a key factor. He has capitalized on his anonymity. The shroud of mystery only adds to the value of his art. Whatever you may think of his work, he has certainly changed the street art landscape for himself and others. Indeed the well known term “the Banksy effect”, illustrates how interest in other street artists has grown due to Banksy’s success.
Street Art and the City
Street art features in many major cities and towns across the globe. In fact, a whole industry around street art walking tours have sprung up in recent times. Living in Bristol means that not only do we have the works of Banksy on our doorstep, but also many other street artists. They are both local and from further afield and have made their mark in Bristol. North Street in Bedminster, for example, is a hotbed of street art and the annual UpFest – a street art festival – has been a hit since it began.
I have also had the pleasure and the privilege of doing street art tours in Buenos Aires, Argentina and Jaco, Costa Rica. Both places feature some amazing work from local and international artists. Street art is helping to not only create jobs but is also helping to brighten up and regenerate the look and feel of many unloved areas of towns and cities.
So, an art-form that was seen as vandalism, subversive and a general nuisance has become a global phenomenon. The works of street artists like Banksy have become so valued they are selling for millions in Sotheby’s (and self-destructing – but that’s another story!). Other artists have become so popular they have secured major retail collaborations, such as that between the Argentinian street artist Fio Silva and Nike.
Whether or not street art is your cup of tea (personally I love it), it seems urban styles are here to stay, at least for the foreseeable. Or, until it becomes so mainstream and another far cooler art movement emerges!
“In this world, nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes” A quote attributed to Benjamin Franklin. Unfortunately, it is true; we cannot avoid either. Although some people in this world seem to be doing a good job of avoiding the latter! But I digress, as this blog is about keepsake urns.
No one really likes to think too much about that moment, when we and our loved ones must depart this mortal coil. It can strike fear and anxiety into the heart. When a family member, friend or pet dies it is, of course, often a time filled with sadness and longing.
We all have different ideas about how we want to honour the dead. For many holding on to the earthly remains of a beloved person or pet is incredibly important and can be soothing. It can help not only with the grieving process but also keep the memories alive.
Funerary urns, also known as cremation urns, urns for ashes or keepsake urns, have been used by many civilisations for centuries. Pottery urns have been discovered from as early as 7000 BC at a number of sites in China. It is thought these urns were used mainly for children, but also occasionally for adults.
Honouring the Departed
Nowadays more and more people choose cremation. Besides the traditional funeral urns for burial (internment), some choose to scatter all the ashes in a place special to the departed and/or family.
Scattering, however, is irreversible. Or, if you bury the urn you may not be able to retrieve it. Then, if the family moves away, they may feel like they have lost that person/pet all over again. For those reasons, and more others prefer to have a keepsake urn. These can be used to keep part of the ashes. Keepsake urns are a great way to keep your loved ones or beloved pet’s ashes close to you, and safe in the family home. More recently, keeping the ashes of two people, in so-called companion urns, is gaining popularity.
Keepsake urns are easily filled and will permanently hold a portion of ashes that can be kept as a very special keepsake.
Types of Urns
So, what is an urn exactly? Essentially it is a vase with a lid. It tends to have a round body with a narrow neck, with a fitted lid. Calling a vessel of this shape and structure an ‘urn’ is more to do with how it is used rather than its shape. Therefore, in today’s world, the word “urn’ has become synonymous with funerary urns, which may be used to bury remains or hold cremated ashes or as grave goods. They may be made from a variety of materials such as ceramic, wood, stone, glass, or steel.
For a long time, urns have tended to be rather sombre in colour and style. More recently there has been a trend towards more colourful and decorative urns. As people choose to commemorate their loved ones in something more joyous and celebratory. Indeed, some people actively request that their family and friends celebrate the life they had. With this ‘joyous’ viewpoint in mind, pretty and luxurious urns, in vibrant colourways are available.
Do what’s right for you
Of course, however, you choose to honour your loved ones, it must be right for yourselves and in keeping with their wishes. But, when that sad time comes to pass, it may bring comfort to think of this “Feel sad they have gone, but also be glad for the time you’ve had”.
Biba is an iconic fashion house synonymous with the swinging sixties and the Mod look of that time.
The company was founded and run by Barbara Hulanicki and her husband Stephen Fitz-Simon. Barbara Hulanicki was born in Warsaw, Poland and was the daughter of a diplomat. She moved to the UK to study illustration at the Brighton College of Art. She initially worked as a freelance fashion illustrator for various popular magazines which included Vogue, Tatler and Women’s Wear Daily.
Barbara’s husband, Stephen, spotted the rise and influence of photography over fashion illustration and persuaded Barbara to start up a new venture – a small mail order company which they named Biba (after Barbara’s younger sister). Barbara and Stephen realised that by offering a mail order service they had the opportunity to try out new designs cheaply. By testing the popularity of their designs in this way they avoided the costly mistakes of potentially unpopular big design runs. From those humble beginnings, a fashion powerhouse arose!
Turning Point and Major Success
The major turning point for the fashion house was a pink gingham dress with a headscarf. The design was similar to one recently worn by Brigitte Bardot, and as such, they expected a reasonable, yet, a modest order of around 3000 units. However, following a feature in the fashion section of the Daily Mirror, orders went stratospheric (for that time) and 17000 units were ordered.
Spurred on from that mail order success Barbara opened her first shop in Kensington, London – Biba had officially landed on the fashion map!
One of the pioneers of the Mod look, Biba clothing emphasised the legs. Whilst not the inventor of the miniskirt, Biba, certainly became “the” place to go to for the miniskirts and the fashion of the swinging sixties.
Inspired by the flamboyant and decadent Art Nouveau and Pre-Raphelite periods, and earthy colours, the Biba look was embraced by young women who flocked to the stores. It was ‘affordable fashion’ that catered to the masses. One might argue that Biba was the forerunner of fast fashion of the likes of Primark and H&M. Certainly, Barbara’s business model was to ‘pile them high and sell them cheap’.
Although Biba’s price point targeted students and young working women rather than the moneyed elite like most London boutiques, Biba became popular with models, singers and TV stars. Twiggy famously wore Biba as did Cilla Black.
Several stores opened and the fashion house and the brand went from strength to strength. The stores themselves were innovative with respect to their art deco styling and also, the young, friendly and approachable staff. Barbara certainly knew a thing or two about ‘user experience’ and the shops became a place to visit and ‘hang out’.
Barbara sold her rights to the label in 1970, but after nearly two decades of success, Biba closed in 1976. But the story doesn’t end there. The label was resurrected a number of times with different designers and management teams at the helm. None have managed to return the label to its original glory. Nonetheless, Biba remains a successful high street brand, existing in big department stores.
Barbara herself continued to work very successfully as a fashion and interior designer. She was awarded an OBE in the 2012 New Year Honours list for her services to the fashion industry.
Andy Warhol Art is world famous and instantly recognisable, as is the man himself.
Andy Warhol (born Andrew Warhola, 6 August 1928 – 22 February 1987) was a key figure behind the Pop Art movement. He was the third child of Czechoslovakian immigrants, from a working-class neighbourhood of Pittsburgh, USA.
Andy Warhol is considered to be the most famous, influential and respected artist of the 20th century. The are many reasons for this, too many to be covered in any depth in this short blog.
So where to begin? Well, Andy Warhol was an artist, designer and producer and a key ‘player’ of the New York social scene of the 1960s and 70’s. In ‘old school’ term’s he was called a ‘mover and a shaker’, or in today’s Social Media terms he would undoubtedly be known as ‘An Influencer’.
Warhol was a notorious and controversial figure. His studio in New York, The Factory, was a hub for celebrities, intellectuals, drag queens, models, playwright and Bohemians. It was a melting pot of cultures, art, money and people from different levels of society and persuasions.
Andy Warhol art references popular culture – the images are iconic. A cynic might say that Andy Warhol simply created art about things he happened to like and it’s just too ‘obvious’. Others might say that man and his work is famous for ‘being famous’. He was around at the right time and knew the right people.
However, there are far more depth and creativity to Andy Warhol Art than you might imagine at first glance. Even though he famously quipped “Art is anything you can get away with”.
Andy Warhol Art
Andy Warhol Art covers a range of media. These include painting, illustration, cinematography, sculpture and silkscreen printing.
Andy’s screen prints are arguably his most famous work. For example, most people will recognise the Marylin Monroe and Campbell’s soup prints as widely celebrated pieces of art.
Andy Warhol used his art to explore the relationship between popular culture – celebrity, advertising and consumerism.
Popular culture is anything that appeals to the masses is found in our day to day lives. It reflects products that are mass produced for mass consumption by mass media. For instance, in the 60’s Coca-Cola and Campbell’s soup were all the rage.
Andy Warhol Art reflects the turbulent 1960s. Consumer products, sexual liberation, rock music, drug use, tragic death and a heavy dose of shopping!
Warhol used the medium of silkscreen printing to create his hard edges and flat areas of colour. The process allowed him to create repetition in his work with little effort. The artistic embodiment of mass production – a recurrent theme in Warhol’s work.
He wanted to reflect capitalist society, which was beginning to flourish, and consequently the need to consume more, quickly and with little or no effort.
Warhol’s Green Coca-Cola Bottles print is an example of his insight and genius. The order and structure of the piece display balance. There is a visual contrast between the crisp white background and the traced green strokes. The green and white colours compliment and intensify the red company logo. Finally, one can link the dark green colour with money and the bright red Coca-Cola logo as a symbol of power.
So, what appears a simple image of stacked bottles, something you might see in a supermarket for instance, actually tells you a huge story in one fell swoop. And isn’t that what all great art does?
Andy Warhol’s Legacy
Andy Warhol died at the age of 58 in 1957. Since his untimely death, there have been many retrospective exhibitions, books, documentaries and feature films.
The Andy Warhol Museum in his native city of Pittsburgh holds a large and permanent collection of his work. It is also the largest museum in the USA dedicated to a single artist. Andy Warhol Art is very collectable and includes some of the most expensive paintings ever sold.
Born in 1912, Jackson Pollock was a world-famous American painter who is considered to be the ‘main man’ behind the abstract expressionist movement.
Abstract expressionist paintings, like Jackson Pollock art, share several broad characteristics. They show forms not drawn from the real world and can often look chaotic. In particular, abstract expressionism often features gestural brush-strokes and free, spontaneous, and personal emotional expression. To some, it might seem as if a child could have painted them. This is simply not true. Jackson Pollock art is feted around the globe and has had many imitators of the years, but nothing comes close to the works of the master himself.
Jackson Pollock Artistic Influences
Pollock was greatly influenced by the works of Thomas Hart Benton, Pablo Picasso and Joan Miro. In particular, the work of the Ukranian American artist Janet Sobel, is thought to have had a direct influence on Jackson Pollock’s work. Indeed, she is thought to be the first artist to have used the drip painting technique.
Jackson Pollock began to study painting at the Manual Arts High School, Los Angeles. He was introduced to the use of liquid paint in 1936 and a few years later he started working in a new way. His technique consisted of using sticks, trowels, or knives to fling and drip thinned enamel paint, as well as pouring paint directly from the can, onto an unstretched canvas laid out on the studio floor.
This direct, physical engagement with his materials brought gravity, velocity, and improvisation into the artistic process. These works, which he made between 1947 and 1950, came to be known as “drip paintings,” and are his most famous paintings.
In this way, the paint literally flowed from his chosen tool onto the canvas. By defying the convention of painting on an upright surface, he added a new dimension by being able to view and apply paint to his canvases from all directions.
Pollock’s drips, also called “action paintings,” revolutionized the potential for contemporary art and the development of Abstract Expressionism.
Rise to Fame
In 1943, Pollock signed a contract with Peggy Guggenheim and a commission to create a large mural (2.4 x 6.1 m) for the entry to her new townhouse. Following advice from one of Peggy’s friends, Pollock painted the work on canvas, rather than the wall, so that it would be portable. This mural was praised by the influential art critic Clement Greenberg. When he first looked at it, he said “I took one look at it and I thought, ‘Now that’s great art,’ and I knew Jackson Pollock was the greatest painter this country had produced”.
The first exhibition of Pollock’s paintings described his work as “…volcanic. It has fire. It is unpredictable. It is undisciplined. It spills out of itself in a mineral prodigality, not yet crystallized”. Jackson Pollock’s fame and notoriety grew and in 1956, Time magazine named him “Jack the Dripper” – a somewhat cheeky reference to his painting style.
Pollock’s career unfolded at a time when mass media took off. This meant that new ideas and images in art quickly entered the mainstream. The rise of mass media clearly aided Jackson Pollock’s career. His work featured in a four-page spread, on August 8, 1949, in Life magazine. The article asked, “Is [Pollock] the greatest living painter in the United States?” The article changed Pollock’s life overnight and his work became wildly popular. Suffice to say Jackson Pollock art had arrived on the world stage!
Change of Direction
At the peak of his fame, Jackson abruptly abandoned the drip style. His work after 1951 was darker in colour, including a collection painted in black on unprimed canvas. These paintings, also known as his ‘Black Pourings’ were unpopular and when he showed them at the Betty Parsons Gallery in New York, not one sold. His collectors were simply not interested in this new style.
Jackson later returned to using colour and continued with figurative elements in his paintings. During this period, Pollock moved to the Sidney Janis Gallery. This was a more commercial gallery and demand for his work from collectors increased dramatically.
During his lifetime, Pollock enjoyed considerable fame and notoriety. Yet, he was considered a reclusive character with a volatile personality. The pressure to meet the increased demand, along with personal frustration, meant that Pollock struggled with alcoholism for most of his life. He eventually died, while driving under the influence, at the age of 44.
Jackson Pollock Art Legacy
A memorial retrospective of Jackson Pollock art took place in December 1956, the year after his death, at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City, and again in 1967.
Jackson Pollock Art remains one of the most influential of the 20th century. His work continues to be honoured, with many exhibitions at both the MoMA in New York and the Tate in London.
Here at Boha Head Office, we are all in a ‘spin’ and can hardly contain our excitement and delight. Why is that you might ask? Well, it’s because we are super excited to announce that one of the paintings from our collection is set to feature in a major Hollywood picture!
Universal Pictures is in production of a new movie which is sure to be next summer’s blockbuster. Currently entitled “Fast & Furious Spin Off ” the title of this major production is a closely guarded secret, but we do have a few industry snippets to share.
In the driving seat, so to speak, is David Leitch. Director of the highly acclaimed ‘Atomic Blonde’ and Marvel Studios ‘Deadpool 2’. David brings his directorial talents to the Fast & Furious franchise.
On screen, Dwayne Johnson, aka The Rock, and Britain’s very own Jason Statham reprise their titular roles as Hobbs and Shaw respectively.
In this spin-off of the highly successful “The Fate of the Furious”, Johnson’s US Diplomatic Security Agent, Luke Hobbs, forms an unlikely alliance with Statham’s Deckard Shaw and his MI5 agent sister, played by Vanessa Kirby. Vanessa is best known for her BAFTA winning role in “The Crown”.
The unlikely trio join forces to defeat a common foe, played by another of the UK’s highly successful actors – Idris Elba.
Idris is famous for many major film and TV roles and his most recent appearances include “Avengers: Infinity War” and “Luther”.
The painting selected to adorn the set of this major production is K Leeson’s ‘Canary Wharf’. As the name suggests, the painting was named after the business hub and tower situated in the Square Mile of London’s financial epicentre and is also where the artist resides. Leeson painted the picture after observing people dashing to work in the rush hour and turned his talents to capturing their reflected essence.
So, when Hollywood came searching for set production pieces we knew instantly that Leeson’s ‘Canary Wharf’ would be ideal. The ‘fast and furious’ pace of the film certainly fits with the frenetic, and not to mention glamorous, image depicted by K Leeson. In addition, Leeson’s bold and colourful brushstrokes perfectly embody the daring and courageous nature of the Fast and Furious franchise.
‘Canary Wharf’ will feature in the home of Kirby’s MI5 agent character (name not yet disclosed), and will be seen in the movie. It may also form part of the clips that will be used in advertising, marketing and promotion of the film, including its Trailers and Electronic Press Kit.
Leeson’s fantastic oil paintings have been exhibited in the UK, US and Spain and ‘Fay in Blue’ was selected for the Royal Academy of Arts Summer Exhibition. Although we were unable to procure that particular painting, we are pleased to say that our vaults hold another painting entitled ‘Gaia in Blue’
Leeson’s works predominately feature portraiture of women through the ages, and Gaia in Blue, is another great example of his bold creative style.
Walking past the E.1027—a small white holiday house perched on a bluff overlooking the bay of Monaco—you wouldn’t notice anything out of the ordinary. Like most contemporary homes in the region, it’s characterised by sleek, clean geometric lines, a design that affords spectacular views of the surrounding area, and a light, airy mien. There is, however, one significant difference between this home and its peers: It was designed in 1926 and completed in 1929.
The mastermind behind this innovative piece of architecture was not Le Corbusier, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, or any of their well-known contemporaries. Instead, the E.1027 was designed by a middle-aged Irish woman whose name few remembered until recent years, when interest in her work was revived in the popular imagination. Perhaps this is unsurprising considering not only the architect’s gender, but also the fact that she was not trying to make history when she built the E.1027. Always one to shun self-promotion, Eileen Gray was simply trying to design a holiday home for herself and her lover (Jean Badovici, editor of L’Architecture Vivante)—a relaxing retreat that suited her particular sensibilities. Indeed, she even initially allowed Badovici, who by all accounts struggled with a lack of real talent, to take the lion’s share of the credit for her design.
By the time Eileen Gray began seeing Badovici in the early 1920s, she was a self-made woman with her own means (funds she would often use to support Badovici’s ventures). She was an established interior designer with a popular Parisian gallery, Jean Désert, whose clients included the Rothschilds and Elsa Schiaparelli. Her lack of formal training in architecture did nothing to dissuade her from diving headlong into the design of a thoroughly modernist abode. After all, she was used to deftly turning her hand to new disciplines. Calmly and methodically, she taught herself drafting by studying the plans of Adolf Loos, Gerrit Rietveld, and Le Corbusier. She would not only astound the latter with the grace and ease she demonstrated in building the E.1027, she would correct him: She saw that the house is more than just “a machine for living,” as Le Corbusier purported. Under her careful guidance it became much more; “A house is not a machine to live in,” Gray wrote. “It is the shell of man, his extension, his release, his spiritual emanation. Not only its visual harmony but its organization as a whole, the whole work combined together, make it human in the most profound sense.” To Gray, architecture was alive and breathing, not merely cold and supremely efficient.
Gray’s unique capacity for independent vision had been the guiding force throughout her life. Born Kathleen Eileen Moray in 1893 in Enniscorthy, County Wexford, Eileen Gray could have wiled away her earthly existence without ever working. Her parents were the wealthy owners of a substantial estate and her mother had inherited the title of Baroness, which she attempted to pass on to her children. However, Eileen knew early on that resting on the laurels of her birthright was simply not for her. As author Brian Dillon wrote in The London Review of Books, Gray thought titles were pointless relics of antiquity; “trappings fit only for operettas.” Eschewing a life of ease, Gray enrolled in the Slade Academy of Art in London in 1898 to study painting.
Though Gray was a shy woman—and therefore often interpreted as being remote—she made a number of influential connections during her tenure at the Slade. She befriended the writer, painter, and critic Wyndham Lewis (who would later go on to co-found the Vorticist movement), along with potter Bernard Leach, explorer Henry Savage Landor, and the sculptor Kathleen Bruce. She even allowed the infamous Aleister Crowley to court her, mostly because he was, in her words, “very lonely.” It was not until she passed by a lacquer workshop while on a walk in 1905 that a match was set to the tinder of fertile imagination, however. Enamoured with what she saw, Gray humbly approached the owner of the shop and asked him to take her on as an apprentice. After many hours of work—and a fruitful partnership with Japanese lacquer artist Seizo Sugawara—Eileen Gray Designer firmly established herself as one of the finest young lacquer artists in Paris, where she had by then taken up residence.
Naturally, Gray soon outgrew the limits of lacquer and expanded into the realm of interior design. In Paris in the 1910s, she mingled with a gender-bending, artistic milieu of eccentrics while extending her creative reach to touch furniture and rugs. However, while Gray’s interiors enjoyed great success almost immediately, her aesthetic still paid a great deal of homage to Fin-de-Siècle movements like Art Nouveau; her interiors were defined by curving lines and naturalistic motifs. It was only when she designed the Lota Apartment in 1922 that her modernist inclinations started to make themselves more evident. Within this interior was a piece of furniture rendered in a style that was unlike anything of its day: The black leather Bibendum Chair, which featured several sleek tubes curving around its base, one stacked on top of the other.
By the time Gray was invited to design a room to exhibit at the Salon des Artistes Décorateurs, her new direction—and her unique vision—had firmly taken hold. Her completed work, the Monte Carlo room, contained white multi-hinged screens and austere furniture in a decidedly Cubist style. Like all truly original works of art, it violently divided critics upon its debut. Some decried it as a “room of horror,” while others celebrated its innate, stripped-down harmony. Badovici, evidently, was a fan; it was the Monte Carlo room that impelled him to seek Gray out and encourage her to try her hand at architecture.
In architecture, Eileen Gray Designer found the most complete release for her meticulous attention to detail. The E.1027 is a marvel of hidden storage and built-in features meant to enhance residents’ ease of living, such as a swivel table that allows the owner to eat in bed without fear of crumbs. As Brian Dillon described it, the E.1027 “Is a feat of compression as well as design: its two floors contain a living room, two small bedrooms, terraces, loggias, bathrooms and tiny quarters for a maid. Almost all the rooms give out onto the terraces, and a spiral staircase rises through the centre of the house to a glass cabin on the flat roof… Strip windows run the length of each floor, with an intricate system of five different types of shutter, some of them opening and sliding on rails, eliding the distinction between inside and outside. A staircase descends from the upper terrace to a sunken concrete solarium with built-in recliner, Gray having toyed with and rejected the idea of a pool.” At the same time, Gray never let her passion for efficient spaces overshadow real human needs. She avoided Le Corbusier’s theory of promenade architecturale (the idea that the observer should have a clear pathway through any built space), focusing instead on the creation of truly private spaces and the idea of home as one’s individual sanctuary. She believed that even in the smallest house, “Each person must feel alone, completely alone. The civilised man needs coherent form. He knows the modesty of certain acts; he needs to isolate himself.”
Unfortunately, Le Corbusier did not take well to Eileen Gray’s professional critique—despite the fact that she was also a great admirer of his. Le Corbusier “Coveted [the E.1027] with a professional regard that verged on personal spite,” in all likelihood envious of the way the frankly inexperienced Gray had upstaged more seasoned architects like himself. Thus began a long, troubled epoch in the history of both the house and Gray’s life. When Gray moved out of the E.1027 after her relationship with Badovici soured (Gray would never marry or have children, preferring to live unencumbered by domesticity), Le Corbusier moved in and painted a series of bright, garish murals on the walls of the minimalist abode—an act Gray openly called “vandalism.” Le Corbusier would even go so far as to build a wooden cabin nearby, so that he could gaze upon Gray’s creation. It’s even been reported that he died—from drowning—while swimming in sight of the home.
Eileen Gray the Designer laboured on in relative obscurity, working sporadically as an architect and interior designer in France and taking up a very reclusive lifestyle. Meanwhile, the E.1027 changed hands several times, from Badovici to Le Corbusier’s friend Marie-Louise Schelbert, to her doctor, who was murdered on the premises by his own gardener in 1996. The iconic furniture within the home was auctioned off piece by piece, and the natural elements that Gray had carefully studied when designing the building (in order to allow for maximum light penetration and airflow) were allowed to take a heavy toll on its exterior. Had it not been for an alliance between Michael Likierman, a British businessman, Robert Rebutato, the son of the owner of L’Etoile de Mer, and the French government agency Conservatoire du Littoral, the house would have completely succumbed to damage.
Today, the restored remains of Gray’s vision appear to be safe, at least for the time being. They speak of an independent woman’s often embattled quest to earn recognition on her own terms and bear many scars. Le Corbusier’s murals cannot be removed, given his own enduring status and their resultant importance; their colours still stand out in garish contrast to their surroundings, confronting Gray’s subdued genius. The bullet holes that were in them—the work of Nazi soldiers—have been patched over. Altogether, the E.1027 is a “rougher, cruder” place now than when it was first built, the privacy that was at the heart of Gray’s life and ethos having been thoroughly invaded. But, on the back wall of the main living space, one can still find the large nautical chart that Gray herself placed there, claiming that it “evokes distant voyages and gives rise to reverie.” Fortunately, something of Eileen Gray Designer dreams have been allowed to remain.