In October Huisraad Modern bought a rare Eileen Gray black lacquered brick screen at the decade's most publicised mid century modern furniture auction in South Africa. It was the auctioning off of the well known Prop House collection owned by Capetonians Will Hinton and Tess Wolpe.
The Huisraad Modern Eileen Gray brick screen
For a moment we fantasised that we miraculously came into possession of an unaccounted for original, Japanese lacquer, Eileen Gray brick screen that she hand made in the 1920’s in Paris.
The process to find out more about this screen gave us a glimpse into the life of one of furniture designs’ most enigmatic historic personalities.
Was it not for an Eileen Gray lacquered screen that Yves Saint Laurent bought for a record amount of $36 000 at an auction in 1972, the life and work of Gray might have disappeared into oblivion for those who weren’t into architecture and design per se. To pay such an extravagant price for a piece of modern antique furniture alerted the world outside of architecture, art and design. By the time Yves Saint Laurent bought this red screen, Gray – a quiet Parisian – was already in her nineties. But suddenly the spotlight was on her and her “machine age utopian vision of modernism” in furniture design that, with her profound understanding of space, were now recognised as decades ahead of her peers.
Eileen Gray grew up in the Irish countryside and went to Paris in the early 1900’s to study art. She quickly became quite noticeable as she and girlfriend, singer and actress Marie-Louise Damien, dressed in expensive designer outfits, drove around town in a convertible with a pet panther in the back.
It was in Paris that Gray worked under Japanese lacquer master Seizo Sugawara and where she perfected the art of hand lacquering furniture. It is here that the brick screen was conceptualised – a commission for a friend. It is on record that Gray hand made eleven of these screens: one plain, five white and five black ones – two of which she kept in her Paris apartment, where she led a very quiet and solitary life up to her death at the age of 98 in 1976. One of her own two brick screens sold in 2016 for almost R27m.
The first brick screens in Paris, 1922
Gray, sitting in front of her own screens shortly before her death in 1976
In the late 1920’s Gray moved to the South of France with then lover Jean Badovici, where she designed a mansion and all the furniture inside, became friends with Le Corbusier (who, it is alleged, was furiously jealous of her self taught architectural insights and skill.) The relationship with Badovici did not last and after four years she walked out, never to return to the villa where Le Corbusier, in her absence, made massive wall paintings all over the house. The villa served as a German army base during the second world war and soldiers used the paintings for target shooting.
Le Corbusier, "defacing" the Eileen Gray mansion
After the explosion of interest resulting from the enormous bid by Yves Saint Laurent in 1972, Gray supervised the reproduction of more brick screens and also sold the licence of all her furniture designs to friend and confidante, Zeev Aram.
Aram built his modernist furniture empire around Gray’s designs and is still selling Eileen Gray brick screens, produced by German company ClassiCon today for around R150 000 apiece.
Our screen, we learnt, was first bought at the Milan furniture fair in the 1970’s or early 1980’s, by London based movie prop company, Set Pieces. This makes it an interesting piece, as it was in the time that the licence was sold to Aram, but also in the time that Gray supervised the manufacturing of a handful of black brick screens herself. We contacted both Aram and ClassiCon but they did not want to verify the origin of our screen conclusively. However, Dr Jennifer Goff, curator of the Eileen Gray collection at the national Museum of Ireland and the world’s foremost expert on the work of Eileen Gray, has confirmed that our brick screen “is definitely a licenced 1970’s recommission made by Aram or ClassiCon who have the world wide licence.” Aram only started marking these sceens in a golden emboss in the 2000’s.
The closest resemblance to our screen is this one on esteemed, mid century furniture curators website, 1st Dibs.
We are now selling our Eileen Gray screen. If you are interested in this piece, it is available here.