Courtesy of her father, in 1898 at the age of twenty, Gray attended classes at the Slade School of Fine Art, where she studied painting. She was one of the first women to study there. Whilst enrolling, she made acquaintances with Jessie Gavin and Kathleen Bruce.
In 1900 (the year of her father’s death), Eileen Gray and her mother went to Paris to experience the Exposition Universelle; this was Eileen’s first visit to Paris. The Exposition Universelle was a world’s fair that celebrated the achievements of the past century and hoped to encourage the new work in the next. The main style there was Art Nouveau. Gray was a fan of the work that Charles Rennie Mackintosh had exhibited there.
Soon after, Gray moved to Paris alongside her friends from the Slade School; Gavin and Bruce. Eileen Gray continued her studies at the Académie Julian and the Académie Colarossi. For some four of five years after the move, Gray moved back and forth from Paris to Ireland to London, and then in 1905, she settled back in London as her mother took ill. Eileen Gray made use of her time in London and rejoined the Slade, but found that her drawing and painting courses were becoming less satisfying.
Gray came across a lacquer repair shop in Soho where she asked the shop owner whether he could show her the fundamentals of lacquer work as it had taken her fancy. The owner had many contacts from the lacquer industry and when Gray moved back to France in 1906, to the relatively large apartment in Paris where she remained for most of her working life, she met one of them; Seizo Sugawara (or Sugawara-san). He came from an area of Japan that was known for its decorative lacquer work. She found after working with Seizo for four years that she had developed the lacquer disease on her hands, however she persisted in her work and it was not until she was thirty-five that she exhibited her work. When she did, however, it was a moderate success.
In 1914, when World War I broke out, Eileen and Seizo Sugawara moved to London together where their lacquering was not successful and they relied on her family’s financial support. As the end of the war neared, they returned to Paris and Gray was given the job of decorating an apartment on rue de Lota. She designed rugs and lamps for the house and furnished it with lacquered panels and her self-designed furniture. It was reviewed by several art critics and most thought it was innovative and described it as de luxe modern living.
Given a boost from the success of the apartment on rue de Lota, Gray opened up a small gallery in Paris solely for exhibiting and selling her work. As she was too timid to be there herself, she made sure every aspect of the place looked as good as it could be, so there would be some presence of her there anyway.
In 1923, she designed the Bedroom-Boudoir for the Monte-Carlo, at the Salon des Artistes Décorateurs, a design show, but the reviews were terrible. However, she contributed to the design of the Salon d'Automne and that was praised by Le Corbusier and by the architect Robert Mallet-Stevens. Around this time, she focused on architecture and furniture design. She designed many houses and buildings that looked abstract and then she often designed the furniture for the interior. An architecture critic said “Eileen Gray occupies the centre of the modern movement”; she was slowly starting to become recognised as an established designer and architect.
In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Gray was involved with the Union des Artistes Modernes which had well-known members. However, Gray was becoming more and more solitary and was involved in little social activity. She designed and furnished herself a new home, Tempe à Pailla, after four years of architectural study and remained there for most of her time and continued her work with keen interest. In 1937, she agreed to assist Le Corbusier in his pavilion at the Paris Exposition, where Gray exhibited her design for a holiday centre.
As World War II broke out, Gray remained at her own home for the first year of the war until she was forced to evacuate. She moved inland and after the war discovered that her flat in Saint-Tropez, where she kept all her prized possessions, had been blown up and that Tempe à Pailla had been looted.
After the War, Gray returned to Paris and led a very reclusive life and seldom made contact with anybody except her small group of close women friends, whom she knew from before the war. Now and then, she would begin work on a new project, but nothing major. She was almost forgotten by the design industry. When she was around seventy, she started to lose her sight and hearing, yet when she was eighty, she transformed an old hay-barn into a summer home; she soon moved there and continued to work.
Shortly before her death, Gray’s work was shown in an exhibition in London and her work was remembered fondly by the public. At the age of ninety-eight, Kathleen Eileen Moray Gray died in her apartment on rue Bonaparte in Paris. Throughout her career she had been independent and did not often work alongside others. She was quite unusual in her life as there were very few female designers around. It was not until after her death that her work was truly appreciated.
Shortly thereafter, persuaded by Le Corbusier and Jean Badovici among others, she turned her interests to architecture. In 1924 Gray and Badovici began work on the house E-1027 in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin in southern France (near Monaco). The codename stands for the names of the couple: E for Eileen, 10 for Jean (the tenth letter of the alphabet), 2 for Badovici and 7 for Gray. L-shaped and flat-roofed with floor-to-ceiling windows and a spiral stairway to the guest room, E-1027 was both open and compact. Gray designed the furniture as well as collaborated with Badovici on its structure. Her circular glass E-1027 table and rotund Bibendum armchair were inspired by the recent tubular steel experiments of Marcel Breuer at the Bauhaus (who had been inspired, in turn, by Mart Stam). Le Corbusier was quite impressed by the house, and built a summer house behind the house. Le Corbusier left his mark on the building in the form of several colourful wall murals. Gray (while overjoyed at Le Corbusier's liking of the house) was disappointed at the murals as they destroyed the stark minimalist walls which she sought. When Le Corbusier died in 1965 he was swimming in the sea directly in front of E-1027.
The house has been in poor repair for years, but plans for its renovation are being prepared by the French government, who have designated it as a French National Cultural Monument. As a result the state of France and the city of Roquebrune Cap Martin - through the national agency "Conservatoire du Littoral"). - bought the villa in 1999 and made it secure provisionally. Visiting E.1027 in the early month of 2008 it seems the devastated condition will be history in the near future. The building is surrounded by a scaffold, the property is gated with a fence recently installed and building worker are busy in- and outside the building. A signboard informs that E.1027 will be restored: the restoration is an initiative of the state of France, the department „Alpes Maritimes“ and the city of Roquebrune (bearing 50% / 10% / 40% of the expenses).
In 1968, a complimentary magazine article quickly grew into an unexpected hit, and the Bibendum chair and E-1027 table went back into production, soon to become modern furniture classics. Following the purchase of her archive in 2002, the National Museum of Ireland at Collins Barracks, Dublin opened a permanent exhibition of her work. On 8 November 1972, the Doucet sale added to the interest which continues to this day in the 'antiques' of the twentieth century. Gray's 'Le Destin' screen was featured in the sale and went for $36,000. Collectors entered the chase, and Yves Saint Laurent's interest completed the mythification of her image.
The chair was designed for a milliner; Madame Mathieu Lévy who was a highly successful boutique owner which sold stylish hats. Lévy had commissioned Gray to re-design her apartment on rue de Lota in Paris. It was hoped to be new and original, with innovative designs. The process took four, painstaking years; from 1917 to 1921. During this time, Eileen Gray created the Bibendum chair along with the interior walls, furnishings, rugs and lamps. With Gray’s disapproval of the moulded walls that had previously been installed, she put up lacquered panels instead. She wanted to create the apartment so that it fulfilled aspirations, suited Lévy’s lifestyle and would go along with any particular mood. The Bibendum Chair was relatively large; its depth approximately 840mm and its height 740 mm tall.
The visible part of the frame of the Bibendum i.e. the legs, were made of a polished, chromium plated, stainless steel tube. The framing of the actual seat was made of beechwood and there was rubber webbing that was inter-woven across the base of the seat to provide added comfort. The seat, back and arm rests encased in soft, pale leather. Gray made a point of using plain coverings for this particular chair as well as another, the Serpent Chair which was simple, plain red. She also designed the Pirogue Boat Bed which was also completely plain. This was so that the apartment would not look too cluttered or messy and so that the eye would be drawn, first of all, to the tribal art on display. The furniture in the apartment on rue de Lota, in particular the Bibendum Chair, was all extremely comfortable.
Today, a full grain leather coated Bibendum Chair would sell for an approximate price of £2300. The chair was designed for the room so that it looked inviting and made you want to sit down in it. As the apartment was being designed for a trendy, modern, young woman, Eileen Gray’s wish was to make it quite alternative and daring. The Bibendum Chair in itself was hardly like anything ever seen before and its originality was quite amazing at the time.
The Bibendum Chair was designed as part of the modernist movement which was completely different from her earlier, more traditional work. She decided to make the change in style to simply make “progress”. The art critics loved the chair and reviews in papers and magazines exclaimed that it was a “triumph of modern living”. Thanks to her great achievement with the Bibendum chair and the other furnishings designed at the apartment on rue de Lota, Gray was given a huge moral boost, so she made the decision of opening up her own gallery in 1922 (see biography). Madame Mathieu Lévy’s commission provided a great financial success for Gray, and thanks to this, she did no longer need to rely on her family's financial support.