Winona Ryder is to take the title role in a new
film on the life of Irish designer Eileen Gray.
Frank McDonald visits E1027, the villa she built in the south
of France in 1929, with film maker Mary McGuckian
Eileen Gray, the long-neglected Irish
avant-garde designer who spent most of her life in France, is
finally to be celebrated in film, with Winona Ryder cast in the
starring role. And producer-director Mary McGuckian knows exactly
how to present it – as a richly deserved “apology” to Gray by the
great modernist architect Le Corbusier.
Titled "The Price of Desire, McGuckian’s latest movie will tell “the
controversial story of how [Swiss-born] Le Corbusier effectively
effaced the phenomenally influential and inspirational contribution
of the elegant and elusive Eileen Gray to 20th century modern
architecture completely from history”. In other words, it will take
I met McGuckian at E1027, the curiously-named seaside villa Gray
built in 1929 on an elevated site at Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, near
what has become that congested high-rise slum for wealthy tax exiles
known as Monaco. It was a different place then, and her sleek
two-storey house with its flat roof was so sensational that “Corb”
fell in love with it.
E1027 was code for Eileen Gray and the Romanian-born architect and
critic Jean Badovici, who had encouraged her to design it. The E is
for Eileen, 10 for Jean (J being the 10th letter of the alphabet), 2
for Badovici and 7 for Gray (using the same calculation). Nobody
could say that these two lovers weren’t being awfully, awfully
Although she was primarily a lesbian and had a string of affairs
with artists and dancers, Gray fell for Badovici, who was 10 years
younger than her when they met in 1923. He was editor of
She found the site at Roquebrune-Cap-Martin in the mid-1920s and
threw herself into the task of designing the house that Le Corbusier
(Charles-Édouard Jeanneret) would later try to pass off as his own.
After spending a few days there with Badovici, he sent Gray a
postcard extolling its “rare spirit . . . so dignified, so charming
and full of wit.”
Corb then carried out some “alterations” to its interiors. At
Badovici’s instigation, he “animated” the house by painting a series
of Picasso-style murals on “dull, sad walls where nothing is
happening”, as he later explained. When Gray found out about what he
had done, she was hopping mad, describing the murals as “an act of
vandalism.” There is photographic evidence that Corb even painted at
least one of the murals while nude. Quel horreur! During the Second
World War, German soldiers billeted in the villa used them and an
external one at the lower level for target practice. Etched in
plaster rather than painted, it was “restored” several times over
the years, just like the others.
Gray had long since split up with Badovici and built another
modernist house for herself outside Menton, not far away. “It was
the making of the thing, not the thing itself that interested her”,
we were told. She spent much of the rest of her long life (she
passed away in 1976 at the age of 98) living in a rented apartment
on rue Bonaparte in Paris.
In 1949, Le Corbusier published photographs of the murals without
mentioning that the house – vaguely identified as being “at Cap
Martin” – had been designed by Gray, and not by him. He also crowded
its setting by building a cabanon for himself alongside and a
two-storey hostel of “camping” cabins on higher ground to the rear.
Coincidentally, in 1965, after diving off the rocks to have a swim
right in front of E1027, Corb suffered a heart attack and died. Soon
afterwards, the pedestrian route that leads to the house (and to his
cabins) was renamed Promenade Le Corbusier – as if Eileen Gray never
had anything to do with it. Thus, an “apology” is overdue.
We were given a tour of the house by Jean-Louis Dedieu, deputy mayor
of the municipality of Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, which is contributing
40 per cent of the still-unknown cost of its painstaking
restoration; the remainder is being funded by the French state (50
per cent) and the Alpes-Maritimes département (10 per cent).
As Dedieu explained, E1027 had been vandalised by squatters after
its last private owner, Peter Kägi (“he was an alcoholic and drug
addict”) was murdered there by his gardener in 1996. Kägi had sold
off its contents – including Gray’s trademark circular bedside table
and Bibendum chair – for €390,000; they would fetch a lot more
today. In 2009, Gray’s “Dragons” armchair made a record €21.9
million at a sale of furniture owned by Yves Saint Laurent.
Paris-based Irish architect Patrick Mellett led a campaign to save
the house, but approaches to the Irish Government for funding to
preserve this “little piece of Ireland in the south of France” fell
on deaf ears. Instead, it was purchased in 1999 by the Conservatoire
du Littoral (Coastal Conservancy) and declared a French national
E1027 is not a large house. Entered from the rear, it seems almost
grim. The small hallway, with its stencilled advice to entrez
lentement (enter slowly), opens indirectly into a long livingroom
with a continuous run of steel-framed windows facing the sea. The
small stove-like fireplace at one end almost looks like an
The full-height windows and French doors open onto a long balcony,
shaded by shutters and sailcloth blinds – all now restored. Gray
wanted the house to look and feel ship-like, saying that its
maritime character “arose, inevitably from the setting”. The
concrete work is quite crude, as if seaside villas should be
There is also a bedroom and en suite bathroom on the main level,
with original fittings (cabinets, wardrobes etc) designed by her. A
narrow spiral staircase leads down to the lower level, where there
is another bedroom, a second bathroom and rather cramped maid’s
room. One of the delights is a door that opens in two directions.
The concrete staircase also leads upwards to the gravel-covered roof
space, which is entered via an elegant steel-framed glass “funnel”.
From here, looking out over the trees, there is a spectacular view
of the bay of Roquebrune, the shimmering Mediterranean and massively
over-developed Monaco and Beausoleil to the southwest.
As Jean-Louis Dedieu told us, Eileen Gray designed two types of
furniture for E1027 – deckchairs in what she called le style camping
and more formal pieces, such as her Transat chair, which was
inspired by transatlantic ocean liners, as well as the glass
side-table and Bibendum chair, named after the character created by
Fortunately, when Peter Kägi put it all on the market, the Centre
Pompidou in Paris exercised its rights of pre-emption on the sale
(through Sotheby’s in Monaco) and acquired some of the most
important items. These will be featured, among many other works, in
a major Eileen Gray retrospective exhibition in mid-2013.
In 2002, the National Museum of Ireland acquired the contents of
Gray’s apartment at 2 rue Bonaparte, close to the River Seine, and
put these original pieces – together with much archive material – on
permanent exhibition in Collins Barracks. At last, her immeasurable
contribution to 20th century design was being recognised at home.
It will take a long time to finish restoring E1027, where detailed
paint analysis is now being carried out to establish the original
colour scheme. But there is no question of painting over Corb’s
murals. The powerful Paris-based Fondation Le Corbusier won that
argument; after all, whatever Gray thought, they are an integral
part of the villa’s history.
The part of Le Corbusier in Mary McGuckian’s movie – set to start
shooting next summer, with a budget of €10 million – is to be played
by Swiss actor Vincent Perez. But McGuckian intends that Eileen Gray
will be the heroine, with Corb cast as the villain. And so, in the
case of E1027, it should be.
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