EILEEN GRAY defied categorisation throughout her long life. Born in Enniscorthy, Wexford, in 1878, she was one of the foremost furniture designers and architects of the last century, with her iconic Dragon Chair fetching the highest ever price at auction for a piece of 20th century furniture, yet many people are not familiar with her.
Openly bisexual and a feminist firebrand in many ways, she was nonetheless an intensely private person, keeping her relationships under wraps even as they inspired her most famous works.
Gray started her career in lacquer design, with chrome and glass later featuring heavily in her furniture, which married a modernist aesthetic with intense practicality and functionality. An artist and designer of considerable note, she later moved into interiors and architecture, designing, among others, the iconic E1027, a house dedicated to her relationship with her longtime lover, Romanian architect Jean Badovici.
Now Gray, who died in 1976 aged 98, is inspiring a whole new artistic venture, with Invitation to a Journey, a performance based on her life and work, due to premiere at this year's Galway International Arts Festival.
Invitation to a Journey is a collaboration of CoisCéim Dance Theatre, Crash Ensemble, and Fishamble: The New Play Company. The three companies are bringing together dance, music, and theatre to create a multidisciplinary performance based on Gray’s life and work.
David Bolger, artistic director with CoisCéim and artistic director of Invitation to a Journey, first learned of Gray when he came across a poster advertising an exhibition of her work in Collins Barracks in Dublin, and was intrigued that he had never heard of her. “It had the question, ‘who is Eileen Gray?’ and I couldn’t answer it,” Bolger recalled. “I recognised the work but had never put a name to it. I was curious why she wasn’t a household name.”
CoisCéim had already been performing alongside Crash Ensemble and Fishamble for a number of years as part of the annual Culture Night celebrations. Though they shared a stage, each company brought its own, separate, performance to the same bill. When the idea of working together on a single production came up, Bolger knew that Gray would be the perfect subject, not least because of the way her own work straddled so many diverse disciplines.
Jim Culleton, artistic director with Fishamble and co-director of the production, agreed. “Eileen Gray worked as an artist through furniture design and architecture,” he explained. “We thought that it would be a really good way to reflect how she worked as an artist, as a furniture designer, and as an architect, in different art forms herself. It’s about celebrating her life and her work, and the fact that she lived for almost a century.
“Our aim is not necessarily to make it a biographical piece,” Culleton added. “It’s more to try to capture her essence and the spirit of Eileen Gray, glimpses of her life and her work, and the elements that excite and inspire us. From my point of view the theatre might be the way to explore this or that part of her life, but when you listen to the music or see the dance it’s opening up possibilities of how the art forms can blend, and also the possibility for showing the different elements of her work.”
Invitation to a Journey, which takes its name from words inscribed on a wall map in E1027, will focus on Gray’s early life, the creation of E1027, and her later years in Paris, where she died in 1976.
With an original score by Deirdre Gribbin and a set, designed by Marie Kearns and reflecting rather than recreating Gray’s modernist aesthetic, this promises to be a very special performance of music, dance, and theatre.
According to musical director Kate Ellis of Crash Ensemble, two separate scores for the production – one recorded and one live – have been in the works for the past two years.
“Playing on stage in a theatrical production is something we rarely get to do, it’s a completely new way of working,” she said. “It’s going to be a really interesting process to see how the three art forms sit on top of each other, and how they stand alone as equal identities. The full score is almost a reflection of a very different part of her life and her personality. They’re quite full, aggressive, pieces and they’re not so beautiful and sparse as the onstage live music.”
CoisCéim, meanwhile, is taking its inspiration from the form of Gray’s designs, which reflect the way in which people move around her interiors and individual pieces.
“I started by studying a lot of her work and the shape of it, and how she made it and the lacquer technique and the sense of time she had,” Bolger explained. “In E1027, she designed it from the inside out. For anyone who has visited the house, there’s a certain flow to it – there was a pause before they entered. She had a feeling of movement and decorative functionality with her furniture. That’s what I’ve been trying to base it on, how I believe Eileen Gray [pictured below] moved as an artist. Obviously there’s an emotional aspect to what was going on in her personal life, but all the time going back to the designs.”
The theatrical element provides the structural narrative of the piece, with a script by Gavin Kostick exploring her life and the relationships which shaped her, from inspirational lovers like Badovici to Le Corbusier, the architect and erstwhile friend of Gray who, among other transgressions, adorned the deliberately minimalist E1027 with bawdy murals.
“All three elements are looking at what it means to be a woman living through most of the 20th century, being Irish but leaviing Ireland to live the life she wanted [Gray spent her adult life in France], and being a trailblazer, especially in 2016 when we’re looking back at the Rising and what it’s like to be a country for almost 100 years,” Culleton added.
“She saw the house as an invitation to a voyage, and that’s what we’re doing as well. We're inviting the audience on a journey with us, a celebration not only of her, but of dance and music and theatre.”