Born in Ireland into a well-to-do family, the headstrong Gray (1878–1976) left for the Slade School of Fine Art in London aged 19.
Over the following years, she also studied drawing at the Ecole Colarossi and the Académie Julian, both in Paris.
In 1905, a chance encounter in a London lacquer workshop led Gray to learn about lacquer restoration.
In Paris the following year, she met Seizo Sugawara, a renowned Japanese lacquerer who would work with Gray for more than 30 years.
Soon after, she decided to establish a rug business with her childhood friend Evelyn Wyld, and Gray’s handwoven woollen rugs were to become highly sought after by Parisian society for several decades.
Her big break came in 1913 when several pieces of her lacquer work were purchased by Jacques Doucet, a couturier and famous art collector whose acquisitions included works by modern artists Henri Rousseau, Constantin Brancusi and Pablo Picasso.
Gray’s first interior commission, for society milliner Suzanne Talbot, came in 1919 – a resounding success, it was covered in the US issue of Harper’s Bazaar. The biggest feature of the apartment was the en masse use of Gray’s lacquered block screens to create new ‘walls’ within the existing shell.
In 1922, she opened Galerie Jean Désert in Paris as a showcase for her own work.
Not long after, Gray’s interest in the De Stijl movement saw her work become increasingly abstract, with references to the creations of Piet Mondrian and Gerrit Rietveld.
By 1929, despite having had no formal architectural training, Gray, with the assistance of close friend and architect Jean Badovici, completed her ideal ‘house by the sea’, which she cryptically dubbed ‘E 1027’.
Sited in Roquebrune on the Côte d’Azur in southern France, the house was an experiment in modern living, showcasing Gray’s freestanding furniture and built-in space-saving solutions.
Some of these were produced in small numbers and sold through Galerie Jean Désert, but Gray was tiring of the gallery’s demands and in 1930 she closed it down.
By 1937, Gray was in virtual retirement. She left the ‘E 1027’ house to Badovici, in whose hands it remained until his death in 1956.
Gray continued to design prototypes until the day she died at the age of 98.
Gray’s early period was dominated by her love of lacquered wood – screens in particular. Later, as she developed as a furniture designer and finally as an architect, her De Stijl-inspired designs often used polished chromed steel, glass, leather and canvas in a stripped-back, functional aesthetic.
Her design pieces paralleled the Bauhaus furniture of Marcel Breuer, Le Corbusier, Charlotte Perriand and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.
Best known for
The post-1925 pieces Gray designed for her own house in Roquebrune – the Transat, Non-Conformist and Bibendum chairs (pictured), and the E 1027 adjustable side table – are all 20th-century classics.
In the ’70s, a resurgence of interest in Gray’s work saw one of her early designs, a lacquered screen called Le Destin, set an auction record when it sold for the then astronomical price of US$36,000.