Rabbit holes & the convoluted history of modernism and home design.

Starting tomorrow I kick off the first leg of a little tour of places across Europe that have inspired me for my book on Smart Homes (which you should totally order by the way). I’ll be interviewing people along the way and recording it all for an upcoming podcast, so fear not if you hate books.

My first stop is E-1027, the house designed by Eileen Gray half an hour away from Nice, France. An Irish expat who lived in Paris for the whole of her adult life, Eileen Gray is a fascinating figure in design history who, I’m ashamed to say was never mentioned once in most of the design history books I was made to read as a student. But then, it’s 2018 and with #MeToo and other movements for equality in public discourse I’m more demanding of the world around me.

If you’ve not visited E-1027, it’s most famous for people thinking Le Corbusier designed it. He didn’t. But he did paint a series of murals (some of them while in the nude) on a building he hated because it was clearly so much better than what he was designing (my interpretation). Le Corbusier even set up a little holiday shack nearby, up on the same hill with absurd interiors which included his wife’s bed pointing in the direction of the loo. He also died from drowning in front of E-1027.

I visited E-1027 last year for the first time, intrigued as I often am by the history of artists in the French Riviera. I’ve been holidaying in Nice since 2004 an the area has a rich history of artists and architects whose work litters the whole of the South of France. Jean Cocteau Matisse lived in Nice and worked in Vence. Picasso went to Mougins and Juan-les-Pins in the summers. Le Corbusier worked in Marseilles and further along, Salvador Dali lived and worked in Figueres.

Last week I visited the Villa Noailles, designed by the architect Robert Mallet-Stevens (a frenchman) for the opulent wealthy couple Marie-Laure and Charles de Noailles who had been given a plot of land in Hyeres as a wedding gift from their parents (#relationshipgoals). Marie-Laure married Charles after an affair with Jean Cocteau (she was 21, he was 34 but we’ll have to ignore that) and became a prolific writer of poetry and an artist in her own right. Her husband was a keen gardener and was patron to many young landscape architects. Both of them became patrons to a variety of dada, surrealist and modern artists, architects, film makers and designers including Marcel Breuer (student and eventually master at the Bauhaus). This is where the plot thickens.

What is rarely highlighted in design history is the relationships of influence between artists and designers. Most design history books present a person’s work as if it existed in a vacuum of historical context and relationships. But people drink, sleep, and work together all the time. The Bauhaus school for eg. produced some famous couples like Joseph and Anni Albers and a collection of illegitimate children out of wedlock for many of the students. People get jealous and fight (see Gropius vs. Klee at the Bauhaus and Aicher vs. Bill at Ulm) and do horrible things. Because designers and artists are not god-like creatures but people.

So back to Eileen Gray and Marcel Breuer. Marcel Breuer, in 1925, aged 23, exhibited his first steel tube prototypes at the Paul Rosenberg gallery in Paris which attracted the attention of the Noailles who used to go to Paris to see the latest modernist works. Charles bought Marie-Laure a Picasso when she was ill (#relationshipgoals again). So Marcel Breuer’s chairs ended up all over the Villa Noailles and they are lauded (in the Villa’s own publications) as the patrons of the first truly modern industrial furniture.

But. Eileen Gray had settled in Paris, opened her own gallery Jean Desert in 1922 and that same year, showcased a beautiful array of steel tubing-based furniture. She was 44 years old at the time. Some were featured in her own gallery, then some designed for the salon of Juliette Levy. Jean Desert, incidentally (?) was an 20 minute walk away from the Paul Rosenberg gallery.

As for E-1027 it is absolutely beautiful but also incredibly reminiscent of Villa Noailles in its aesthetic. Eileen Gray’s rug design features in the house and her work on E-1027 features in one of the exhibitions organised by Mallet-Stevens.

Influence and what ‘makes history’ is complicated by these unclear relationships of love, support and sometimes hate. The Noailles for example, had refused to work with Le Corbusier. That must had ticked him off.

What does this tell us about the history of home design? That clear authorship is a complicated process and that sometimes we remember what we feel like and what makes the biggest headlines and not who really was innovative.

Eileen Gray’s designs are in no way as internationally reknowned as Marcel Breuer’s and that’s a pity because she’s the one who changed the face of furniture design for the modern era. In turn we don’t remember Mallet-Stevens well in comparison to Le Corbusier.

When you see products and objects today that claim to change the world, you should proceed with caution. Chances are they hide a motley crew of small, forgotten companies who have invented the means by which others can grow and claim ‘first to market’. And that should be something we talk about in design history books.

Author of 'Smarter Homes: how technology has changed your home life' (Apress, 2018) Writing a book on corporate innovation culture out in 2020. Designer. UK.

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