Eileen Gray: Modernism in Lacquer

Eileen Gray: Modernism in Lacquer

Two screens by the Irish architect and designer showcase her mastery of Japanese lacquer techniques – as well as her stunning embrace of Modernist abstraction.
Two screens by the Irish architect and designer showcase her mastery of Japanese lacquer techniques – as well as her stunning embrace of Modernist abstraction.

O n offer during the upcoming Important Design auction on 6 December, these two screens (circa 1992-25) are among the sleekest and most impressive works to originate from Eileen Gray’s personal collection. They are extraordinary physical manifestations of the artist’s mastery of lacquer on a large scale. Their highly textural and painterly surface elevates them to the status of works of art in and of themselves, seamlessly combining function and sculptural presence at a time where Gray’s style transitioned towards Modernist abstraction.


Up until that point, Gray’s lacquered screens were imbued with figurative and lyrical sensibility, depicting human figures and allegorical narratives. The present screens are entirely abstract, yet the subtle balance of vertical lines with soft curves at the bottom of the piece complement the flawless application of a rich black lacquer, creating a timeless and harmonious ensemble. Here, the lacquered surface suppresses any reference to a specific narrative – Gray treats these screens like an abstract canvas.

The screens’ decidedly Modernist character is only amplified through the designer’s full mastery and understanding of lacquer. Gray’s use of the complex medium is the result of much research and practice over the course of several years. She was one of few European artists from this generation to successfully master Japanese lacquer techniques and to grasp it with such artistic virtuosity.

Images from left to right: SEIZO SUGAWARA IN EILEEN GRAY’S STUDIO AT 11, RUE GUÉNÉGAUD, PARIS. NATIONAL MUSEUM OF IRELAND, NMIEG 2003.551.CAT.15. One of the present screens at Galerie Jean Désert, Paris, circa 1925.

In 1907, following an apprenticeship with Arts & Crafts designer William Morris and lacquer artisan D. Charles, Gray permanently settled in Paris, where she met Japanese lacquerer Seizo Sugawara. Sugawara’s mentorship prompted Gray to develop her own network of Japanese lacquerers based in Paris and to keep thorough notebooks solely devoted to the technique. Together, Gray and Sugawara opened a workshop rue Guénégaud, where they showcased the Irish designer’s original lacquer creations, which flourished around 1913-1914. The two became influential figures of the city’s experimental decorative arts scene.

The present two screens in the bedroom of collector Robin Symes, New York, circa 1989.

Created approximately a decade later, the present screens are undeniably linked to a particularly experimental period of Gray’s career. In 1922, in addition to her workshop on rue Guénégaud, she opened a gallery on rue du Faubourg-St. Honoré to show her designs in a more commercial and refined setting. Gray called it “Galerie Jean Désert,” a fictitious name whose origin is unknown. The space showcased Gray’s tremendous versatility as a designer through its presentation of various forms and designs: lacquer screens, furniture, lamps, daybeds, mirrors and even hand-woven carpets. The two screens were said to have been conceived and used to conceal the gallery’s staircase.

Gray eventually closed the gallery in 1930 to turn to architecture. The present screens subsequently found themselves part of her personal collection, where they remained until her passing in 1976.

Design Week

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