Eileen Gray - Design Evening Sale New York Tuesday, December 13, 2016 | Phillips
  • Provenance

    Andrée Putman, Paris, circa 1973
    Steven A. Greenberg, New York
    Christie's, New York, "The Steven A. Greenberg Collection: Masterpieces of French Art Deco," December 12, 2012, lot 49
    Acquired from the above by the present owner

  • Literature

    Jennifer Goff, Eileen Gray: Her Work and Her World, Ireland, 2015, illustrated p. 445, fig. 11.25

  • Catalogue Essay

    Unique in its configuration and color, the present lot—the only red “Brick” screen—was acquired directly from Eileen Gray circa 1973 by French interior designer Andrée Putman, heir to Gray’s concise arrangements and considered eye, whose devotion to the seminal works of the 1920s drove a resurgent interest in the elder designer’s triumphs of that earlier period.

    Pioneering New York collector Steven Greenberg, who, together with Putman, Andy Warhol, and Robert Walker, championed a 1970s reappraisal of Art Deco, later acquired the screen for his New York apartment, where it kept company with masterworks by the great lacquer artist Jean Dunand. Despite the fact Gray had eschewed Art Deco’s burly ornamentation and volumetric curves, Greenberg’s devotion to that style, and specifically to Dunand, would have inclined
    him to Gray, a master of true lacquer (who had introduced Dunand to their shared teacher Seizo Sugawara in 1912).

    In an undated letter to her niece Prunella Clough, Gray claimed to have produced only ten “Brick” screens, as noted by Dr. Jennifer Goff, Curator of the Eileen Gray collection at the National Museum of Ireland (Eileen Gray, Her Work and Her World, 2015, p. 441). This small group comprised an early black painted example, another pale wood example, and two white painted examples, after which she produced her various lacquered “Brick” screens, the majority of them black. This red screen (illustrated p. 445) dates to Gray’s final burst of creativity in the early 1970s.

    Four of Gray’s small series of “Brick” screens are in the permanent collections of the National Museum of Ireland, Dublin; The Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond; and the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

    Eileen Gray’s Return to Full Color

    “Empress of Fashion” Diana Vreeland (1903-1989), editor-in-chief of Vogue, spun bons mots and artifice across a half century in the public eye. “I adore artifice,” she said. “I always have.” Among her driving passions were vivid appearances and color. “All my life I’ve pursued the perfect red…I want rococo with a spot of Gothic in it and a bit of Buddhist temple—,” so much so that she lived from 1955 in a New York apartment decorated entirely in that color. “Red is the great clarifier—bright, cleansing, revealing. It makes all colors beautiful.”

    Vreeland, doyenne of taste and talk, was as voluble in her international circles as Eileen Gray was laconic in her Paris circumference. By the 1960s, as biographer Peter Adam noted, Gray kept to her rue Bonaparte apartment, “[taking] her meals alone.” But ascetic rituals hadn’t always governed her. No stranger to artifice or renown, Gray had pursued a fervid output of decorative objects during the interwar years—screens, rugs, lighting, furniture—which attracted notices from Art et Décoration to Vogue; the latter illustrated one of her first lacquer works, Le Destin (1913), an allegoric screen with blue figures on a shocking red ground. Harper’s Bazaar swooned: “When Miss Gray exhibited her first work in this difficult medium…overnight, as it were, lacquer rooms became the rage.” Distinguished clients—couturier Jacques Doucet, milliner Juliette Lévy, the Maharaja of Indore—followed.

    Gray was devoted to Asian lacquer, which she first encountered in 1900 as an art student at London’s Slade while wandering the halls of what is now the Victoria and Albert Museum. From 1908 she worked in the medium with her mentor, Japanese lacquer craftsman Seizo Sugawara (1884-1937), a former maker of Buddhist lacquer shrines. Whereas her modernist peers advocated a rejection of timeworn methods, Gray embraced those traditions, lacquer paramount among them. It grounded her high-flying experiments in form and was as fundamental to her output as that broad, red ground was to those blue figures playing across the four panels of Le Destin. Lacquer bound all of Gray’s significant works of the period: Doucet’s “Lotus Table” (1913-14), Lévy’s “Pirogue” daybed (1918-22), the Maharaja’s “Transat” armchair (1930), and, from the early 1920s, her series of black “Brick” screens.

    Those folding screens affirmed a streamlined economy more in keeping with modernist predilections, although Gray loathed being “absorbed” into that or any other movement. She bristled in particular at the modernists when she wrote, “A house is not a machine to live in. It is the shell of man…his spiritual emanation.” As a further rejoinder, Gray aspired to the allure and beauty of details and rich finishes, not to their elimination, and in so doing she confirmed the ardor and vitality of her passion. “Without it what have you got?” as Vreeland might have interjected.

    On November 8, 1972 a ripple shivered out across the decorative arts market when Drouot, the Paris auction house, offered works from Doucet’s estate, including Le Destin. A highlight of the day, Gray’s jolt of red fetched the equivalent of $36,000, an enormous sum at the time. A broadside barrage—mentions in Le Figaro, Le Monde, and the Herald Tribune—led to feverish interest in Gray and prompted her to produce a small handful of lacquer screens, including the present lot, for select collectors such as Frances and Sydney Lewis and Lavinia and Charles Handley-Read, who would donate their screens respectively to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and to the V&A. As Gray had opened her career with screens, so she closed it. It seems fitting that she would punctuate this return to form with her only red “Brick” screen, a radiant acknowledgment of Le Destin, an early and late catalyst in her career, as well as a visual reminder to us of Gray’s
    vigor as the long-reigning empress of design.

  • Artist Biography

    Eileen Gray

    Irish • 1878 - 1976

    One of the most important designers working in early twentieth-century Paris was in fact an unlikely expatriate: an extraordinary, aristocratic woman from provincial Ireland named Eileen Gray. After completing studies in painting at the Slade in London, Gray moved to Paris in 1906. There she partnered with the Japanese lacquer master Seizo Sugawara, applying the traditional technique to her original designs. She opened her gallery, Jean Désert, in 1922 and found steady work producing luxury objects for an elite clientele.

    Soon, however, she branched out to larger projects. As an interior designer, she completed apartments for Juliette Lévy and her friend Jean Badovici. Encouraged by Badovici, she learned architectural drawing and designed the villa E-1027 in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, which was completed in 1929. Gray was largely forgotten until 1968, when the architectural historian Joseph Rykwert praised her in an article for Domus. Four years later her lacquer screen "Le Destin" achieved the top price in the historic auction of couturier Jacques Doucet's collection in Paris. Recognition — in the form of scholarship, exhibitions and collecting — has gained steady momentum ever since. As curator Jennifer Goff has written, "Collectors vie to own her furniture; historians compete to document her life."

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Property from a Private Collection


Unique "Brick" screen

designed 1922-1923, executed 1973
Red lacquered wood, steel, brass.
Each large brick: 8 5/8 x 12 5/8 x 1/2 in. (21.9 x 32.1 x 1.3 cm)
71 1/4 in. (181 cm) high
Variable width, as shown: 59 in. (149.9 cm)

Lacquer executed by Pierre Bobot, Paris.

$400,000 - 600,000 

Sold for $478,000

Contact Specialist
Cordelia Lembo
Specialist, Head of Sale
+1 212 940 1265

Design Evening Sale

New York Auction 13 December 2016