If you were to make a list of professions in which women have failed to achieve a fair share of renown, one of the topmost entries would surely be architecture.
Most American architecture schools actually refused to admit women until 1972, when the Title IX law forced them to. More recently, over half of women responding to a 2017 Architectural Review survey said they’d experienced “sexism, bullying and/or sexual harassment” in the previous year. (“Nearly a quarter” of male respondents said they’d endured the same treatment, proving yet again that oppressive systems always have plenty of harm to go around.)
Even in our current climate, it’s sobering to reflect on how the profession treated modernist pioneer Eileen Gray. According to Jennifer Goff, curator of the Eileen Gray Collection at the National Museum of Ireland, the designer and self-taught architect had the dubious honor of being insulted not once, but twice by the great Le Corbusier. While staying at her beloved “E-1027” house in the late 1930s, he saw fit to paint flamboyant murals on the walls that “broke the structural integrity of the interior, compromising not just the space but the totality of the house as an ensemble.” So writes Goff in the foreword to the new graphic novel Eileen Gray: A House Under the Sun. In a second slight, Goff notes, the great man neglected to mention Gray’s name in his definitive publications of the 1940s — a move which began Gray’s “subsequent omission from the canon of modern architecture.”
Despite these injustices — and her subsequent elevation to a position of eminence — it’s far from clear whether Gray herself would want to be seen as a feminist icon. She very nearly destroyed all her personal papers because she wanted to be remembered only for her work. But for those of us who don’t see such a strict divide between someone’s inner self and their artistic output, Gray’s personal story provides a fascinating and instructive context to her oeuvre. Charlotte Malterre-Barthes and Zosia Dzierzawska bring some, but only some, of that story to life in Eileen Gray: A House Under The Sun.
Malterre-Barthes is an architect, urban designer and founding member of the grassroots Parity Group, which works to improve gender equality in the field. Dzierzawska, a comics artist and illustrator with “a passion for architecture,” has thought productively about how the medium of comics can channel this complex discipline. Many of Dzierzawska’s clever layouts echo architectural forms, and the book as a whole expresses a tension between hardness — exemplified by square comic panels and white space — and the softness of her characteristic line.
That sense of softness is perfect for evoking Gray’s creative imagination. Rejecting the Spartan minimalism of many of her modernist contemporaries, Gray insisted that houses and objects must be created with the humble realities of daily life in mind. She believed creators had to respond to human needs, not just seek elegant solutions to problems of design. Though she got her start by mastering the uncompromising art of Japanese lacquer, she often brought a sense of whimsy to her work. She even named one of her creations, the Bibendum chair, after the advertising character Americans know as the Michelin Man.
Malterre-Barthes has Gray sum up her ethos in an interchange with her lover Jean Badovici, for whom she designed the E-1027 house. “The poverty of modern architecture stems from a lack of sensuality,” Gray tells him. “A house is not a machine to live in! It’s an extension of the inhabitant — their release, their emanation.” As Gray makes her points, Dzierzawska draws her and Badovici sliding around one another, playing with bodily space and gazing steamily into each other’s eyes. It’s a lovely elaboration of Gray’s words.
Malterre-Barthes continues the theme of sensuality with her brief depictions of the more glamorous parts of Gray’s life. Gray was involved in the louche social scene of 1920s Paris, dressing in masculine garb, habituating lesbian salons and attending wild parties. For some reason Dzierzawska tends to make Gray look winsome and unassuming rather than sophisticated. But though this feels like a liberty, the book’s bigger problem is its overall scantiness. While emphasizing how unappreciated Gray once was, Malterre-Barthes gives us far too little to appreciate. Gray’s most memorable objects are only depicted on the book’s endpapers; Malterre-Barthes focuses almost exclusively on the creation (and Le Corbusier’s desecration) of the E-1027 house. Lacking detailed examinations of works like the iconic E-1027 Table (a particularly perplexing omission, considering that Gray designed it specifically for the house) or the “Dragons” chair (a piece once owned by Yves Saint Laurent that, famously, sold for $28 million in 2009) the book feels impoverished.
Eileen Gray also concludes too abruptly. Tantalizing mentions of Gray’s amorous relationships with various fascinating-sounding women are relegated to a section of biographies at the end. But the latter shortcoming, at least, feels like what Gray herself would have preferred. For a creator who wanted to speak to history solely through her work, Eileen Gray: A House Under The Sun is an ambiguous tribute. For the rest of us, it’s a thought-provoking, if incomplete, reflection on the relationship between genius and gender.
Etelka Lehoczky has written about books for The Atlantic, The Los Angeles Review of Books and The New York Times. She tweets at @EtelkaL.