Business

Inspired by the Wexford woman who changed how we think about architecture

E1027 on the Côte d’Azur, the modernist masterpiece designed, decorated and fitted out by County Wexford-born Eileen Gray

I HAVE found myself on holidays contemplating trips which I'm never sure are the right thing to do. One such occasion I was in a camp site in the south of France in 2009 when Antrim were due to play in the Ulster final.

The only place I could find where it was going to be shown was in Morrison's Bar in Cannes, a good two hour drive away. Morrison's is a place well known to anybody who has ever visited Cannes for a festival or exhibition. I end up in the place every year at the MIPIM property exhibition. It's awash with Guinness and drunken property types who have run out of receptions and parties to go to.

I felt guilty about heading off on my own but something was telling me I needed to do it. Antrim hadn't appeared in an Ulster final in decades after all. It was a long trip and unlike the Morrison's I was used to, the place was empty when I got there. The Ulster final was only on one of the televisions and I was the only person watching it.

History shows Antrim were well-beaten, but I was really glad I went. I felt I'd made the right sacrifice for my former team-mates and stood shoulder-to-shoulder with them in their hour of need. Pretty pathetic sounding I know, but I remember feeling good about it afterwards all the same.

I had a similar sort of feeling a couple of weeks ago when I was once again in the south of France. For many years, I've admired the life off a woman called Eileen Gray who was born in County Wexford in 1878 and who died somewhat anonymously in 1978, aged 98.

To say that she was extraordinary is a huge understatement and, thankfully, in part due to French and Irish authorities, her achievements are now beginning to be acknowledged properly.

One of her most remarkable achievements is a house in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin on the Côte d'Azur, E1027. It is a modernist masterpiece designed, decorated and fitted out by Eileen Gray. It was decades before its time and some of the furniture which she designed especially for it are now classics of modern furniture - except far too few know that these classics are designed by this Irish woman.

I was one of those people who bought one of her tables many years ago, but like many others I had no idea who had designed it or the significance of it. For me, it was just a great table with an adjustable top and a bottom which fitted under the sofa - actually Eileen had designed it originally for her sister's bed so that she wouldn't spill crumbs on the sheets (or so the story goes).

I'll not tell the whole story here because like any positive review, you want your readers to go and find out for themselves but suffice to say, the villa has a very interesting history. Eileen bought the plot herself but in her lover's name, the architect Jean Badovici, who many have wrongly credited as its joint designer. She then commissioned the build and designed the furniture to fit into it. I can't adequately describe to you how creative, practical and brilliant some of the fittings in the house are.

E1027 was completed in 1929 and was celebrated in Badovici's architecture and design magazine (the pictures from which have been crucial in helping to restore the villa). The historical twist came after Gray and Badovici broke up in 1932, after which Gray never visited the villa again.

Badovici was friendly with the globally famous French-Swiss architect and modernist, Le Corbusier. He loved the villa and later built a cabin next door which he spent every summer at for the rest of his life until he drowned off the rocks below in 1965. Le Corbusier was also obviously jealous of Gray and despite her express wishes and design ethos, le Corbusier later ‘defaced' many of the walls with colourful murals - what Gray herself called “an act of vandalism”.

After a number of fascinating decades which included the murder of one of its subsequent owners, a drug-addicted Swedish doctor, the villa was bought by the French state and now, along with Le Corbusier's cabin next door is a national monument, available for view, albeit on guided tours only.

As I sat in Nice in the 38 degree heat the other week, I pondered a trip to the far side of Monaco to visit the villa. It was one of those moments where I wondered once again if I was doing the right thing. My flight was that afternoon, it would be tight getting back on time. But knowing I'd regret it if I didn't go, I got into the car and drove.

We all get inspiration from different places for different things in life, in business, in sport. Nearly a hundred years ago, Eileen Gray did something inspirational which arguably changed the way people thought about design and architecture forever. I was very glad to get a little glimpse of it this summer. And I will hopefully see Antrim in an Ulster final again soon too!

:: Paul McErlean (paul@mcepublicrelations.com) is managing director of MCE Public Relations

:: Next week: Conor Lambe

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