Non-Conformist: Eileen Gray’s E-1027 house revisited

Built on two levels, the top floor comprises a large living space, or 'la grande pièce' as Gray liked to call it, that opens via folding glass shutters onto a long, thin balcony protected by fabric awnings. At the far end of the room there is a shower room, at the other end, a bedroom and bathroom, with a kitchen at the back of the house near the entrance. On the lower floor there is the guest room and housekeeper's room as well as a covered outdoor space underneath the main building.

 A reading nook, with space-saving storage that once held pillows and mosquito nets, in the main living space
A reading nook, with space-saving storage that once held pillows and mosquito nets, in the main living space

Although the house has several hallmarks of Le Corbusier's functional purist concepts - a white modernist box on pilotis - Gray brought an intimate, human scale to E-1027. 'Architecture is not about constructing beautiful ensembles of lines, but above all about constructing habitations for humans,' she says. Gray almost obsessively thought about every little detail; how someone might actually use the space, how they might move through it, sit and look out to the sea.

There’s a place for everything — neat drawers in the main Bedroom
There's a place for everything - neat drawers in the main Bedroom

It is perhaps precisely because she was a furniture designer that she brought such thoughtfulness to the spaces of E-1027. 'The detail was so important for her, it was so important for her to solve something,' says Aram. 'When we first showed her the prototype for the Bibendum chair, she looked at it and was very tentative. She sat on it, patting the arms with a big smile on her face, like a child would smile if it had found a lost toy. After a while she stopped... and said "make it two centimetres wider"! That's how you can see how brilliant she was.'

Clever, little, ocean-liner inspired drawers fold out of the wardrobe in the downstairs bedroom
Clever, little, ocean-liner inspired drawers fold out of the wardrobe in the downstairs bedroom

For E-1027, she invented clever little devices in what she termed a 'camping' style - multipurpose furniture and built-in cupboards that could open up, unfold and ease the transition between tasks. Pivoted drawers extend outwards, while wardrobes were inspired by steamer trunks to save space. For her, furniture and architecture were one complete work, the interior not merely an accidental consequence of the facade: 'The furnishings themselves must lose their individuality and blend into the architectural whole!' she enthuses in L'Architecture vivante.

Gray’s Satellite Mirror, 1927, installed in the downstairs bathroom
Gray's Satellite Mirror, 1927, installed in the downstairs bathroom

Revealing a little of her shy, self-sufficient personality, she says: 'Every person in a house should be able to remain free and independent. He must be able to have the feeling of being alone, entirely alone if he wishes. This is why we have staggered the walls so that the doors are not visible.' Against the back wall there is a large divan that doubles up as a sofa, below a nautical map stencilled with the words 'Invitation au voyage', in her words: 'evoking far away journeys and provoking day dreams'.

Rivoli, 1928, was designed for serving tea to guests. Image: Aram designs
Rivoli, 1928, was designed for serving tea to guests. Image: Aram designs

Sitting in her Transat chair, a leather seat suspended in a wooden frame, with a pivoting headrest, it is possible to feel like you are reclining on a deck-chair on the deck of a ship. Opposite, a niche holds a small day bed alongside a cupboard with a pivoting table for reading. Another table, the Rivoli, is made of tubular steel and has circular, satellite shelves that swivel for serving tea, pastries or fruit. A smaller round table, now known as the Table E-1027, is height adjustable and could be fitted over the beds for serving breakfast. A curved wall on the other side of the room creates a discreet transition from the entrance to the living space, while also functioning as storage for records and for hanging coats.

As you move through the house, the landscape outside is always within touching distance, the soothing rhythm of the waves ever present and the windows carefully positioned so you always look in the direction of the sea. Each light, bright room has immediate access to the garden, while the bedrooms are positioned to the south-east corner for the morning sun.

E-1027 side table, 1927. Image:  Aram designs
E-1027 side table, 1927. Image: Aram designs

Shutters slide along runners and open outwards to provide shade and cross-ventilation - 'a window without shutters is an eye without brows,' Gray said. Outside, there is a sunken terrace, which looks like it should be full of water, but was used for sunbathing and aperitifs. As you leave and weave back up the path to the train station, looking back at the house, you see a hammock strung up on the balcony and can almost imagine Eileen Gray sitting right there, gazing out to sea.

After Gray left the house, she sold the Jean Desert gallery and built herself another home between Menton and Castellar in 1930, called Tempe à Pailla - not nearly as well known nor full of mystery and intrigue as E-1027. It too was built on a craggy hillside near the sea, with clean lines, a flat roof and louvred windows.

Aixia chair, 1930s, which Gray also used when she converted a small apartment in Paris for Badovici . Image: Aram designs
Aixia chair, 1930s, which Gray also used when she converted a small apartment in Paris for Badovici . Image: Aram designs

Gray continued to work until her death, but in relative, undisturbed isolation. For years afterwards, the E-1027 house was obscured and clouded by stories and versions of stories; tales of love, myths and tragedies - Le Corbusier's murals, murder and mistreatment. But now, the building, brought back to life, can be appreciated for what it is - a beautifully detailed and modest study of how to live in an elegant modernist villa - a phoenix rising from the ashes.

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