Artists from Manet to Matisse led the way in discovering the natural beauty of the French Riviera, celebrating its vibrant colors and brilliant light in their paintings. Eileen
Gray, an Irish artist turned designer with a successful practice in
Paris, fell in love with the rocky slopes of Cap Martin, overlooking
the Mediterranean, and in 1925 bought a plot of land. Over the
next three years she designed and built a legendary white villa for
her mentor, Romanian architect Jean Badovici. He was part of the
Parisian avant-garde, a close friend of Le Corbusier and edited the
progressive journal L’Architecture Vivante. She named the house
E.1027, code for her initials and his.
As a visionary designer and intuitive architect, Gray created
a total work of art. Though modest in scale, E.1027 embodies
the spirit of its era and the brilliance of a woman who has
posthumously achieved the recognition she was long denied.
Like so many modern classics, E.1027 has had a turbulent history
and was deteriorating rapidly in 2000, when it was bought by the
Conservatoire du Litoral, an organization that preserves the French
coastline, and the Commune of Roquebrune-Cap-Martin. It was
named a National Historic Monument and imperfectly restored
with funds from the Ministry of Culture. After many delays, the
non-profit Association Cap Moderne is now managing E.1027 and
the adjoining buildings by Le Corbusier, and it has opened them
for public tours. Though the house is still a work in progress, it has
regained some of the magic it had when it was new.
Gray was born in 1878 to an aristocratic Anglo-Irish family and
studied art in London and Paris, where she settled for the rest of
her life, living in an apartment on Rue Bonaparte until her death
in 1976. She mastered the art of lacquer and won limited fame
as a designer of exclusive furniture and interiors, culminating in a
commission from the Maharaja of Indore in 1931. Her 1919 Dragon
chair was acquired by Yves St. Laurent and sold at auction in 2009
for $28.3 million, a world record for 20th-century decorative art.
By the early 1920s, as Gray grew closer to Badovici, a modernist
began to emerge from the luxurious trappings of a fashionable
practice. She taught herself the principles of architecture, traveling
with Badovici to see the latest work and absorbing the images in his
magazine. By 1926 she was ready to build a house for her mentor,
spending months in rural seclusion on Cap Martin while overseeing
construction by local artisans. By 1929 the house was finished and
furnished. It was featured in a special issue of L’Architecture Vivante,
with her photographs and a dialogue between Badovici and her.