September 12, 2018
The Sordid Saga of Eileen Gray’s Iconic E-1027 House
Designed by Irish architect and designer Eileen Gray, the 1929 French Riviera villa was an obsession of Le Corbusier and fell into ruins before being bought by conservationists in 1999.
It’s fair to say Eileen Gray’s E-1027 French villa hasn’t lived a charmed life: It has survived desecration by Le Corbusier, target practice by the Nazis, a stint as drug den and orgy destination, and near dereliction. However, of late, the infamous house’s future is looking more optimistic: Cap Moderne, a non-profit dedicated to rehabbing and opening the building as a cultural destination, recently launched a crowdfunding campaign to continue the building’s restoration. Over the last few years, the conservationists’ work had focused on the recreation of the building’s Eileen Gray–designed furniture. The latest efforts focus on a particular dining alcove. How that alcove—and the entire house—lost its furniture and fell into disrepair is a long story, with many twists and turns.
The house certainly had optimistic—and idealistic—beginnings. “One must build for the human being, that he might rediscover in the architectural construction the joys of self-fulfillment in a whole that extends and completes him,” Gray wrote in the 1929 issue of L’Architecture Vivante. “Even the furnishings should lose their individuality by blending in with the architectural ensemble.” The villa was intended as a peaceful retreat for Gray and her then lover, Romanian architect, critic, and editor of L’Architecture Vivante, Jean Badovici, who had partially contributed to the project’s design.
The villa—essentially a white rectangle perched upon the Cap-Martin cliff face—is clearly a Modernist building. It adopts some aspects of Le Corbusier’s five points of new architecture (concrete piles, open plan rooms, a roof garden, horizontal windows and a “free” facade) which the Swiss-French architect had published in his seminal 1923 book Vers Une Architecture.
However, despite Corbusier’s call for openness within and without, privacy is a main objective of E-1027. On the exterior, floor-to-ceiling concertina windows open to the Mediterranean Sea, providing light and views, yet rolling shutters and two strips of canvas shield the villa’s interiors from being seen, thereby also blocking harsh afternoon sunlight and framing the seaside vista.
Inside, the house refrains from using an open plan. Its interior spaces aren’t immediately revealed: Rooms are private places waiting to be discovered. Entering either the bedroom or living room-cum-boudoir, for example, requires walking around a series of corners. Furthermore, given the house’s compact size (1,400 square feet) and many rooms, Gray was meticulously efficient with space. Such constraints, as is commonly the case, led to delightfully innovative workarounds: Wardrobes open to become walls, the living room sofa turns into a bed, and a whole host of cupboards and other bespoke furnishings are either embedded or intrinsically in tune with the rest of the house.
The most prominent example of this ingenuity is the “E-1027 table.” Designed for Gray’s sister so she could eat breakfast in bed without getting crumbs in the sheets, it is a classic piece of Modernist furniture. The table comprises two steel tube circles whose open base fits around a bed post; the design’s height is also adjustable so the table can hover over the bed.
For all the work done by Gray, however, it took an essay by Joseph Rykwert in 1967 to bring her deserved recognition. By that time, the house had been credited as entirely the work of Badovici and even Le Corbusier.
In fact, Le Corbusier was a good friend of Badovici’s and was obsessed with E-1027. After Gray and Badovici split in 1932, Badovici inherited the house and often stayed there with his wife. Against Gray’s wishes, Le Corbusier, as Bodovici’s guest, painted murals on the walls. The French-Swiss architect even tried to buy the house but failed, instead purchasing property nearby where he built a small cabin, the Cabanon de vacances.
The degradation continued during World War II when German soldiers practiced their aim against E-1027’s walls. Actual death came next. On August 27, 1965, Le Corbusier’s body washed up on the shores below, having drowned after going swimming against his doctor’s orders. After that, the house and surrounding area were declared a “Site Moderne” due to their international significance. Even that, however, didn’t halt the villa’s plight.
More death was to follow. In 1980, E-1027’s then-owner, Marie-Louise Schelbert was found dead in her flat in Zurich. Three days prior, her physician, Dr. Peter Kägi had secretly snuck almost all of Gray’s original furniture out and auctioned it off in Zurich. When Schelbert died, Kägi inherited the house, using it host an array of hedonistic affairs, notably drug-fueled orgies. In 1996, this came to an end when he was murdered in the living room.
Now, finally, the house is being looked after. In 1999, the villa was bought by the Conservatoire du littoral (a cultural conservatory) and since then several efforts have been made to restore the house. The latest is by Cap Moderne, which was set up in 2014 to manage E-1027 as well as Le Corbusier’s adjacent cabin. “We have taken the position, which is not fashionable in many conservation courses, to reconstruct [that] which had been destroyed to more or less the 1929 situation,” says Tim Benton, a trustee of Cap Moderne and art history professor specializing in 20th century architecture. As recently as 2006, the villa was in a dilapidated state, the living room-boudoir screen wall was in tatters.
“Almost everything has, or is being, or will be redone,” Benton adds, pointing to the furniture. Cap Moderne aims to raise up to $50,000, with the French government matching donations dollar-for-dollar. The money will go towards refurnishing the villa’s dining alcove, including a dining table with an in-built electric light and cork top designed to protect plates and glasses, and a specially made lemon container (Menton lemons were once a regional specialty). Furthermore, the association has its eyes on recreating Gray’s Non Conformist chair and a fold-able table within the dining alcove that opens up to turn the corridor into a bar.
“Left empty, this is one of 100 important houses of the late Modern period,” says Benton. “But the interior is one of [the] four most important modern interiors in the world. This why we are remaking the furniture with the same tools, the same materials, the same processes as the originals.”
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