Often, when aesthetic oeuvres are analysed or discussed, they are viewed within a range of academic contexts, spanning critical theory and defined genres. Take the legacy of visionary multihyphenate artist, architect and furniture designer Eileen Gray. To some, her legacy is viewed within the context of modernism and functional, ergonomic design. To others, it is analysed through the framework of her male contemporaries, like Corbusier and Walter Gropious. Famously, Corbusier defaced Gray's renowned E1027 seaside villa in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin in France – which she built with her then-partner Jean Badovici in 1929 – painting its walls with unwelcome murals in the late 1930s.
‘My conversations about her work were never academic,’ says London-based fashion designer Richard Malone, who was born in the Irish town of Wexford, also Gray's 1878 birthplace. He learnt about Gray from his grandmother Nellie, in conversations verging on folklore or myth. ‘For me she was a creative force that can’t be defined by studies,’ he explains. ‘She was a very informed female maker, and a radical queer figure.'
In an extension of the dialogues Malone had with his grandmother, today 8 July markes the opening of ‘Making and Momentum In Conversation with Eileen Gray,' an exhibition curated by Malone, celebrating Gray's legacy and the impact she has had on contemporary Irish design and craftsmanship. Held in the town hall of Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, the show aligns with the reopening of Gray's E1027 villa, which after two decades has been fully refurbished with the support of Association Cap Moderne, and will be on view, with restored internal furniture and fittings, to the public.
‘The show isn't about replicating Gray's work or featuring work that looks like hers,' Malone explains. ‘It's more about the spirit of making and the bravery that comes with it.' For ‘Making and Momentum In Conversation with Eileen Gray,' pieces by seven makers are presented, spanning ceramics, sculpture and textiles. These include ceramicist and 2017 Loewe Craft Prize finalist Sara Flynn, sculptor and 2022 Venice Biennale contributor Niamh O’Malley, artist Laura Gannon, artisanal rugmakers Ceadogán, abstract painter Mainie Jellett, County Down weavers Mourne Textiles and Malone himself.
The show open ups conversations around the nature of Irish craftsmanship and its multifaceted outputs, aligning with Malone's diverse view of Gray's legacy, which ranged from lacquering to carpet design, and is characterised today by hundreds of different works. When Gray opened her first gallery in 1922, she even operated under a male pseudonym, Jean Désert. ‘There's a real Irish aesthetic that people want that's very National Geographic,' Malone explains. ‘Gray's work doesn't speak of that at all.'
With instrumental support from the DCCI (Design & Crafts Council Ireland) the exhibition will then travel from France to Dublin’s National Museum in September 2021 and then Gray’s hometown of Wexford in 2022. ‘The exhibition is really a kick off point for more dialogue,' Malone adds. ‘Having bravery, like Gray, to design your own language, and not having to overly define yourself.'
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