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Eileen_grayDesigner:Eileen Gray

You have to love a designer who bases her best-known piece on a beloved character from the world of advertising. Yet that’s exactly what Eileen Gray did when she designed her voluptuous leather and tubular steel Bibendum Chair, named for the similarly voluptuous and curvaceous Michelin man.
Decades later, the chair is a true design icon, almost decadently comfortable and undeniably striking. But the Bibendum, along with Gray’s other works, were hardly overnight sensations.
As a woman designer working in a pre-feminist era, Eileen Gray was shut out of the networks, mentorships and apprenticeships that launched her male contemporaries into the stratosphere. And while most of these counterparts associated themselves with one specific design “movement” or another, Gray remained doggedly independent.
That independence took Eileen Gray from a privileged background in London to a life working with lacquer, training under the young Japanese craftsman Sugawara. Working with the chemicals involved was so dangerous it actually made her sick. But there was an upside to the pain.
Gray was commissioned to decorate a fashionable Paris apartment, which she filled with dramatic pieces including halls lined with hundreds of small rectangular lacquered panels, lamps and the pièce de résistance, the canoe-shaped, brown lacquer and silver leaf Pirogue daybed. The apartment was hailed as a triumph of luxe modern living.
Having tackled the lacquer business, Gray moved on to architecture, encouraged by Romanian-born architecture critic Jean Badovici, who stated that “Eileen Gray occupies the centre of the modern movement.”
Together, they began construction of house E-1027 on a cliff overlooking the Mediterranean. The site and modern design inspired Gray to design the furniture as well, including the Bibendum chair and her equally iconic, circular glass E-1027 table, which she created for a sister who loved to eat breakfast in bed.
More achievements followed, but Gray failed to become a design superstar like many of her peers. Only in the late ‘60s did her work suddenly begin to gain recognition, and she was feted as an inspiration to both the Modernist and Art Deco movements. Today, Eileen Gray has finally earned her place alongside design’s big boys, as a woman and a creative force who was truly ahead of her time.

It’s comfy, it’s curvy, it’s even downright friendly – just like the Michelin man it was named for. Sitting in Eileen Gray’s Bibendum Chair is kind of like getting a hug that doesn’t stop until you get up. The comfortable, cocoon-y feeling is a direct result of the chair’s construction. Its back and arm rest are fashioned from two semi-circular padded tubes covered in the softest leather. But Gray’s signature seat isn’t just about feeling good, it’s about looking good.
The striking design provides a dramatic focal point for any room, not to mention a seat your guests will fight to sit in. Hard to believe the Bibendum Chair was largely forgotten until 1972, when one of Gray’s original creations surfaced at an auction and reminded modern design experts around the world of this lost masterpiece.
The chair was a departure for Gray, who abandoned the more classic design she had been known for, for the type of tubular steel construction used by Bauhaus designers like Marcel Breuer. The chair was relatively large – as one would expect the giant, rubber Michelin Man to be – at approximately 840mm deep and 740mm tall. The legs were made of a polished, chromium plated stainless steel tube, the framing of the actual seat of beechwood, and rubber webbing was woven across the seat base for added comfort. The result was one of the 20th Century’s most iconic pieces of furniture.
Experts disagree on just when the Bibendum first came on the scene. Some say Gray designed it for her famous E-1027 house over looking the Mediterranean in around 1924. Others claim she created the Bibendum around 1920 as part of a job designing an apartment for a wealthy Parisian milliner. But exactly where Bibendum came from is far less important than the lucky fact that it’s back to stay, providing a place to sit – as well as a hug — for design aficionados everywhere.


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