Update: The Eileen Gray Transat armchair sold for $1.59 million, a new auction record for a Transat chair at auction.
What you see: A Transat armchair by Eileen Gray, dating to 1927 to 1930. Christie’s estimates it at $1 million to $1.5 million.
Who was Eileen Gray? She was an Irish-born designer who initially gained fame for her mastery of lacquer. She attended the Slade School in London and trained in Paris for with Japanese lacquer master Seizo Sugawara, who was in town to prep pieces destined for the country’s Exposition Universale display. She opened the Jean Désert boutique on the fashionable Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré in 1922, which lasted for eight years. In the mid-1920s, she began work on a villa in southern France that she dubbed E-1027, a name that alluded to herself and her partner, Jean Badovici. (The ‘E’ stood for Eileen; the ’10’ represented Jean; the ‘2’ meant Badovici, and the ‘7’ translated to Gray.) The villa still exists and is undergoing restoration. Overlooked in her time, she began to gain real recognition in the late 1960s. Gray died in 1976 at the age of 98.
The expert: Beth Vilinsky, senior specialist in design at Christie’s.
How often do furnishings by Eileen Gray appear at auction? Her output of production was very limited to begin with. It’s quite rare to see any of her work come up for sale. I think in the last four or five years not even ten pieces have appeared on the market. It’s always a special event when they do.
How often do her Transat chairs appear at auction? The last time an example appeared on the market was in 2014 at Phillips New York, which was made for the Maharaja of Indore. Its frame also had a lacquer finish, and it had an upholstered seat. It sold for over $1.5 million.
Gray originally designed the Transat chair for E-1027, her personal villa in France. She designed the villa completely, from the architecture to the furnishings and fittings. Does E-1027 represent the first time that a woman designed an entire house, Frank Lloyd Wright-style? It’s an interesting question. I think you’re right. She specifically did do the architectural design and designed the interiors as well. No other female designer-architect comes to mind at that early time in the 20th century [who did something along those lines]. She worked within her own framework, her own vision.
To what extent did Gray’s partner, Jean Badovici, assist with the design and creation of E-1027? They were partners professionally and personally, and a dynamic team. He encouraged her to pursue this venture. I think he just kept encouraging her and pushing her to realize her ideas as best as possible.
The consensus is that this particular Transat chair was made for sale in the late 1920s through Gray’s Paris boutique, Jean Désert, and not for E-1027. Do we have any notion of what happened to this chair between the late 1920s and the 1980s? We really don’t. We know it was rediscovered by dealer Barry Friedman in New York. We spoke with him, and he doesn’t remember when or how he discovered the chair, but he remembers owning it twice. He sold it privately, got it back again a few years later, and sold it to the Time Warner Collection in 1988. [The current consigner acquired it in 1993, after its deaccession from the collection.]
Does the fact that this Transat chair wasn’t made for use at E-1027 affect its value at all? It’d be quite extraordinary and so exciting if it was out of the villa owned by Eileen Gray and Jean Badovici. But it’s equally exciting because the chair is as rare as a hen’s tooth. We believe a dozen were made. That’s a tiny number. The Transat is such a celebrated and iconic design, it will stand on its own merits. To the best of our knowledge, only two were created with the calfskin slung seat, and this is one of the two. People are going to be incredibly enthusiastic and wowed by this piece–by its beauty, its integrity, and the fact that it’s in wonderful condition. It has everything you want in a work by Eileen Gray. This is an opportunity that comes around very, very infrequently.
What condition is it in? Really quite good. The lacquer is original, the calfskin is original. It’s just in very remarkable pristine condition.
Does the calfskin upholstery provide more evidence that this Transat chair was made for sale in the Paris boutique, and not for E-1027? Yes. The chairs for that villa could be moved from indoors to outdoors. I don’t believe there’s a calfskin example in the home. What’s really great about the calfskin, what makes it so special, is the use of contrasting materials. It’s got wonderful lines, and the lustrous black lacquer frame contrasts with the seat. Materials were very important to Eileen Gray. It’s really interesting to have this combination of lacquer with calfskin.
Did Gray design her works and hand them off to others to realize, or did she physically create any aspects of this chair? She had two small workshops in Paris, one for handwoven wall hangings and carpets, and one for furniture design, lamps, and mirrors. Her carpets were her most successful product. The furniture was more expensive. She had a very small staff working for her. She was known as a master lacquerist. She mastered the technique of Japanese lacquer, and studied under a Japanese master. She was unmatched among Westerners.
So she would have done the lacquer work on this Transat chair? Quite possibly, yes.
Have you sat in the chair? I haven’t, and I wouldn’t recommend it, because it’s a very delicate piece. The materials are quite delicate and fragile. At this point, it’s more of a sculptural piece than a chair used for seating. But it was made with the intention for use.
Why will this Transat chair stick in your memory? It is an incredible, powerful form. It’s very refined, very elegant. It’s beautiful, but when you think about how modernist it was for the time–it’s a departure from what others, including Eileen Gray, were doing then. It’s got beautiful materials, construction, and technique, the shimmer of lacquer contrasted with a beautiful calfskin seat–it’s magnificent. It’s an incredible, iconic work. To have it in front of you is absolutely breathtaking. It’s the perfect expression of the vision of Eileen Gray in terms of concept and execution.
Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Christie’s.
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