Introducing three visionary female interior designers
These female designers revolutionized the landscape of 20th-century interior design. Their enduring influence continues to inspire countless interior designers, and their iconic interiors remain relevant even today. Each of these remarkable women possessed a unique and unmistakable style that is instantly recognizable.
She was an architect, designer, as well as an enthusiastic hiker and skier, a visionary, an independent woman and a global traveller. From the early decades of the 20th century, she revisited the concept of design and its aesthetic values, giving life to contemporary design through timeless, iconic and authentic objects that bear witness to modern times.
Charlotte Perriand (1903-1999) was a French architect and designer known for her focus on creating functional living spaces to improve society. In her 1981 article "L'Art de Vivre," she emphasized the connection between living spaces and one's well-being. Perriand's design process involved immersing herself in a space, appreciating its unique qualities, and drawing inspiration from it.
Early Life: Born in Paris, Perriand's artistic talent was evident from a young age. She attended the École de L'Union Centrale des Arts Décoratifs from 1920 to 1925, studying furniture design. Notable teachers included Henri Rapin. Her work was showcased at the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in 1925, gaining recognition.
Career: Perriand gained recognition with her "Bar sous le Toit" design at the 1927 Salon d'Automne, characterized by its use of light-reflecting materials and machine-age aesthetics. She sought to create affordable designs and later joined Le Corbusier's studio, known for promoting functional furniture.
In collaboration with Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret, she designed chairs based on the principles of comfort and utility.
During the 1930s, Perriand embraced egalitarian and populist design, using traditional materials like wood and cane. She was involved in leftist organizations and helped found the "Union des Artistes Modernes." Her designs drew inspiration from the furniture of Savoie.
After a decade working with Le Corbusier, she established her successful career. Perriand collaborated with Jean Prouvé and was involved in designing military barracks during World War II.
Japan and Vietnam: Perriand advised the Japanese government on industrial design and was detained during her return to Europe, leading to her exile in Vietnam. This period influenced her work, incorporating Eastern design elements.
Return to Paris: Upon returning to Paris, Perriand's work was in high demand, and she worked on various projects, refusing to furnish buildings designed by other architects. She collaborated with Jean Prouvé and designed interiors for the Unité d'habitation.
Les Arcs: Perriand's design at Les Arcs ski resorts focused on prefabrication, standardization, and open spaces. She created minimal rooms with efficient wet units, enabling the rapid construction of inhabitable studios.
The Chaise Longue: Perriand's chaise longue design was influenced by Thonet's bentwood chairs, reflecting the human body's position and architectural requirements.
Personal Life: Perriand had two husbands and a daughter, Pernette, who worked alongside her for over 25 years.
She passed away three days after her 96th birthday in 1999.
Eileen Gray (August 9, 1878 – October 31, 1976) was an Irish architect and furniture designer who played a pioneering role in the Modern Movement within the field of architecture.
Throughout her career, she formed connections with prominent European artists of her time, such as Kathleen Scott, Adrienne Gorska, Le Corbusier, and Jean Badovici, with whom she shared a romantic relationship. One of her most renowned creations is the iconic residence known as E-1027, located in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, France.
Early Life: Eileen Gray, originally Kathleen Eileen Moray Smith, was born on August 9, 1878, in Brownswood, near Enniscorthy, County Wexford, Ireland. She was the youngest of five children. Her father, James McLaren Smith, was a Scottish landscape painter who nurtured her interest in painting and drawing. Following her parents' divorce when she was eleven, she adopted the name Gray.
Education: Gray's formal art education began in 1900 at the Slade School in London, an unconventional choice given its bohemian and co-educational environment. Her influential teachers included Philip Wilson Steer, Henry Tonks, and Frederick Brown. While at the Slade, she met Dean Charles, a furniture restorer who introduced her to lacquer techniques.
In 1902, Gray moved to Paris, studying at the Académie Colarossi and later the Académie Julian. She returned to London in 1905 but continued studying lacquer with Dean Charles before returning to Paris. Gray was dedicated to learning the art of lacquer, even enduring the discomfort of a painful rash on her hands, known as the "lacquer disease."
In 1910, Gray established her own lacquer workshop in Paris, producing commissioned pieces for wealthy clients. She also served as an ambulance driver during World War I.
Interior Design: After World War I, Gray designed the Rue de Lota apartment for Juliette Lévy, which gained recognition as an epitome of Art Deco. Her famous designs, including the Bibendum Chair and the Pirogue Day Bed, were featured in this project.
The Bibendum Chair, inspired by the Michelin Man, featured tire-like shapes on a chromed steel frame. The Pirogue Day Bed, inspired by Polynesian canoes, was shaped like a gondola. In 1922, Gray opened her shop, Jean Désert, on Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, selling abstract geometric rugs and other designs. Notable clients included James Joyce, Ezra Pound, and Elsa Schiaparelli.
As Gray's work evolved, she transitioned from using luxurious materials to a simpler, more industrial style, influenced by Le Corbusier and other Modernists who valued utility and simplicity.
Architecture: Eileen Gray's architectural career began with her informal apprenticeship, during which she studied architectural theory, drafting, and building sites. In 1926, she started working on E-1027, a holiday home near Monaco, in collaboration with Romanian architect Jean Badovici.
E-1027 was a masterpiece, embodying Le Corbusier's "Five Points of the New Architecture." However, Gray emphasized the importance of interior harmony over exterior design. She used lightweight, multi-purpose furniture, which she called "camping style," and maximized natural light and airflow.
Gray's next project, Tempe à Pailla, featured separate spaces while maximizing panoramic views. Her design focused on simplicity and practicality.
World War II and Later Life: During World War II, Gray was interned as a foreign national, and her houses were looted. Many of her drawings and personal papers were destroyed by bombing. Renewed interest in her work began in 1967 when historian Joseph Rykwert published an essay about her.
Gray passed away on Halloween in 1976, and she is buried in the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris.
Eileen Gray's work gained recognition after her death. Notable exhibitions and documentaries, such as "Gray Matters" and "The Price of Desire," showcased her contributions to design and architecture. In 2009, her "Dragons" armchair set an auction record for 20th-century decorative art. It sold for €21,905,000 against a pre-sale estimate of €2-3 million. The National Museum of Ireland has a permanent exhibition of her work.
Elsie de Wolfe
Elsie de Wolfe, known as Lady Mendl after her marriage to English diplomat Sir Charles Mendl in 1926, was a remarkable American actress who later became a celebrated interior designer and author.
Born in New York City, de Wolfe demonstrated a keen sensitivity to her surroundings from a young age.
She played a pioneering role as one of the earliest female interior decorators, revolutionizing the prevailing dark and ornate Victorian decor with her signature styles, characterized by simplicity, brightness, and uncluttered room layouts.
Elsie de Wolfe, known as Lady Mendl (born Ella Anderson de Wolfe; approximately December 20, 1859 - July 12, 1950), was an American actress who later gained significant acclaim as an interior designer and author. Born in New York City, de Wolfe displayed a remarkable sensitivity to her surroundings from a young age, eventually becoming one of the earliest and most influential female interior decorators. Her work revolutionized interior design by replacing the dark and ornate Victorian decor with brighter, simpler styles and uncluttered room layouts.
De Wolfe's marriage in 1926 to English diplomat Sir Charles Mendl was viewed as a marriage of convenience, even though she took pride in her title as Lady Mendl. However, for nearly four decades prior to her marriage, she lived openly in a lesbian relationship with Elisabeth Marbury, with whom she resided in both New York and Paris. Lady Mendl was a prominent social figure, and her entertaining skills were sought after in elite circles.
Career: Elsie de Wolfe is often credited with inventing the profession of interior design. Although the field of interior decoration and design began gaining recognition as early as 1900, de Wolfe was the most famous name in the industry until the 1930s. She received her first official commission in 1905, which was to design the interiors of the Colony Club in New York. Her clients included prominent figures like Anne Harriman Vanderbilt, Anne Morgan, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, and Henry Clay and Adelaide Frick. She transformed the interiors of her wealthy clients' homes from dark, heavily curtained spaces into light, intimate environments featuring fresh colors and 18th-century French furniture.
Elsie de Wolfe also authored the influential book "The House in Good Taste" in 1913. She was renowned for her ability to introduce air and sunlight into American homes, drawing inspiration from 18th-century French and English art, literature, theater, and fashion.
By securing the commission for the Colony Club in 1905, de Wolfe initiated a turning point in her career. She subsequently designed interiors for various prestigious private homes, clubs, and businesses on both the East and West coasts. Her growing reputation led to the expansion of her design studio, establishing her as the most sought-after interior decorator of her time.
Personal Celebrity: Elsie de Wolfe achieved personal celebrity as one of the most widely recognized women in New York social life during her time. She was named the best-dressed woman in the world by Paris experts in 1935, known for her unique fashion choices and elegant style.
De Wolfe was known for her witty and memorable sayings, such as "Never complain, never explain." She maintained a strict diet and exercise regimen, embracing a semi-vegetarian lifestyle and engaging in daily exercises, including yoga and acrobatics.
Elsie de Wolfe passed away in Versailles, France, and her ashes were interred in a common grave at Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. Her influence and legacy continue to be celebrated in popular culture and the world of interior design.
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