Tuesday, October 14, 2014

ADFFNY ’14: Gray Matters

As an architect, Eileen Gray only built three houses, yet Le Corbusier considered her one of his greatest rivals. Although nearly forgotten for years, her design work is now eagerly sought by collectors. Leading the Eileen Gray renaissance (also including a forthcoming dramatic biopic), Marco Orsini chronicles her life and work in Gray Matters (trailer here), which screens as the opening night film of the 2014 Architecture & Design Film Festival in New York.

Although Eileen Gray was entitled be known as “the Honorable,” she was much more bohemian by nature, attending art school well before proper young ladies did that sort of thing. She would find her calling in Paris, eventually opening her own exclusive furniture boutique. Orsini nicely traces the progression of her art from ground breaking lacquer work to her iconic brick screens, which ultimately evolved into genuine architecture.

She was encouraged to an extent by her then lover, Romanian architect Jean Badovici and Le Corbusier. Logically, the latter was an important early influence on Gray’s work, but their relationship became increasingly strained, especially after Le Corbusier added a series of unwanted murals to her masterwork, Villa E1027, at Badovici’s invitation. Yet, the do not diminish the clarity of her ideas.

Gray only designed two more houses, but their architectural integrity would be irreparably compromised by subsequent owners. (Yes, it takes a special kind of philistine to acquire a signature piece of modernist architecture and then bastardize it beyond recognition.) At least Gray’s furniture and screens would be rediscovered by collectors within her lifetime.

In fact, Orsini uses the celebrated Yves Saint Laurent auction as the film’s grabby introduction to Gray’s work, arguing the staggering sum bid for her dragon chair might be her ultimate legacy. Unlike Pierre Thoretton’s disappointing L’Amour Fou, which promises to use the fabulous objects of the Saint Laurent collection as windows into its subject, but loses confidence in its structural conceit in less than five minutes, Orsini and co-writer Frederick L. Greene skillfully use her work to illuminate the artist.

While Matters positions Gray as something of a Simone de Beauvoir of architecture, Orsini never overplays the feminist card or the potential sensationalism of her affairs. Instead, he maintains a connoisseur’s focus on the work itself. It really is a film for architecture and design enthusiasts, by architecture and design enthusiasts, with enough wider cultural context and biography to keep more casual viewers engaged. Recommended for passionate modernists, Gray Matters screens this Wednesday (10/15) and Sunday (10/19) at the Tribeca Cinemas, as part of this year’s Architecture & Design Film Festival in New York.