I’m always interested in famous architecture and interior design projects, as they can provide so much inspiration. Reading about them isn’t the same as visiting and experiencing them for myself though. Not just to soak up the building and its interior first-hand, but also to get a feel for the setting and wider context of the area in which it’s located.
Understanding overall properties and responding to their situation is such an important part of our design approach, so a visit is the only way to fully appreciate another designer’s work.
During a trip to the south of France last month I managed to tour a house that I’ve wanted to visit for many, many years. This stunning house in Roquebrune Cap Martin just to the East of Monaco was the creation of furniture-designer Eileen Gray.
Designed in conjunction with her then-lover architect Jean Badovici, the house is named E-1027 after a combination of their initials, and was conceived as Gray developed her style from the Deco furniture that she had been working on and embraced the emerging modernist aesthetic.
After years of neglect in the late 20th century, both the exterior and interior have been faithfully restored in keeping with the original designs and construction.
The location and garden
Gray bought the land in the 1920s and spent several years designing the house – to fit with the landscape and also make the most of the location overlooking the sea.
The house is hidden from the nearby footpath, and entering the plot you see the original terraces of the land from its previous agricultural use. These have now been replanted with the lemon trees that would have been here in the 1920s.
Entering the house
The house isn’t large, and although the interior has an apparent simplicity with its modern appearance and lack of decorative details, it is in fact richly designed in its use of form and colour in the space.
A partition across the space behind the entrance door screens the living space, while also reorienting the visitor towards the terrace and the view of the sea. The soft curves guide the eye and the visitor, and the deep colours are crucial in visually softening this intervention and influence.
Form and flow are also combined with function, with a break in the partition offering storage for visitors’ coats.
The Transat chair & Le Corbusier’s decorative murals
The room opens out onto a simple, flexible and adaptable interior, combining sitting, sleeping and dining areas. Here is Gray’s beautiful ‘Transat’ chair which she designed for the house. You can also see it in the V&A Museum’s gallery of modern furniture, and it’s still in production today.
It was based on the reclining deck chairs of the transatlantic steam liners of the day. It looks simple, although its sycamore frame requires a complex method of joining, and the chromed metal hinges are exquisitely designed.
Le Corbusier later visited and painted murals on some of the walls, much to her dismay – Gray had always maintained that the interior should be free of powerful decoration. They’re part of the story of the house though so they haven’t been removed, although one of them in this main space is now hidden behind the white panel in order to return the appearance to that which Gray originally designed.
Another Gray chair design is also in the sitting room space. This is her ‘Bibendum’ chair, inspired by the ‘Bibendum’ Michelin tyres man.
Apparently it was also her feminist retort to Le Corbusier’s rather squarer ‘Grand Confort’ chair.
The way in which the interior and exterior of the home are joined, and the way in which occupants transition between the two, is also carefully directed.
A small door at the end of the main room opens up onto this magical spot.
This must be one of the finest places in the world to hang suspended and enjoy a view over the sea. Perhaps without the design tourists visiting the house!
The levels of the house follow the contours of the land, with the upper floor being the entrance and further accommodation and terraces below. The external terrace in front of the house is also simply yet meticulously designed. A white stone bench wraps around the gloss black tiled surface terrace – framing the area and its central fig tree.
Alongside a further terrace in honed white stone provides contrast – the colours and textures of the two surfaces playing off each other.
Design details and features
As well as the larger scale features of the house, the interior is packed with interesting details and custom designs – here are just a couple.
In the bathroom there is a simple but beautifully made small shelf in metal and glass – for ‘light things’.
In the sitting room, a recess on the other side of the entrance partition was designed and fitted out for the storage of her record collection.
Modernist holiday cabins
There are other famous architectural creations to see around the house too. Just behind the house is the restaurant Etoile de Mer, alongside which Le Corbusier built his ‘Cabanon’ – his hut.
He later designed and built five holiday cabins, so that others could visit and enjoy this beautiful location, while living in modest spaces that offered ‘just enough’. Le Corbusier designed them based on his ‘Modular’ system – dimensions based on the proportions of the human body.
A full-size representation of ‘Le Modulor’ is painted on the side of the cabins:
Using the proportions of the human body to design for humans, this system was intended to be a unit-agnostic method of design which could be used around the world, in different countries and cultures regardless of the units of measure they used or the common size of their people.
Le Corbusier’s Le Cabanon
His cabin was also built with Le Modulor, using proportions based on a man six feet tall. The height of the Cabanon is 2.26m, being the six-foot person with one arm above their head. The plan dimensions of the space are 3.66 x 3.66m – each side twice the height of the six-foot man.
I couldn’t take photographs here, although I’ve found a plan drawing of the interior:
Although incredibly compact, this space housed everything he needed to live and work here. It’s an extraordinary study in simple living and unpretentious design. He would spend time here working, designing and painting, and enjoying the beautiful light and climate of southern France.
A modernist masterpiece
Eileen Gray’s house is the main attraction here though, and it’s simply a modernist masterpiece.
As is common with so much good design, its apparent simplicity is borne out of careful consideration and meticulous detailed design. And this shot looking down on the house shows how it sits so beautifully in its environment…⠀⠀
I also visited the stunning Fondation Maeght in St Paul de Vence, as well as the Rosary Chapel by Matisse in Vence. I’ll post about these too when I have a moment…