Eileen Gray

There was an article in the Observer today about E1027, the Modernist house on the Côte d’Azur designed by the Irish designer and architect, Eileen Gray. I’d never heard of her until relatively recently when I read an article in the London Review of Books about her triggered by the start of an exhibition of her work at the Pompidou Centre in Paris (it finished at the end of May). Now she seems to keep popping up everywhere!

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Image source: Wikipedia

She was born as Katherine Eileen Moray Smith in 1878, near Enniscorthy, a market town in south-eastern Ireland, but moved to London to study art and then on to Paris. An article on the Time Out website reviewing the Pompidou exhibition tells us that

Miss Gray was one of those avant-garde women who wore trousers and broke into a man’s world with their creative flair. A self-made woman and multitalented designer, she spent a good portion of her long (1878-1976) life in France – after her studies at London’s Slade school of art, she moved to Paris in 1902 where she learned (in the studio of Seizo Sugawara) to create futuristic furniture in lacquer, and to insinuate into her screens, tables and lamps the oblique lines that prefigured modernism.

She then moved on into designing Modernist furniture and carpets and interiors. Her best known designs are the Bibendum chair, named after the character created by Michelin to advertise their tyres,

Bibendum chair (picture source: http://antiquesandartireland.com)

and the E1027 table designed in 1929, initially to facilitate her sister reading in bed.


E-1027 table by Eileen Gray (picture source Wikipedia)

In the 1920’s she moved on to architecture, her first design being E1027


E-1027 (Picture source Friends of E1027 website)

There’s a small permanent exhibition about her life and work at the Irish National Museum at the Collins Barracks and, curious to find out more about her after the LRB article had fired my interest, I had a look at it during my visit last Sunday. 

The exhibition posthumously realised one of Gray’s last ambitions – to have her work brought back to Ireland – and

includes such important items as the adjustable chrome table and the non-conformist chair. The exhibition also values Gray on a personal level, including family photographs, her lacquering tools, and personal ephemera. It illustrates an account of her professional development from art student in London and Paris to mature, innovative architect. The exhibition honours the memory of Eileen Gray, modern self-taught architect and designer.

The exhibition comprises one main room showing the exhibits and a second, smaller room where visitors can view a couple of documentaries about her while sitting in a Bibendum chair (it was, to my surprise, very comfortable). There were samples of her lacquer work, plus a description, including videos, of the painstaking process of producing pieces using this natural resin. As I’d expected there were examples of her furniture, pictures of her interiors and plans, and a model, of E1027.

Architectural plan

(image from exhibition website)

No photography was allowed, and there was no guide book and very little information on the Museum’s website about the exhibition.  But it was worth the visit to see the examples of her furniture “in the flesh”.

There will be an opportunity to see more of her work in Dublin later in the year as the Paris exhibition will be transferred to the Irish Museum of Modern Art at the Royal Hospital in Kilmainham, when it reopens in the Autumn, starting 12 October. I hope to have the opportunity to visit it.


There’s a gallery of pictures on E1027 and it’s restoration on the Guardian website here.

Saloua Choucair at Tate Modern

Saloua Raouda Choucair Exhibition web banner

During my recent afternoon in London, after I’d finished at the Courtauld Gallery, I headed over to the Tate Modern. It was about 4:30 by the time I got there, and the Gallery shuts at 6 p.m.,  so I didn’t have a lot of time to look round the massive collection. So what to see? There’s so much there it overwhelms you. So I decided to take advantage of my Tate membership and have a look at one of the temporary exhibitions. I thought the exhibition of works by Saloua Choucair sounded interesting, and I liked the self portrait used on the poster advertising it (see above) so decided to take a look.

It was the right decision. I was bowled over by her work.  A modernist painter – a Lebanese female! And a real talent whose work combines western abstract art with Islamic influences.

The exhibition included some lovely little modernist female nudes, abstract patterns (some clearly influenced by Islamic designs) sculpture in wood, metal and stone  and a room of Constructivist structures – not unlike those by Naum Gabo. She needs to be much better known.

According to the Tate Modern website

Through painting and drawing, architecture, textiles and jewellery, as well as, of course, her prolific and experimental sculptures, visitors can discover how Choucair worked in diverse media pursuing her interests in science, mathematics and Islamic art and poetry. Many of the works, made over a period of five decades, have not previously been seen outside of Lebanon.

A rare female voice in the Beirut art scene from the 1940s onwards, Choucair’s work combines elements of western abstraction with Islamic aesthetics. It is characterised by an experimental approach to materials alongside an elegant use of modular forms, lines and curves drawn from the traditions of Islamic design.

Once in the exhibition I realised I’d seen some of her sculptures before, when we visited Tate Modern in January. I’d snapped a couple of small sculptures.


Poem (1963-5) and Poem of nine verses (1983-5) by Saloua Choucair

The self portrait used to advertise the exhibition isn’t that representative of her work, the majority of which did not include figures. There were some delightful semi-abstract nudes, however, amongst the pictures on display in the first room.

Saloua Raouda Choucair les Peintres Celebres at Tate Modern

Les Peintres Celebres 1948–9 (Source: Tate website)

No photographs were allowed in the exhibition, which is a pity as I don’t have a record of what I saw (I should have bought the catalogue, but, as these things are, it was relatively expensive, but I may regret the decision not to shell out for it). However, the following video, from the Tate’s website, features a significant number of the works on display

and there are pictures of exhibits on the Tate website.

The exhibition included a large number of sculptures, maquettes and sculptural objects. In some cases I could see similarities with works by Barbara Hepworth although Choucair’s works tended to have more complex, intricate forms for example

Sculpture with One Thousand Pieces1966-1968, seemingly simple cubes or blocks, which house intricately carved and highly complex internal forms. Infinite Structure1963–5 is a tower of multiple rectangular stone blocks, one atop the other, each with individual square and spherical holes cut into them. (Tate website)

Saloua Raouda Choucair Sculpture with One Thousand Pieces

Sculpture with One Thousand Pieces (1966-1968)

Some of the sculptures and maquettes were models for water fountains, public projects, architectural structures and even everyday objects like pepper pots.

Saloua Choucair is still alive, in her nineties, but is suffering from Alzheimer’s. But her work is a testament to a relatively unknown talent and shows that there’s more to modernist art than the works by Europeans and Americans that are mainly bought and displayed in art galleries.  The exhibition certainly changed my perception of Arabic art and I was surprised that a woman from an Islamic country, (albeit one that, despite it’s more recent troubles, has a cosmopolitan culture) was able to produce modernist works, some including female nudes. What other surprises await discovery?

The Isokon flats

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I mentioned the Isokon building in my recent post on Modernist houses in Hampstead. But I thought that the building deserved its own, more detailed post.

Designed by the Canadian architect, Welles Coates, they’re located on Lawn Road, a leafy residential street close to the Hampstead Free Hospital, they’re also known as the “Lawn Road Flats”.

Picture source: Museum of London website

It’s an outstanding Modernist building.


Coates was commissioned in 1931 to build the flats by Jack and Molly Pritchard who were the owners of “Isokon” a design company they’d established the previous year.  His brief was to design a block of service flats, built to a standard plan, which would be fitted out with Isokon designed furniture.  The block was completed in July 1934. The design was heavily influenced by the ideas of Le Corbusier – it was meant to be “a machine for living”

Aimed at young professionals the flats were made of reinforced concrete with dramatically cantilevered sculptured stairways and access galleries. Coates felt that furniture should be an integral part of architecture and all essential furniture and equipment was built-in. Each flat included a sliding table, a divan with a spring mattress and cover, a radiator, linoleum floor finish, light fittings, a wash basin with a mirror and a glass shelf, a hanging cupboard with a long mirror, a dressing table with drawers and cupboards beneath, an electric cooker, refrigerator, sink and draining board, refuse container and cupboard space.

The original services included hot water and central heating, cleaning and bed making with meals provided in a central kitchen.

(Design Museum website)

The communal kitchen on the ground floor was converted to restaurant and bar, the Isobar,  which was designed by the Bauhaus émigré Marcel Breuer, in 1936. Although the Isobar was popular for a while, before WW2, with the “Hampstead Set”, the communal facilities weren’t popular and were eventually converted into more flats.

The flats were originally intended to be occupied by “young professionals”  – according to Coates they were designed

“with special reference to the circumstances of the bachelor or young married professional or businessperson.” (source here)

However, in practice, the building attracted a number of Hampstead intellectuals and former residents include the author Agatha Christie, Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and Walter Gropius, the founder of the Bauhaus.


It’s distinctive features are the cantilevered balconies which run along the full length of the building on all the floors, and the tower and entrance hall at one end.

Agatha Christie described the building as “a giant liner without any funnels” and I think she had a point., To me,  the design is very typically “streamline moderne” i.e. an architectural style emphasized curving forms, long horizontal lines, and sometimes nautical elements” (Wikipedia). I felt there were similarities with the design of the Midland Hotel in Morecambe, built during the same period.



There’s a floor plan of the building here which shows how compact the individual flats are.

After WW2 the building went into a period of decline. For a short period the building was owned by the New Statesman magazine but were transferred to Camden Council in 1972. They allowed the flats to continue to deteriorate but they have been recently was refurbished by Notting Hill Home Ownership (NHHO), Avanti Architects with Alan Conisbee Associates as structural engineers and the Isokon Trust. The building now houses 25 shared ownership flats for key workers and 11 for private homes. So they are finally fulfilling their original purpose.

A number of other bloggers have written about the flats, including

London Bytes


Studio 325

and there is further information here, here and here

Modernist houses in Hampstead

Hampstead has, for a long time, been one of the more affluent areas of inner London. It’s always attracted residents from  intellectual, liberal, artistic, musical and literary backgrounds, more receptive to new ideas. As a consequence in amongst the more traditional Georgian and Victorian buildings, there’s a significant number of modernist style houses built between the wars.

One notable example is 2 Willow Road, the former home of the architect Ernö Goldfinger, which is now owned by the National Trust and open to the public. We’d visited previously a couple of years ago (report here) but had another look round during our recent break in Hampstead.


There are plenty of other examples of Modernist architecture within a short distance of Willow Road, most of which are still used for their original purpose as places to live.

One particularly notable building is the Isokon flats on Lawn Road. Designed by Wells Coates, they were completed in 1936

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Famous residents include the author Agatha Christie and Walter Gropius, the founder of the Bauhaus school and an architect himself.

The building was allowed to deteriorate but was refurbished and now house 25 shared ownership flats for key workers and 11 for private homes.


This house is tucked away in Downshire Road, just round the corner from 2 Willow Road and Keats’ House, on a street of more traditional buildings, just opposite St John’s church.


It was designed by Michael and Charlotte Bunney as their own home in 1936. It’s attached to a Georgian house and could almost be taken for an extension.


There are many similarities between the simple design of Modernist houses and some of the typically Georgian buildings, of which there are many in Hampstead. The simple geometric shape, the proportions, the minimalist ornamentation and the white rendering.

Number 13 blended in so well, and was almost hidden by the high hedge and trees, that we almost missed it as we walked past. But the distinctive Modernist style gate gate it away.


Frognal is a particularly prosperous area of Hampstead and there are number of Modernist houses there.

This is “Sun House” halfway down Frognal Way, one of Hampsteads more desirable streets to live in (it’s a private cul-de-sac with a barrier at the end of the road).


It was built in 1936 to a design by E Maxwell Fry.

This house, 66 Frognal, is on the corner of Frognal Way. Built in 1936 it was designed by Connell, Ward and Lucas, a pair of Kiwis and a Brit who were leading Modernist architects.



Frognal Close is a small cul-de-sac of five houses designed by Sigmund Freud’s architecht son, Ernst. They’re just around the corner from Freud senior’s London home in Maresfield Gardens.


This house at 13b Arkwright Road, was designed by Godfrey Samuel of Samuel and Harding.


It’s one of a pair of houses that probably replaced an older, larger, (and probably not particularly attractive) Victorian period building similar to the others in the road.

There are many other . Those pictured above are some of the more notable Modernist houses in the district, but there are plenty of others. We spotted this one, at the top of Willoughby Street, as we were walking along the main street leading up to the Tube station.


We also spotted this interesting looking building just down the road from Belsize tube station. It’s the entrance to a deep air raid shelter from World War Two.


Express building, Manchester

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I was in Manchester Northern Quarter on Saturday and decided to pop over to Great Ancoats Street to take a look at the former Daily Express print works, a Grade II listed building. Opened in 1939, it’s an excellent example of a 1930’s Modernist structure. I first visited it on business over 20 years ago when it was still a working print works. However, the Daily Express stopped production in Manchester in the 1980’s and today it’s been converted into residential properties and offices.


It’s a simple box like structure completely covered with glass – plain and opaque black. Originally the plain glass was transparent and the printing machinery could be seen from outside. It’s been replaced with reflective glass to create privacy for the new residents.

The corners are rounded, giving the building a streamlined appearance, so it could be considered to be “streamline moderne” in style. Although it is over 70 years old it has a very modern look and could easily be mistaken for a much more modern building.

Modernist House in Naas, Ireland

A couple of weeks ago I was working in Naas, County Kildare in Ireland. It’s a small town, about 20 miles west of Dublin. One evening when I was walking from my hotel into the town centre I spotted this distinctive Modernist house. It stood out as it was very different to the other more traditional houses from 30s 40s and 50s that were on the road.

The Midland Hotel, Morecambe


I finally got around to going to visiting the Midland Hotel in Morecambe. Its a striking Modernist building dominating the sea front at the south end of the resort, built in the 1930’s. A fashionable place to stay before in the late 1930’s, it fell into disrepair after the war. It was renovated by the Manchester based development company, Urban Splash, reopening as a “boutique hotel” in 2008. It is now owned by the Lakeland Hotels chain.

It is often referred to as an “Art Deco” building, but that isn’t strictly true. Art Deco was a decorative and ornamental , rather than an architectural, style, although there are plenty of buildings with Art deco styling . The exterior of the has very little decoration. It is a simple, plain but elegant, white building without the ornamentation associated with Art Deco. It’s style is better described as “Streamlined Moderne” –  i.e. an architectural style emphasized curving forms, long horizontal lines, and sometimes nautical elements” (Wikipedia). The long, curved form of the Midland, which, from a distance, could be mistaken for an ocean liner, certainly meets that definition.

The architect was Oliver Hill. Although his early designs were in the Arts & Crafts style, he later began to design modernist style buildings. The Midland Hotel is his most well known commission. I found the following details on the construction of the building on the BBC website

“The building was constructed around steel frames with concrete slab floors and brick walls resting on shallow foundations which spread the load across the sandy surface of the site.  The walls were faced with white rendering composed of cement and carborundum, electrically polished to produce a surface resembling marble. This was relieved by the architraves of the principal windows which were treated with a mixture of carborundum and crushed blue glass.  The soffits of the projecting ledges and the undersides of the balconies were glazed in blue-green. “

The hotel stands on the sea front near the recently renovated “Stone Jetty”, the convex side facing the sea, and is flanked by well kept  public garden on it’s north side.


A glass structure runs along the front of the hotel at ground floor level. This wasn’t an original feature. A conservatory seems to have been added some time during the 1970’s. It was probably considered to be needed to allow guests to sit looking at the sea and the mountains over the bay on a cold day. That appears to have been demolished and replaced by the current structure during the renovation. From photographs I’ve seen the original conservatory spoiled the lines of the building. The replacement is predominately glass and is less obvious. I don’t think it is too detrimental to the look of the hotel.


Another significant change made by Urban Splash during the renovation was the addition of a number of penthouses on the roof. I can understand why they were added. The hotel only has 44 bedrooms and suites, including these penthouses, and so they were probably needed to make the hotel a viable concern. However they obstruct the view of the tower and, to me, spoil the look of the building to some extent.

The entrance is on the concave east side of the building facing the car park and the former railway station, the hotel being originally owned by the London, Midland and Scottish Railway Company. The main feature on this side of the hotel is a central circular tower which protrudes slightly above the roof line of the main part of the building. It houses the principal stairwell – a spiral staircase – and contains the front entrance. It has three long narrow windows extending above the door up to a few feet below the top of the tower.


Just above these windows are the only significant decorative elements on the outside of the building – two seahorses carved by Eric Gill. They are meant to resemble Morecambe Bay shrimps and are used as a motif by the hotel.


Eric Gill also produced three other significant works of art for the hotel which are still displayed inside. Directly behind the reception desk there is a large stone bas-relief based on a story from Homer’s Odyssey. It shows Odysseus being welcomed from the sea by Nausicaa.


At the top of the stairwell is a medallion of Neptune and Triton accompanied by two mermaids, designed and carved by Gill and painted by Denis Tegetmeier, his son-in-law. It is edged with the words “And hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn“. The medallion is 10 feet in diameter and can be clearly seen from the bottom of the stairwell. Guests can get a closer view, but interlopers like us are prohibited from climbing up the stairs. It was restored and repainted during the renovation.


On the wall of the function room behind the Reception, there is a large map Gill created of the Lancashire and Cumbrian coastline centred on the hotel and extending from Whitehaven in the north down to Birkenhead. I like the cheeky way he has smoke from the Royal Scot steam train drifting over towards Blackpool (Morecambe’s rival) and down over Southport (another rival resort) and Liverpool. Morecambe and the Lake District are unaffected, suggesting that they’re clean areas away from the smoke and grime of industrial Lancashire.


At the north end of the hotel there is a circular structure that houses the Rotunda Bar. The interior was originally painted by another well-known artist of the time, Eric Ravilious. However, this deteriorated very soon after the hotel was opened. Today the bar has been fitted out in a modern style.


The textile designer Marion Dorn created striking hand-knotted rugs featuring a directional pattern of waves for the entrance lounge. These have been recreated for the renovated hotel.


The new owners of the hotel haven’t opted for an “Art Deco” design for the interior, which has a more contemporary look.


Despite the modifications to the original design, I think that the the Midland Hotel is a beautiful building. An outstanding example of 1930’s Modernist architecture that needed to be preserved.

Friends of the Midland Hotel

Watch: Tom Dyckhoff has a look round the Hotel (BBC)

Watch: Beth Rowley performs at the Midland Hotel (BBC)

Goldfinger’s House


A few weeks ago we had a long weekend break in London. Intent on seeing things other than the main tourist attractions we took the tube up to Hampstead to visit a couple of National Trust properties well off the tourist trail. One of these was the Goldfinger’s house at 2 Willow Road. One of the few Modernist houses open to the public in Britain.

Inevitably, the name Goldfinger brings to mind the evil mastermind from the Ian Fleming book and James Bond film of the same name, so you might imagine that we would find some underground complex where the anti-hero and his henchman Odd-job hatched their devious plan to take over the world. Well, of course, this isn’t the case. Ernö Goldfinger was a Hungarian Modernist architect who moved to Britain in the 1930’s and settled in London. He designed a home for his family in Hampstead that was finished in 1939. One of his neighbours was a certain Ian Fleming, who was one of the objectors to the building of the house, which required four older cottages that had occupied the site to be demolished. It is said that it named his character after the architect as a way of seeking revenge. Goldfinger and his family moved into the house in September 1939, and lived there for the rest of his life.

Erno Goldfinger

The house is open in the afternoons from 12 until 5 p.m. Thursday to Sunday from March to October, and weekends only for the rest of the year.  There are guided tours at 12 noon, 1 p.m. and 2 p.m, with self guided tours from 3 till 5. It still has it’s original furnishings and contents in place, including a small collection of Modern Art.

The National Trust is normally associated with large stately homes previously occupied by the aristocracy. However they also own a number of notable smaller houses, of which this is one. I often find these much more interesting than the larger properties, as they give a glimpse into the lives of more ordinary people – well, at least people other than the aristocracy. Goldfinger wasn’t exactly working class. He was a relatively successful professional, married to an Englishwoman, Ursula Blackwell, from a wealthy family, living in a prosperous part of London. They mixed with the artistic community who had colonised Hampstead after WW1, and were friends with a number of them, including Roland Penrose and Lee Miller. Politically, they were on the left

The house, which overlooks Hampstead Heath,  is a 10 minute walk from Hampstead tube station. We arrived in time to book a place on the final guided tour of the day. It’s well worth catching the guided tour as you learn a lot more about the history of the house, its contents and owners than you would by wandering around more aimlessly on your own.

The house is part of a building of three houses – numbers 1 to 3 Willow Road. Goldfinger’s is the larger of the three and is flanked by the other two, which are still occupied today. Unlike most Modernist buildings, it isn’t a white box, but is clad in brick. The front elevation faces the north, and as there are no buildings on the other side of the road, it overlooks the Heath. There are three storeys at the front but as it is a sloping site, there is another floor at the back of the building, which overlooks a good sized garden.

Structurally, it has a concrete frame, designed in conjunction with the Danish engineer Ove Arup. This meant that the need for supporting walls  within the building was minimised allowing for large flexible spaces inside with moveable partitions.

At the start of the tour you watch a short film about Goldfinger and the history of the house in one of the two garages belonging to number 2, which has been converted into a small cinema.  You then enter the house through the front door, going into the relatively small entrance hallway, and proceed upstairs to the first floor via a spiral staircase, The stairwell provided interior structural support and removed the need for large landing spaces upstairs.

At the front of the house on the first floor, overlooking the Heath, there was the dining room and a studio, originally used by Ursula, who was an artist (although it was later taken over by Goldfinger). The large, continuous, windows allowed in a lot of light meaning that the rooms were very bright, despite being north facing.  The partitions between the two rooms could be opened up creating a larger space for entertaining guests. The kitchen, though, was tiny.  The south side was occupied by the lounge and a small office/study used by Ernö.

Another spiral staircase takes you to the top floor and the bedrooms. The master bedroom and a guest room are at the front, with the south side occupied by the children’s bedrooms. There were a number of interesting features such as an en-suite bathroom and built in wardrobes, a bed that  folded up into the wall in the guest room, and moveable partitions between the children’s rooms which could be opened up to create a large nursery space during the day (also helped by originally having beds that folded away into the wall).

As is usually the case in National Trust properties, taking photographs isn’t allowed. However there are some pictures of the interior on the NT website here and also here.