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Eileen Gray and the Michelin aka Bibendum Chair
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Bold and pioneering, Eileen Gray’s work speaks for itself. However, Gray’s work was initially overlooked in the male-dominated design industry of the early 20th century. Acclaim and recognition wouldn’t come until the very last years of the furniture designer and architect’s life.
Born in 1878 as Kathleen Eileen Moray, Gray grew up in both Ireland and England. She was one of the first women to study art at the Slade School of Fine Art in London. Gray was intrigued by a range of disciplines, including Japanese Lacquerware and the abstract geometric principles of the Dutch De Stijl movement. Both of these influences would become apparent in the creative’s later work.
In the early 1920s, Gray moved to Paris and started to establish herself as designer of lacquer furniture. She opened a shop to commercialize her work, under the name Jean Désert et E: Gray, in an attempt to hide her gender and create ambiguity in regards to the store’s ownership.
While her store never achieved notable commercial success, it was during this era that Gray created the enigmatic Bibendum Chair. The curvaceous design was inspired by, of all things, the chubby tire-bodied mascot of the France’s Michelin tire company. Bibendum, the character, was born in 1898, when Michelin founders, Édouard and André, commissioned a local artist to bring their “tyre man” to life. The Michelin Man become an instant hit, appearing in company ads across Europe and ultimately the World.
While the resulting Bibendum chair incorporated emerging machine aesthetics and Bauhaus influences, it looked like nothing else available at the time. The upholstered leather seat and chrome-finish steel base feel organic together while notably more feminine then the more strictly geometric designs of Gray’s modernist contemporaries.
The chair was sold in Gray’s Paris store and would later be featured in many of her interiors, including in the salon of her Villa E1027 home. L’Illustration magazine featured the chair in a 1933. It wouldn’t see mass production until the 1970’s, when Gray signed a contact with London’s Aram Designs. Gray would pass away shortly thereafter on Halloween 1976. Her legacy lives on and the Bibendum Chair is still available from Aram today with upholstery in leather or wool felt, with either a polished chrome or a matte black lacquered base.
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2110 E Kline Avenue, Salt Lake City, UT 84117 (Price Cut)