Eileen Gray is a name closely tied to women’s dignified entrance into the male-dominated design world.

Born in 1878, Eileen Gray was the youngest of five children of a wealthy Scots–Irish family. This privileged background allowed her to travel frequently and to attend prestigious private art schools in London and Paris. Nevertheless, because she was a woman, not even her advantageous upbringing and notable life experiences granted her access to important professional networks. During most of her long life, she remained formally disassociated from prevalent art movements and design groups, in which almost all of the leading members were men. In her twenties, Gray made Paris her permanent home, and it remained so until her death in 1976.

In France, Eileen Gray’s early work was associated with the Art Deco movement that became popular in the 1920s. Some examples include her geometric rug designs and lacquered furniture work; in particular; the Lotus Table. However, soon she became aware of and attracted to international style trends that emerged during this time and for the rest of her career her work took a different turn, one toward the modernist movement.

In 1926, at a time when primarily male designers and architects were authenticating their leading positions by introducing modern furniture pieces that later became influential icons, Eileen Gray gave us the curvaceous and inviting Bibendum chair. Curiously, Gray named it after a voluptuous male figure: the legendary Bibendum man. The shapely body of this friendly character, created in the late 19th century for the Michelin Company, was perhaps to Gray evocative of the female figures depicted in Renaissance paintings. The Bibendum chair spoke the modern design language fluently: it was a fresh interpretation of the machine aesthetics advocated by Le Corbusier, and it embodied the whiteness and geometric purity of Deutsche Werkbund’s Weissenhofsiedlung and the industrially produced materials used by Bauhaus designers.

The resulting chair was a minimalist piece composed of an upholstered white-leather seat and a back supported by a chrome-finish steel base. Nevertheless, Gray’s piece displayed an original and feminine take on the geometries and proportions prevalent at the time. The three tire-like rolls that made this chair visually bold and enticing were comparable only to the proportions and silhouette of the Michelin man and were later suggested by Lomazzi, D’Urbino, and De Pas with their 1967 Blow Inflatable Armchair.

It was not until the 1970s that Gray signed a contract with Aram Designs, London, to reproduce the Bibendum chair and many of her pieces for the first time. Unlike its designer, who for most of her long career stood in isolation, this chair is “one of the guys.” Similar to Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona and Le Corbusier’s Grand Comfort, the Bibendum chair is in current production, and its licensed reproductions are valued at several thousands of dollars. At the Salem College SIDE Chair Library, the attractive Bibendum (the only chair in the collection designed in its entirety by a woman) sits confidently next to the rest.

Only a few pieces of furniture designed by women have achieved the status of Eileen Gray’s Bibendum. Today, Gray’s work is more admired and valued than ever. Nevertheless, this pioneering designer continues to stand alone in a male-dominated field. Only a handful of women have made it into the design history books. Among them are Americans Florence Knoll and Ray Eames. However, these gifted ladies worked alongside influential male partners. Eileen Gray’s accomplishments were achieved on her own, without a male counterpart.

This fact begs the question: Who will be the next female to walk through the doors that she opened almost 100 years ago?

If you are interested in learning more about Eileen Gray’s Bidendum chair and her other work, the Berniece Bienenstock Furniture Library and the SIDE Chair Library are perfect places to start. We welcome students and design professionals to investigate these libraries and perhaps be inspired by them in their own designs.