Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Tilletts

A Charming Show at the
Museum of the City of New York
On a recent Sunday afternoon, we took the 6 train to 103rd street to the Museum of the City of New York to view "The World of D.D. and Leslie Tillett."
Leslie and D.D. Tillett
In 1944, Leslie Tillett was designing beautiful textiles with his brother in Cuernavaca, Mexico, when Harper's Bazaar sent D.D. Doctorow to write an article about the printworks.
D.D. fell in love with Leslie and stayed in Mexico to work with him. In 1946 they moved to New York City and established a textile design business. The Museum has mounted a little love song of a show consisting of textile designs, clothes, photographs and memorabilia from their charmed life together.
Floral motifs, stripes and fish are shown on these fabrics and garments. The caftan is for sale in the museum shop for $2,700.
 Designers such as Claire McCardell used Tillett fabrics for their garments.

An abstract sailboat motif on an blue-green sea.

 A black silk blouse with yellow fish is paired with a print skirt.

I love these 18th century characters who look like 
they belong in the French Revolution.
 This little Chinese-looking jacket sports a painting
 of the Queen of Roses.
 So pretty!
 Thorns and spider webs.
 A painting by D.D. Tillett. Her son, Seth Tillett
 has said that his mother's work had a
"Oops, I dropped a bouquet on the floor" look.
A D.D. Tillett drawing.
A painting by D.D. Tillett
Tillett jewelry in the exhibit. 
The eye is so delicately drawn and looks
great with the coral and the blue stones.
 Jackie Kennedy was a client of the Tilletts'
 and used their fabrics in the White House.
A Tillett fabric on Jackie's sundress.
Jackie also brought the Tilletts to Skorpios in Greece
to help with the decoration of the villa that
Aristotle Onassis was building.
A poetically titled scrap book by Leslie. 
The couple's Manhattan shop was called
What a beautiful, interesting couple.
Imagine their life working together on creative
projects -- working with only the best designers of
the day out of their town house.
A truly hands-on endeavor far from mass production.
 Drawing by Leslie Tillett.
 Aliens in thrall of the devil, I imagine.
 A display of photographs against Tillett fabrics.
 Richard with a selection of men's wear with Tillett designs.

Jackie had a Tillett sundress with the raspberry motif above.
Later, she used it on curtains in a Palm Beach bedroom.
Richard fits right in with pattern on pattern.
Here I am in my Paris-bought Tsumori Chisato
silk dress posing in front of a
cascade of Tillett fabrics.

The Tillett show runs through January 6th at
The Museum of the City of New York
1220 5th Avenue at 103rd Street

À Bientôt!

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Une Visite Commentée

A Rare Visit to an Architectural Masterwork
One day in a book store about 25 years ago I found this book. It's a biography of Eileen Gray by Peter Adam, who was her friend. Discovering this book touched me deeply. Because Eileen Gray was a creative artist who designed furniture and rugs and who built houses. Really intriguing houses. And I loved her interest in decorative art styles such as De Stijl and Russian Constructivism.

In 1924, when Eileen was 46, she began to build a house on the rocky coast of the Mediterranean in Roquebrunne-Cap-Martin. This house, called E.1027, has always captivated me. And the amazing thing is that she was entirely self-taught as an architect. Today her house is considered a masterwork of the 20th century. On Saturday, September 15, Richard and I got to visit E.1027 along with 10 other people, on a viste commentée (guided tour). This was a special tour, because the house is being restored and is not open to the public yet.
 Eileen at 5 years of age.
Eileen Gray was born in Ireland in 1878. Her parents were well-to-do with an aristocratic background, and Eileen grew up in an elegant manor house. Her father, who she adored, was a painter, but when Eileen was young, he went away to Italy. Eileen had a lonely childhood and her education was private and sporadic. But her father taught her a love of freedom. She hated pretentiousness and respectability.
Eileen as a young woman.
At the age of 22, Eileen persuaded her mother to let her go to the Slade School of Fine Arts in London. It was really a finishing school for girls of good families. She took drawing lessons and made some life-long friends. But it was in 1902, when she moved to Paris, that her life really opened up as she made friends in the arts and discovered the world of design. 

In 1905, while on a visit to London, Eileen wandered into a lacquer repair shop. She loved the elegance of the material. She also met a young Japanese man named Sugawara who taught her how to use lacquer.  She began to make lacquer furniture.
 A lacquer desk and bench designed by Eileen Gray.
Eileen loved the contact with craftsmen. She began to make designs for rugs which were like abstract paintings. She was making a name for herself as a furniture designer as well.

 Rugs designed by Eileen Gray.
In 1921, Eileen opened a shop called Jean Désert in Paris.
The interior of Jean Désert.
Eileen Meets Jean
Jean Badovici
Sometime after World War I, Eileen met a young, Hungarian architect named Jean Badovici. Theirs was a mutually beneficial relationship. He was knowledgeable about 20th century architecture and poor, and she was talented, thirsty for knowledge and rich. Jean also contributed to the leading architecture magazine of the time, L'Architecture Vivante. It became Eileen's textbook.

In 1924 Jean asked Eileen to build him a "little refuge" in the south of France. He said to her "Why don't you build?" Eileen had visited Saint-Tropez and loved the area. So she went there to search for a place to build the house. I quote from the Peter Adam book:
"One day she drove as far as a little place called Roquebrunne, on the coast between Menton & Nice. She had heard of land which was cut off so that one could not drive to it." 
"She walked along the railway track from the small station at Roquebrunne and came to a rocky terrain a hundred feet above the Mediterranean Sea, inaccessible and not overlooked from anywhere."
The train station in Roquebrunne.

Richard walking the path to Eileen Gray's house in Roquebrunne. 
"Of course this part of the coast was not very much built up yet, but even then a plot like this was a rarity. It had a kind of savage atmosphere that Eileen always preferred to the lush, gentler landscape. If she had any doubts earlier, she suddenly "knew that I was going to build and I was going to build here."
 The breathtaking view from Eileen's house, E.1027.
Carol and Richard visit E.1027
Badly neglected for years, E.1027 is being restored by the French government, with no-small contribution from an American group called Friends of E.1027, of which I am a member. By happy coincidence, a guided tour was available during the Journées du Patrimoine (Heritage Days) when we would be in Nice. I emailed the Office of Tourism requesting two reservations. Their response:
"Nous avons bien prie en compte votre demande de reservation pour le samedi 15 septembre. Le point de Rendez-vous pour la visite de la Villa E-1027 sera sur le parking (côté mer) de la gare SNCF de Cap-Martin-Roquebrunne à 10h du matin."
We were in. We were to meet on the sea-side of the parking lot at the train station at 10 a.m.
I asked our concierge how to get to Roquebrunne and he said by train. He printed out the train schedule highlighted above. It was a half-hour trip, so we decided on the 9:00 train just to be safe.

However, when we got to the Nice train station, I could not find a 9 a.m. train on the board. I asked a station agent, and she told me it was an error. So we had to take the 9:30 train. But this is the best part: while I was talking to the station agent, she looked at me with surprise, and said: "Vous parlez bien Madame!" (You speak well Madam.) All those hours of French homework had paid off.
Richard speaks English to some French people at the Nice train station.
Since it was a Saturday and a holiday, the train was packed. A woman kindly removed her rusted shopping cart from a seat so that I might sit. The train travels right along the beautiful coast. We arrived in Roquebrunne at 10:01. I ran down some steps, through a tunnel, to the sea side of the station. There was our tour group ready to roll. Breathlessly I paid the 18 euros for the tour, as Richard caught up.
We walked down the path from the station to the entrance to E1027.
This is our tour guide, Christine Coulet, holding
 a copy of a L'Architecture Vivante with
an article about E.1027, "Maison en Bord de Mer" 
(House next to the Sea)
And now a word about photographs. Why is that people will not let you take photographs? In museums, in stores ... on tours. It is most disagreeable. We were not permitted to take photos inside the house. So I will supplement the tour with photos from the Adam's book for interiors.

Building E.1027 took three years. Eileen designed the house and single handily oversaw the building. It was arduous. She either lived on site or in a hotel. There was no road, and the workmen had to bring in materials by wheelbarrow. Jean Badovici largely stayed away. But Eileen ended each day with a refreshing swim in the sea below. The house was finished in 1929.

 Our tour outside.
Eileen built this house for Jean Badovici. She signed over the rights to him. They did, however, spend many summers together at E.1027. This went on until Jean's behavior (alcoholism and womanizing) made it intolerable for Eileen to stay.
 E stands for Eileen, 10 (J the 10th letter of the alphabet) 2(B the 2nd letter) and 7(G the 7th letter).
The main room of the house with Eileen's furniture.
The renovation of E.1027 is far from complete. I believe that structurally, the house is now sound, and the outside looks good. The inside is bare -- the restorers are raising money for Eileen Gray furniture. The interior has the desultory look of a work in progress. There are tiny scraped excavations on the walls through layers of paint to find original colors.

The hallmarks of Eileen's design style were built-in furniture, practically and intelligently placed to maximize a small space, and a lyrical and geometric quality. Areas were divided by movable or light-partition walls. It was a "maison minimum" (minimal house). Every detail -- a wall, a built-in cupboard, a wall color, or a word stenciled in the vestibule like "entrez," was totally considered.

 The kitchen

 A table by Eileen Gray in chrome, tubular steel and exotic wood.

The Villa Outside
The house has two levels -- the gray curtains shield against the sun.
Eileen designed this gate to keep her dog from getting out.
It must have been either a big or a stupid dog.
Shutters have been restored.
The woman is a reporter for the newspaper Nice-Matin.
She took our picture, but I have not seen the story in the paper.

 This is not a pool. Eileen designed this curious area as a sunbathing trough.
 Water would have attracted mosquitoes.
 Please look at the drawing on the wall on the lower level of E.1027.
 Eileen Gray did not put this mural there:
 the architect, Le Corbusier drew this mural. 
After Eileen had left E.1027, and actually built herself another villa near Menton, Le Corbusier, as a guest of Jean Badovici, painted seven murals on the walls at E.1027. Eileen considered it an act of vandalism. He might have been a great architect, but he was a bad artist. As Peter Adam put it, "It was a rape."
Here are Le Corbusier, his wife, and Jean partying at E.1027 in front of one of Le Corbusier's murals.
The French government, however, has seen fit to restore the Le Corbusier murals instead of removing them so that Eileen's original walls could be restored. It seems that the restoration of the Le Corbusier murals was non-negotiable since he is such a celebrated man and architect, and Eileen, a less-celebrated woman and architect. I think it's very wrong.
Eileen Gray died in 1976 at the age of 98.
There is a delightful beach below E.1027. My friend, Lola Ehrlich, told me that she and her husband used to walk down to the beach, and that there was a nice cafe there. I would have loved to go, but we wanted to get a train back to Nice.

 The scenery is really too wonderful for words.

The way out.
As I was leaving Eileen's house, a woman who had heard me say that I was from New York, asked me if she could drive from New York to Fallingwater, Frank Lloyd Wright's house near Pittsburgh. I explained that I thought it was too far, but that she could fly to Pittsburgh and rent a car.
She was an architectural voyager, like me.

If you are interested, you may learn more here.
À bientôt mes amis. Et merci, Eileen Gray.