Eileen Gray
Living room in 31027, Cap Martin, Roquebrune, 1926-1929

Could you give us a little insight into the ‘Homework’ project – who are you and what do you do?

Homework is a research project that I am undertaking with independent curator Clare Sheppeard . Our aim is to twofold, firstly to highlight some of the less visible women artists, designers and architects working in the Modernist style eg Eileen Gray, Lilly Reich, and Charlotte Perriand, and secondly, to work with artists who have been inspired or informed by the ideas and work of these women. Our ultimate aim is to commission new work that highlights how artists respond to architecture as a social space, a place for daydreaming, and as a subjective and creative space.

We are interested in exploring an alternative view to Modernism’s, and specifically to Le Corbusier’s, concept of architecture as a “machine for living”, instead offering a more personal take of the role of architecture and reflecting on Eileen Gray’s notion of architecture as a “protective shell against the world”.

History suggests that the great male heroes of International Style and the Bauhaus had little time for women yet a few voices supported the emergence of women who excelled and were innovators in the field of architecture and design. These women have not always received the credit they deserve and are less prominently featured in histories or exhibitions about this period

Exterior of Eileen Gray’s home. Photograph by Sharon Haward.

Why do you think it is important to tell new stories about women designers? 

There have been exhibitions that highlight the work of Gray (Pompidou, Paris 2013) Reich (MOMA New York, 1996) but women’s stories are still relatively underplayed compared to their male contemporaries and colleagues such as Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe. The contributions these women made say something more complex and goes beyond the mere fact of their gender; they offer a whole way of thinking – about scale and the use of materials and functionality. The idea of having built-in furniture, for example, which in the 1920’s and 1930’s was novel, was developed in part by Le Corbusier at the Villa Savoye which has built-in wardrobes, shelves and tables. Yet at E1027 Eileen Gray took this idea in a different more multi-functional direction, making built-in cupboards that are also part of the wall, and a three quarter room height rounded partition wall that is divided horizontally at eye level into white and blue sections, this partition is simultaneously the entrance to the room and forms part of the hallway. Her furniture is light, portable, adjustable and was designed to be moved according to need. She offered the inhabitant autonomy over the placement of furniture. Her famous adjustable table, designed for her sister who liked to eat breakfast in bed, was made of tubular steel and plexiglass, which seems unremarkable today, but if we consider the weight, solidity and volume of nineteenth century furniture, this use of lightweight materials was particularly innovative. It is interesting to note that Aram uses heavier chrome and glass in his reproductions of the adjustable table making it more solid and therefore more worthy of serious investment by his clientele! 

The point here, I think, lies in the historical roles assigned to many men and women until the post war period. It’s also important to recognise that these houses and buildings were designed by and for wealthy people, people who were educated, informed and fully immersed in the modernist project of forging a new rational world. Making progress in a world of increasing industrialization, mass production, evolving new technologies and materials, they were interested in creating better more rational, transparent housing and by extension a more utopian society. But these men (and few women) were often out in the world and absorbing all it had to offer, and many women were not, their social role and function being tied to the home. When some of these women got the opportunity to gain an education and work, they already had first hand experience of being in the home and an understanding of how a house ‘worked’ even though it is unlikely that they were involved in anything that we might call housework. Even so, their attitude to and understanding of interior space, furniture and the functioning of a house/home would have been very different to that of men.

Could you unpack your inspiration for ‘Homework’ a little – what does Eileen Grey’s idea that architecture is a ‘protective shell against the world’ mean for you as an artist/curator?

I have been intrigued by the work of Gray for many years and have recently begun to re-visit her work. What interested me about her furniture and architecture is the way it  was designed for ‘use’ and comfort, and that it was created in response to different physical and psychological needs. Gray’s house in South of France E1027, designed for her mentor  (and some believe lover) Jean Badovici, is designed to make optimum use of the site, the view, the air flow and the passage of the sun so that maximum functionality and comfort is achieved. E1027 embodies a sense of the Luxe, Calme et Volupté made famous in Baudelaire’s poem Invitation to Voyage, the title of which she had stenciled onto the walls of the living room, emphasising her idea of the home as a place of refuge or sanctuary. It is a place to daydream of travel, to sunbathe, a place to disappear into literature and to socialise. There are two extraordinary, articulated shelves that pivot out from the wall and are designed to hold a book in an upright position and that adjust to the position of the reader as he/she reclines in the drift of an off-shore breeze. More functional activities are tucked away, for example there are two kitchens, an outdoor one which is public and for entertaining, and a hidden interior one. 

I am, however, conflicted in my desire to traipse, wide-eyed around these early 20th century ‘follies’.  I spent many years working at the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill, which is a public modernist building by Mendelsohn and Chermayeff. This people’s palace, now contains exhibition spaces for contemporary art, a theatre, a cafe and roof terrace. Its position and orientation towards the sea, its use of good quality materials and perhaps more importantly its scale, makes it an agreeable place to visit. It feels open and calm, it feels hopeful. This building works as a public space, it feels alive and accessible but it hasn’t always been easy to keep it so. 

I am drawn to the idea of architecture as a utopian and progressive development  believing that everyone should have a well designed home that is functional, comfortable, protective and of course affordable. Many people however would be reluctant to live in a modernist  house, though the legacy of built-in furniture and lack of ornamentation is quite standard now. In Oslo I visited the Villa Stenersen, a functionalist villa left by its owner to the nation, but no-one to wanted to live in this glassy, functional, sun lit  house overlooking the Oslofjord , Norwegians preferring something a little more gemütlich .  Houses such as E1027, The Villa Savoye (Outside Paris) Villa Stenersen (Oslo) Villa Sommerfeld (Rotterdam) etc.  appeal to me in a sculptural way, suggesting order and calm. The spaces are both intimate and expansive, the inside and outside blur and blend. They feel like an antidote to a complicated and messy world and temptingly offer the idea of a place where order can be restored, even if only temporarily. Although they embody an optimistic and ordered world and point to a future that never arrives, they never took off because they are un-homely and they are expensive to build on a large scale. They often lack space for individual expression and messy family life, what they offer is a less-is-more totalitarianism.

Homework, as well as suggesting work to be done at home, something that is a bit of a chore, also suggests that the act of making of a home through work – it is more than just architecture, its also about who and what happens within, it is a social space that is a stage for activity, ritual and emotion.

How did you select the films chosen for the De La Warr programme? 

We had been in contact with Rosie Cooper, the curator at the De La Warr Pavilion about the potential for developing aspects of Homework with her. Although we didn’t get funding for the broader project she continued to be really supportive and offered us an opportunity to run one of the screenings at the DLWP to tie in with the Still I Rise exhibition (https://www.dlwp.com/exhibition/still-i-rise/) . We compiled a selection of short films that combined our interest in bodies, architecture and space and the themes of the exhibition which explored the history of resistance and alternative forms of living from the perspective of gender. We wanted to show a range of short films from the last fifty years and included those by well known artists and film-makers like Maya Deren, Chantal Akerman, Ursula Mayer, Liane Brandon and Rosalind Nashibishi and less well known ones like Alex Martinis Roe, Tanya Syed, Amina Ahmed and Sharon Haward. 

La Chambre by Chantal Akerman

How do these films capture different aspects of the domestic? 

The films express many different ways women use and inhabit architectural and domestic space. Each film offers a different viewpoint about the relationship, physical, psychological and imaginary, between the female body and architectural and domestic space.  The films relate these experiences of space in different ways, for example in La Chambre by Akerman shows us a solitary figure just being in a room as the camera pans through 360 degrees, in Nashashibi’s film Vivian’s Garden two women, mother and daughter are seen trapped in their house and garden in Guatemala. Brandon’s Anything You Want To Be uses a bathroom mirror as the focus of a young girl’s confessional confusion about her assigned place in the world and Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon shows a woman moving around her house and hovering between real and dream worlds. 

Vivian’s Garden by Rosalind Nashashibi

Your own work looks at the intersections between performance, assemblage and spaces – how do you approach some of the site-specific work you have done?

In my practice the site is of great importance as it has potential to be both object and subject, it often leads me on a journey to both insight and understanding of the function and history of a space, but it can also lead me on a creative and more playful journey that revolves around finding ways to interrupt, subvert and/or experiment with the space and the narrative of the site.  

My approach is to gather impressions, stories and physical sensations and transform them into something that is new but has its roots in the genius loci. I use photography, sometime video and sound and occasionally text as a way of documenting the space, or getting a sense of place and use them to inform, provoke or inspire a response of riposte. The aim is to create something that offers a new perspective, that interrupts the existing spirit of place but is also something that is rooted in the site. There is a moment when all these strands come together and an intuitive response begins to rise up, when the use of the research, materials and images combine to make a non-verbal manifestation. 

The performance work I do with RUNWAY with artist Roz Cran, is more of a social response to architecture and the landscape, offering up moments of resistance, taking time to stand and stare. We have developed a process of walking for 4-8 miles and inviting people to join us, we walk and talk, meet new and old friends and then stop periodically to stand still for 5 -10 minutes. This moment of stillness is recorded through photography and participants can gain access to the photos via facebook or email. We also regularly raise money for Women’s Refuge by doing this. 

Anything You Want To Be by Liane Brandon

Do you think there’s anything inherently political about interacting with domestic spaces?

This is a good question. I am interested in architecture and how we react and respond to it in and how we think about it. Historically there has been a narrative that promotes the notion that men are architects, concerned with the exterior form and function of a building and women decorate the interior, and that these activities are antagonistic and mutually exclusive, though the distinctions between these approaches are perhaps now less entrenched. 

I became much more aware of the sensory and haptic qualities of buildings after reading Juhani Pallasmaa’s book The Eyes of the Skin, and became more interested in the idea of making work that posed questions about the sensory, bodily and psychological power of buildings as well as their functionality. Much of today’s architecture appeals much more to the eye than to the other senses, and pays less attention to how it feels and works for those using it. Yet my first response to architecture, buildings, spaces and sites tends to be ‘how does it feel?’. The initial impression, the light, the clarity of space, the ease of movement, the atmosphere, the use of materials – all these things press on the body and the eye and leave a trace. 

In terms of the broader political implications of architectural design decisions, the disastrous choice of cladding on Grenfell Tower for example, tells us more about the relative values held by those in power and how money is often the only criteria in play. The view of Grenfell Tower from the safe, nice, well designed homes of the wealthy elite who inhabit the borough was considered more important than ensuring those who lived in it were living in safe, nice, well designed and fully functional flats. So the functionality of architecture and how efficiently it works seems to be of much less importance than how it looks and perhaps more noticeably what it signifies ? 

Going back to the 1930’s, the critic, art historian and architectural writer Adolpe Behne’s said that ….only where comfort ends, does humanity begin (Van Herck, 2005, p.123)  further research showed that the modernists were striving for a rational architecture, one of transparency and functionalism – their ideology and consequent designs were a glass framed tirade against bourgeois materialism, convention and, according to Behne the  ‘saugemütlich’ (really cosy). This sense of a moral imperative behind their thinking again seems to leave women very much out of the picture. Their architecture had no place for the messy and complicated needs of the family as an active organism, preferring to create building with a kind of visual clarity and openness. They were often keen to promote the idea of communal living, seeing the family as a typical bourgeois construct, yet the austerity of some their buildings suggest more spartan and monastic tendencies.

What’s your favourite material to work with, and why?

At the moment I am interested in the contrast between rigid structures and fluid forms which at a very simple level explore the tensions between perception of male and female treatment of space and form. The materials used are either sought because they fit a particular form or theme, or they might be found materials that almost direct me towards a certain outcome.  The work investigates ideas and sensations of the body in space, of a body moving though the world in relation to other things like materials, spaces, gender, scale. 

I currently use materials like wood, silk, velvet, paint, which overlap and jostle with each other, outside surfaces folding into inner ones. Different materials are used to describe both the act of construction and the resulting image/object. Recent developments have centred on using fabric to explore the relationship between the fold and form, the result being objects where folds stiffen and sag, where folds envelop and carry some psychological weight. The use of materials, space and orientation is shaped to disrupt the moment of recognition. The key here is to find ways of blurring the gap between architecture and the domestic by inserting something that disrupts both.

By exploring the hierarchy of sculptural materials and sometimes inserting the unexpected into the common place and I aim to create a sensory experience that supplements the visual, where the tactile and phenomenological qualities of the work can appeal to and incorporate the viewers sensibility.


Interview by Jade French

Sharon Haward is a visual artist based in Hastings. Haward’s practice hinges on a response to site and place. She has worked with artists and curators from Europe and UK making interventions and assemblages in galleries and abandoned, empty and public spaces in UK, Belgium, France, Norway and Bulgaria. Find her on Instagram, Axis and at her website.

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