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Furniture in Focus: Eileen Gray

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

eileen gray

Figure 1 Eileen Gray, Irish Museum of Modern Art

Today is international women’s day and across the world events and programmes are being organised to increase women’s participation in government, culture and the economy. Today’s “Google Doodle” which, let’s face it, is where most of us are reminded of these important calendar dates when we boot up our computers in the morning to blearily work our way through the spam emails from the night before, reminds us of the achievements of a number of feminist pioneers. Amongst the line-up of cultural icons and activists are artists, designers and architects: some of the most influential tastemakers of the last century who helped define the way that we see the world around us today. With this in mind, we profile one of the few women who were able to break through the prejudices of the early 20th century and become successful and well regarded as a furniture maker in their own time, Eileen Gray.

Gray was born into a privileged family in South East Ireland in 1878, eventually becoming Baroness Gray on the death of her mother in 1895. From her early childhood it was clear that she had artistic talent and her father, the painter James McLaren Smith, encouraged her to pursue this as a career. She was one of the first women to enrol in the Slade School of fine art in 1898, where she was tutored in painting and drawing, but early in her studies it became obvious to Gray that her passion lay in design and architecture.

In the late 19th century Britain was in the midst of a torrid love affair with all things Japanese. The island nation, which for the past 2 centuries had been virtually barred to any foreign trade and influence, finally began to open itself to the outside world. In 1848 an American whaler named Ranald Macdonald (no, not him!), who risked death to sneak ashore at Rishiri Island off the north coast of Japan, was employed by the Japanese government to teach some high-ranking Japanese, who were already proficient in Dutch, to speak English. The effects of this were truly felt when 1858 the Treaty of Amity and Commerce were signed by representatives of both countries, allowing British traders access to Japan’s markets and in turn causing a flood of Japanese products to become available in Britain.

This new trend, known as Japonism, proved immensely popular, with the initial trade predominately in luxury goods; particularly furniture and artwork (Pokémon, Power Rangers and Sony Walkman would come later). Sensing opportunity a number of new specialist businesses, including lacquerers, sprang up to make repairs to the fashionable and expensive items. Traditional Japanese lacquering is a painstaking process of coating wooden objects such as panels, bowls and furniture in the sap secretion of certain trees belonging to the Toxicodendron genus. This sap can be dyed and when applied in multiple coats produces a durable, waterproof and attractive coating. One such Lacquerer, Mr D. Charles, took Eileen Gray on as an apprentice in 1898 and she studied with him until 1902 when she left for Paris to live with some friends from the Slade. She had previously visited Paris in 1900 where she saw the famous Exposition Universalle and was drawn to the Art Nouveau designs of Charles Rennie Mackintosh and his contemporaries, which inspired her to continue her studies of lacquer work and cabinetry.

Dragon Chair

Figure 2 Eileen Gray’s Dragon Chair, 1917-1919, Christie’s

When she left England Mr Charles effected an introduction to Seizo Sugawara, a Japanese immigrant to Paris who would continue to tutor her in the art of lacquerware until 1913 when she began publically exhibiting her work for the first time. When the First World War broke out Gray and Sugawara left for London together and did not return until 1917 when she began her most famous early commission, designing an apartment on the Rue de Lota for the successful Milliner and collector of tribal art Madame Mathieu Lévy. Amongst the plain white lacquered wooden panelling on the walls, Gray designed and created several of her most famous and striking pieces including the famous Dragon Chair, a lacquered wooden chair upholstered in fine leather, and the Pirogue Boat Bed, another lacquered wooden piece. Both items take inspiration from the tribal aesthetic of Lévy’s collection, mixing it with the art Nouveau styling that was popular at the time to create some beautiful pieces. The Dragon Chair set a new record of 20th century decorative art when it was auctioned as part of the Yves Saint Laurent estate in 2009 for a cool $28.3 million, smashing the previous record that had been set by a piece of her furniture of £209,000 for her Mermaid Chair in 1989 by some margin! It is for her work of this period, which marries this traditional Japanese technique with cutting edge European design, that she is best known.

As the 20’s drew to a close design tastes changed and with the birth of modernism Gray abandoned furniture to focus on architecture, working with famous luminaries of the new style such as le Corbusier. As fashion moved on Gray found herself unable or unwilling to keep up and faded into obscurity, though she continued working into her 90’s. In the 1970’s, near the end of her life, her work was rediscovered by academics and design students following major exhibitions at the Victoria and Albert Museum and her election to a fellowship of the Royal institute of Irish Architects. Now she is once again recognised as one of the most important figures working in design in Paris in the 1920’s.

4 Incredible War Time Uses of Wood

Tuesday, March 29, 2016


Ever since the dawn of time human beings have been looking for ever more devious and cunning ways to bash each other’s heads in. Casting around them for materials to produce weapons from blood thirsty ancient humans would have quickly seen the benefits of wood; easy to get your hands on and to work it was the perfect material in those early days. Some of the earliest human made objects ever found are weaponry, like these spears from Schöningen in Germany, but as human society developed, new and more devious ways of dispatching enemies needed to be found. Sharpened sticks were no longer enough and more complex weaponry made of metals took over, though their wooden cousins continued to pop up throughout history in some surprising ways. So without further ado, let’s begin our list of some of the most ingenious ways that wood has been used to make the process of murdering one another more expedient.


No.1 – Wooden Cannons

For as long as they have existed cannon have always had a great effect on the tide of battle. The terrifying roar of artillery, its great range and sheer destructive power made it the must-have toy for self-respecting despots and freedom fighters alike throughout the middle ages and into the modern period. For well-heeled kings and dukes, the process of having a cannon cast was very expensive, but not prohibitively so; the average peasant uprising however, needs to get a slightly better ratio of bang to buck. Fancy metal cannons were out of the question, but trees were plentiful and free, so the solution was to cut down the tire swing, hollow out the trunk and hope for the best. Only ever designed to fire once or twice before they became unusable, examples of wooden cannon are numerous but the results were generally the same, big explosion, lots of splinters flying about; mayhem and carnage abound. Such was the case of the town of Paks in medieval Hungary, but this class of weapon was also used extensively in the Bulgarian uprising, the Cochinchina campaign in Vietnam and the Boshin war in Japan with varying degrees of success. Sometimes, the gods of desperate invention smiled down favourably and through sheer dumb luck one of these weapons managed to kill its intended target, though arguably the most effective wooden cannon were never designed to fire at all. So called “Quaker guns” were false cannon made out of wood and painted to resemble real artillery pieces to trick the enemy into believing that a fortification was bristling with guns, discouraging a direct assault. Named after the pacifist religious organisation, Quaker guns saw extensive use in the American civil war, where both sides utilised subterfuge to try and get the upper hand.


No. 2 Wooden War planes

By the time that America entered the Second World War it was obvious that supply lines, particularly over the wide expanse of the Atlantic Ocean, would be critical to the success or failure of the war effort. U boats, the wolves of the sea, stalked beneath the icy waves on the hunt for shipping liners and troop transports to bring down, hampering the war effort and endangering thousands of lives. The problem was simple, but intractable; how to move thousands of tons of food, tanks, guns and ammunition half way around the world whilst avoiding the predations of Hitler’s subaquatic legions: the solution was not to sail through the waves, but to fly over them. Whilst routine today, transatlantic flight was still very new in the 1940’s, with the first crossing being made in 1919 and Charles Lingbergh’s famous trip in the ‘Spirit of St. Louis’ only 12 years before the outbreak of the war. These pioneering journeys had proved that flight from Europe to America was possible for state-of-the-art machines, but the cash strapped allied powers could hardly afford state-of-the-art. In the true “wacky racers” style that defined many of the technological innovations of the Second World War the boffins put their heads together and decided to build the plane out of something a bit cheaper than aeronautical grade aluminium… plywood. The brain child of Henry J. Kaiser (industrialist and ship builder) and Howard Hughes (aviation pioneer) the Hughes H4 Hercules was designed to carry 2 fully equipped Sherman tanks or 750 troops from one side of the pond to the other. These lofty ambitions meant the machine had to be huge, literally vast, with an as yet unbeaten wingspan of 98 metres. Sadly development was mired by problems, so by the time that the Hercules (or spruce goose as it came to be known) was completed the war was over. Whilst its successful maiden flight in 1947 proved that the “Spruce Goose” could be set loose, the recent truce meant the project was for the noose.

Naval vessels from five nations sail in parade formation for a rare photographic opportunity at sea.  From top row left to right: the Italian Navy (Marina Militare) ship Maestrale Class Frigate MM MAESTRALE (F 570), French Navy Tourville Class Destroyer DE GRASSE (D 612), Nimitz Class Aircraft Carrier USS JOHN C. STENNIS (CVN 74), US Navy (USN) Ticonderoga Class Cruisers USS PORT ROYAL (CG 73), French Navy Charles de Gaulle Class Aircraft Carrier CHARLES DE GAULLE (R 91), Royal Navy Helicopter Carrier, Her MajestyÕs Ship (HMS) OCEAN (L 12), French La Fayette Class Frigate SURCOUF (F 711), Aircraft Carrier USS JOHN F. KENNEDY (CV 67), Netherlands Navy Karel Doorman Class Frigate Her MajestyÕs Netherlands Ship (Harer Majesteits) (HNLMS) VAN AMSTEL (F 831), Italian Navy De La Penne (ex-Animoso) Class Destroyer, MM LUIGI DURAND DE LA PENNE (ex Animoso) (D 560).   The coalition forces are deployed in support of Operation ENDURING FREEDOM.

No. 3 Wooden aircraft carriers

What was I just saying about wacky racers? Either the horrifying prospect of losing the war to the Nazis got the imagination going like nothing else, or someone was putting something in the water. Imagine the scene; a dimly lit cabinet war room, cigar smoke hanging in the air whilst the radio charted the roller coaster fortunes of the allied powers, a letter is passed to Churchill from the desk of Lord Mountbatten proposing a new top-secret project, Habakkuk, that will have the troops back in Blighty by Christmas… sounds like the setup to a taut spy thriller doesn’t it? Benedict Cumberbatch would probably be in it. Similar to the spruce goose, this was an idea born of necessity. The allies needed more aircraft carriers, but they didn’t have the material they needed to make them. The solution came from scientist Geoffrey Pyke, who proposed that pykrete, ice with sawdust mixed into it, would make a cheaper alternative to costly metals. It might still win an Oscar, but watching a man pour sawdust into water and freezing it would be a very different kind of film. There would probably be a lot less dialogue and I imagine they’d struggle to get Cumberbatch on board. The project was green lit by no less a towering figure of history than Winston Churchill who was so enthusiastic about its chances of success that he suggested it be named Habakkuk after the verse “be utterly amazed, for I am going to do something in your days that you would not believe, even if you were told,” from the book of the bible named after the prophet, an appropriate choice given the circumstance. Though initial scale tests proved successful, Portugal’s agreement to allow the British and Americans to operate air strips in the Azores meant that air craft could now be scrambled to intercept U-boats in the mid-Atlantic, the principle purpose for which Habakkuk was devised.

Tlingit Armour

No. 4 Wooden armour

Long before the cowboys and Indians of the Wild West a battle raged on a different American frontier. In the far flung wildernesses of Alaska ruthless Russian merchants and their mercenary gangs battled against the native Tlingit and Haida peoples, whose centuries of conflict against one another had left them well used to making war. Alaska’s coasts and waterways were rich with fish and fur bearing animals, particularly sea otters whose thick and water resistant pelts were in high demand in Europe and the emerging markets of Asia. The Russians had access to gunpowder weaponry, and this conveyed a significant advantage, but the Tlingit were keen to level the field and after the first few skirmishes had guns of their own. The Russians were less keen to avail themselves of their opponent’s weaponry, which included incredible suits of wooden armour. More than capable of protecting the wearer from clubs and blades, there is some suggestion that the slatted alder lathes that protected the body were capable of stopping the bullets fired by the Russians early fire-arms. Certainly the helmets that they wore, often carved from a single piece of hardwood, look as though they could give a musket ball a run for its money. Perhaps the most useful thing about this armour was the way it looked, with its high plate protecting the lower part of the face and the helmet carved and painted to look like a terrifying face, it could add nearly two foot to a warrior’s height!

Beetlejuice! Beetlejuice! Beetlejuice!

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Ambrosia, the heavenly food of the gods, delivered unto Olympus by a flock of doves and bestowing immortality and everlasting beauty to all who taste it; or a brand of tinned custard depending on your view point.

It was this miraculous liquid that undid all of the years that Penelope had waited for Odysseus, restoring her youth after the 20 years they had spent apart and that caused Tantalus to forsake the god’s hospitality and condemn himself to an eternity of punishment.

I look at this and all I can think about is weevils too...

I look at this and all I can think about is weevils too…

Tinned custard not-withstanding the very word ambrosia conjures up all of the romance of antiquity; the strains of a lyre echoing through white marble temples glittering beneath the hot Mediterranean sun, beautiful nymphs bathing in the cool, crystal blue waters of the Aegean – no wonder that scientists heard the word and immediately thought of a small weevil that eats fungus…

Over millions of years the beetle and the fungus have evolved a complex symbiotic relationship wherein the beetle carries the fungus around, giving it the opportunity to see the world, meet new and interesting people and stay in the finest accommodation. The beetle searches out fallen trees to lay its larvae in and as it flies through the forest the fungus hitches a ride. Nothing comes for free in this life though, so as the fungi gorge themselves on the nutrients in the timber the beetles eats the growing colonies of the tiny organisms.

Ambrosia Beetle

The definition of living cheek by jowl

Try as it might, the beetle can’t reach all of the fungus and it spreads through the tree down the xylem, tiny bundles of tubes that carry nutrients and water up the trunk. This rogue fungus causes bands of discolouration in the wood, known as enlargements, which are highly prized by turners and furniture makers for their distinctive colouration and patterning.

When our buyers visited the states last year they were extremely excited to see such a high grade product.

Not widely available in the UK, these 50mm solid planks of soft maple (acer saccharum) have been heavily inoculated with the ambrosia fungus. The organism itself is destroyed during the kilning process leaving the beautiful figure caused by the discolouration behind, and can be used to enhance a variety of wood working projects, most notably turning for bowls and platters, or planks for table and bar tops. What makes these boards even more special is that they are supplied waney edged, leaving the whole width of the board available or if you’re feeling extra adventurous you can leave the boards au naturel and preserve the waney edge for that natural rustic feel.

You're getting ideas already, aren't you?

You’re getting ideas already, aren’t you?

So why not come down and take a look at some of these extra special boards at Thorogood Timber? Maybe you’ve got a special project in mind, or you’re looking for inspiration on a fancy new piece of furniture? Either way it’s worth coming down just to see what those artistic beetles can do!