Eileen Gray’s innovative Bibendum Chair was one of the 20th century’s most recognizable furniture designs. The chair is very much made for lounging in and socializing. Its back, connected to the arm rest, consists of two semi-circular, padded tubes encased in soft leather. The name that Gray chose for the chair, Bibendum, originates from the character created by Michelin to sell tires.
The chair was designed for a milliner, Madame Mathieu Lévy, who was an owner of a highly successful boutique, which sold stylish hats. Lévy had commissioned Gray to re-design her apartment on rue de Lota in Paris. It was hoped to be new and original, with innovative designs. The process took four painstaking years from 1917 to 1921. During this time, Eileen Gray created the Bibendum chair along with the interior walls, furnishings, rugs and lamps. With Gray’s disapproval of the moulded walls that had previously been installed, she put up lacquered panels instead. She wanted to create the apartment so that it fulfilled aspirations, suited Lévy’s lifestyle and would go along with any particular mood. The Bibendum Chair was relatively large, its depth approximately 840mm and its height 740 mm tall.
The visible part of the frame of the Bibendum, i.e. the legs, were made of a polished, chromium plated, stainless steel tube. The framing of the actual seat was made of beechwood and there was rubber webbing that was inter-woven across the base of the seat to provide added comfort. The seat, back and arm rests encased in soft, pale leather. Gray made a point of using plain coverings for this particular chair as well as another, the Serpent Chair which was simple, plain red. She also designed the Pirogue Boat Bed which was also completely plain. This was so that the apartment would not look too cluttered or messy and so that the eye would be drawn, first of all, to the tribal art on display. The furniture in the apartment on rue de Lota, in particular the Bibendum Chair, was all extremely comfortable.
Today, a full grain leather coated Bibendum Chair would sell for an approximate price of £2300. The chair was designed for the room so that it looked inviting and made you want to sit down in it. As the apartment was being designed for a trendy, modern, young woman, Eileen Gray’s wish was to make it quite alternative and daring. The Bibendum Chair in itself was hardly like anything ever seen before and its originality was quite amazing at the time.
The Bibendum Chair was designed as part of the modernist movement which was completely different from her earlier, more traditional work. She decided to make the change in style to simply make “progress”. The art critics loved the chair and reviews in papers and magazines exclaimed that it was a “triumph of modern living.” Thanks to her great achievement with the Bibendum chair and the other furnishings designed at the apartment on rue de Lota, Gray was given a huge moral boost, so she made the decision of opening up her own gallery in 1922. Madame Mathieu Lévy’s commission provided a great financial success for Gray, and thanks to this, she did no longer need to rely on her family’s financial support.