Eileen Gray was born on 9 August 1878 into an aristocratic family near Enniscorthy, a market town in south-eastern Ireland. Gray was the youngest of five children. Her parents, Eveleen Pounden Gray and James Maclaren Gray were of Scottish/Irish descent. Gray’s father, James, was a painter who encouraged his daughter’s artistic interests. He took his daughter on painting tours of Italy and Switzerland which encouraged her independent spirit. Gray spent most of her childhood living in the family’s homes in Ireland or South Kensington in London.
In 1898, Gray attended classes at the Slade School of Fine Art, where she studied painting. While there, she made acquaintances with Jessie Gavin and Kathleen Bruce. In 1900 her father died and she went on her first visit to Paris with her mother where she saw the Exposition Universelle, a world fair that celebrated the achievements of the past century. The main style at the fair was Art Nouveau and Gray was a fan of the work of Charles Rennie Mackintosh which was on exhibit. Soon after, Gray moved to Paris along with her friends Gavin and Bruce from the Slade School. She continued her studies in Paris at the Académie Julian and the Académie Colarossi. For four of five years after the move, Gray travelled back and forth from Paris to Ireland to London, but in 1905, due to her mother’s illness, she settled back in London. She rejoined the Slade but found her drawing and painting courses were becoming less satisfying.
Gray came across a lacquer repair shop in Soho where she asked the shop owner, Mr. D. Charles whether he could show her the fundamentals of lacquer work as it had taken her fancy. The owner had many contacts from the lacquer industry and when Gray moved back to Paris in 1906 to an apartment where she remained for much of her working life, she met one of them; Seizo Sugawara (or Sugawara-san). He originated from an area of Japan that was known for its decorative lacquer work and emigrated to Paris to repair the lacquer work exhibited in the Exposition Universelle. She found after working with Sugawara for four years that she had developed the lacquer disease on her hands, however she persisted in her work and it was not until she was thirty-five that she exhibited her work. When she did, however, it was a success.
In 1914, when World War I broke out, Gray moved back to London, taking Sugawara with her. At the end of the war, they returned to Paris and Gray was given the job of decorating an apartment in the rue de Lota. She designed most of its furniture, carpets and lamps, and installed lacquered panels on the walls. The result was favorably reviewed by several art critics who saw it as innovative. Given a boost from the success of the apartment, Gray opened up a small shop in Paris, Jean Desert, to exhibit and sell her work and that of her artist friends.