A visit to the E-1027 villa on the French Riviera feels like a chance to walk into a real-life miracle.

Since its construction almost a century ago under the direction of the celebrated Irish designer Eileen Gray for her then partner, architect Jean Badovici, the landmark modernist house had in turn become the target of an artistic hijacking by his colleague Le Corbusier; a supply of prized furniture for later owners in need of cash from auction rooms, or for burglars; a sordid crime scene when its last occupier was murdered under its roof in 1996; and, in subsequent years, a ruin facing the double threats of coastal weather and competing layers of French bureaucracy.

I first came across the existence of E-1027 around 20 years ago, while freelancing on stories straddling French and Irish cultures. At the time, the estate of the murdered owner had just sold the property to the Conservatoire du Littoral, a semi-state body whose sole purpose is to buy noteworthy French coastal land and sterilise it from development.

The transaction had saved the striking setting of the villa, on the rocky Cap Martin overlooking turquoise Mediterranean waters, from being blighted by another luxury hotel. But with no mandate to restore architectural heritage, it seemed to offer E-1027 little prospect of survival. 

Yet last month, I toured the house fully restored to its original glory. The opportunity to visit was a small miracle in itself – I found myself in Nice and checked on the off chance that the villa was open the next day. Tours of the extended site, with buildings later added by Le Corbusier, were predictably booked out online, but you could email separately for a shorter visit of E-1027 only. 

On one of the final days before the site closed for the winter, I secured a lucky slot in the afternoon, when the autumn sun goes down on Monaco across the Bay of Roquebrune. This is what I saw, and what tour guides and the exhibition at the nearby train station told me about the resurrection of Eileen Gray’s first attempt at designing a complete living space from the ground up.


The journey to the site is an experience in itself. The train track from Nice hugs the Mediterranean coast, revealing the full meaning of its French nickname “Côte d’Azur”. You step off at Roquebrune-Cap Martin station, in a sleepy neighbourhood secluded from the hustle and bustle of nearby Monte Carlo and tourist beaches. The only option for lunch is a hole-in-the-wall snack bar serving pizza slices and sandwiches under a flowery arbour. It’s perfect.

The villa’s terraced garden overlooks the Bay of Roquebrune. Photo: Thomas Hubert

A walking path takes you down to the local pebble beach and onto the rocks amid the scent of pine trees, past E-1027 and along the shoreline all the way to the tip of Cap Martin. The hike is a great way of sizing up the site that Gray and Badovici chose for their ground-breaking project.

From the path, steps lead through dense vegetation to the villa’s sloped garden. Lemon trees have been replanted on terraces as originally intended, instead of the more fashionable plants that had replaced them over the years. This sets the tone for the rest of the visit. Inside, the meticulous restoration includes a wall-mounted lemon basket in the bar area of the living room for the fruit from the garden.

This room is the centrepiece of the house. The open-plan area is fully open at ceiling level, but divided by screens at eye level – a favourite design of Gray’s. One corner acts as a lounge area with a convertible sofa, the famous “Michelin man chair” and Gray’s adjustable chrome circular table – probably her most widely reproduced design. The original prototype recreated here is topped with light translucent celluloid rather than the heavy glass on current versions, to make it fully portable as she intended.

Gray’s innovative rail-mounted shutters and her Michelin Man armchair. Photo: Thomas Hubert

Another corner of the room has a small dining table for two, while an alcove with a single sofa-bed and a shower room hide behind more partitions. Except for a fantasy map of the Caribbean imprinted with the words “Invitation au voyage”, recreated from Gray’s original, the walls are mostly white, with blocks of a single colour.

One of these is in fact a removable white panel covering a multicoloured mural by Le Corbusier – one of those he painted onto the villa while staying with Badovici after Gray split from him and from the house. She was said to have been unimpressed with the additions and, after much debate, the restoration committee decided to leave some of the murals exposed but to hide the overbearing one in the main room. 

The room is surrounded by balconies on the sides where the hill slopes down to the sea. Two sail-like piece of blue cloth frame the view on the horizon – part of the whole building’s strong naval inspiration. On the side balcony, a hammock is in keeping with the sailor theme.

Mondrian’s paintings inspired Gray to design this gate. Photo: Thomas Hubert

E-1027 illustrates Enniscorthy-born Gray’s conflicted Anglo-Irish aristocratic background. The building replicates the convoluted designs embedded in pre-independence big Irish houses to keep servants away from view: It features a basement bedroom for a domestic worker, connected to a central spiral staircase leading to the partly-outdoor kitchen and to a small door off the main entrance marked “No entry” to guests.

Yet the villa is immune to the obsession for massive size that was evident in colonial-era buildings and has translated into the house designs favoured in modern-day, prosperous Ireland. E-1027 has no high ceilings, walk-in wardrobes or en-suite bathrooms. Instead, Gray’s intent was to make the most use of available space, with many areas offering a dual function.

Gray designed an architect’s drawing table for Badovici’s bedroom. Photo: Thomas Hubert

The master bedroom doubles up as a study, with drawers rotating out of their sockets, a writing desk dropping out of a shelving unit and an architect’s drawing table proportioned to fit in a corner overlooking the sea. The bar folds up to reveal a corridor linking the main upstairs rooms.

The guest bedroom has a “satellite mirror” inspired by astronomy, with a small, close-up mirror rotating around a larger one like the moon around the earth, all assembled into one elegant wall mount with a lamp insert.

Gray’s satellite mirror was reinstated in the guest bedroom, where she lived for several years. Photo: Thomas Hubert

Although Gray and Badovici made early use of reinforced concrete, allowing them to create wide spaces and openings without interruptions from stone or brick pillars, they may have been limited by the lack of road access, which meant materials had to be carried by men and donkeys from the train station. Or maybe they were just a century ahead in realising that smarter is better than bigger, and would excel in today’s quest for greener homes.

The latter option is made more likely by Gray’s evident pleasure in exploiting the house’s every nook and cranny with a mixture of efficiency and mischief. Windows and shutters slide open along rails within a minimal amount of space. Hollows in the walls and in built-in furniture units serve as specialist storage – a rack for vinyl records, a press for pillows – and are practically labelled as such. But the messages thus stencilled onto the walls also reach into the metaphysical, such as “Entrez lentement” (“Enter slowly”) on the front door or the cryptic “Défense de rire” (“No laughing”) under a lamp in the hallway. 

Splinters and cracks

It is hard to overstate the amount of work that has gone into the restoration to this level of detail, especially when you see the state of the house in 20-year old photos exhibited at the ticket office accommodated in the yard of the train station.

When it emerged from of private ownership, the villa was gutted, its walls festooned with wood splinters where thieves had ripped out Gray’s original fitted furniture. The very structure was under threat, with rusty iron appearing through cracks in the reinforced concrete.

Initial works saved the house from falling apart altogether but they were wholly inappropriate. The historic electrical sockets and switches, for example, were still in place at the turn of the century but they were then thrown out and replaced with modern fittings.

Gray’s stencil urges “no laughing” in the hallway. Photo: Thomas Hubert

That is, until 2014, when a new voluntary group called Cap Moderne set out to unify the web of public bodies and fundraising intiatives already involved with E-1027 to salvage it, along with the surrounding buildings by Le Corbusier. The driving force behind Cap Moderne has been retired British businessman and neighbour Michael Likierman.

Likierman’s experience in running a smooth business and paying attention to attractive home design was best illustrated by his stint as chief executive of Habitat in France, which he brought to the country in the 1970s with the furniture retailer’s founder, British designer Terence Conran. The Conran Foundation was among the donors Cap Moderne convinced of supporting the project, along with other big names such as Prince Albert of Monaco, central Asian mining oligarch Alexander Mashkevich and businesses like Hermès and Aram Designs, the London firm licensed by Gray to manufacture her furniture designs.

A number of Irish names also appear among supporters: Paul McGuinness, Primark and the state agency Culture Ireland contributed funds. Cap Moderne also acknowledges Irish or Irish-based artists Vera Klute, Eilís O’Connell, Blaise Drummond and Richard Gorman, who helped through events such as fundraising exhibitions. A bust of Gray by Klute now watches over the house from a sheltered patio.

Together, dozens of private donors have funded half of the €5 million spent on the restoration, matched by French government institutions. 

The dining table was recreated from the original, which is now in the MoMA collection in New York. Photo: Thomas Hubert

Yet money was not the only challenge and it alone could not save E-1027. Some pieces of the villa’s original furniture were irremediably lost; others were out of reach financially or legally – its original cork-topped dining table, for example, is now part of the MoMA’s collection in New York. To navigate the minefield of restoration choices, Cap Moderne formed a committee of experts who made decisions ranging from the fate of Le Corbusier’s unwanted murals to the choice of bathroom fittings.

E-1027 had run through the entire professional life of local architect Renaud Barrès since writing his student thesis on the villa and being consulted on early restoration attempts. Along with colleagues, including heritage inspectors overseeing the now-listed building, Barrès came back to complete the restoration. The committee decided to model it on the completion date of the building and its interior in 1929. 

An exhibition details the painstaking work the team carried out to track down blueprints and photographs, reconstruct fittings from fragments scattered around the site and source antiques from that period – down to the classified ad that led them to an identical gramophone on the local equivalent of DoneDeal.

The restoration team has recreated the original record shelves and found a gramophone identical to the one that sat on the table designed by Gray. Photo: Thomas Hubert

“We reconstructed the lost pieces using the same dimensions, materials and techniques as the originals. We even reproduced some of the faults where they existed,” they explain. This meant identifying craftspeople with the history of such techniques and materials. The gramophone now sits on a replica of the table designed by Gray, based on the original acquired by the Centre Georges Pompidou museum in Paris in the 1990s. Other pieces were drawn from Aram Designs’s continuing Eileen Gray catalogue.

In a final challenge to the lovers of E-1027, Covid-19 closed the site to visitors, thwarting their plans to time the works around the busy tourist season and raise final funds from ticket sales. But in the summer of last year, as they were putting the finishing touches to the 1929 look and feel of the villa, French museums were finally allowed to re-open.

At that point, Cap Moderne handed over the maintenance of the finished project to the national monuments administration. I was lucky to be among the visitors who can now travel back in time at E-1027. The miracle is complete.

Le Corbusier painted several murals in the house over Gray’s chosen white or single-colour walls. Photo: Thomas Hubert

E-1027 and the wider Cap Moderne site are open to the public from April 1 to October 30. Tours (€10-€18) must be booked online in advance, with a wider range of options available on the French version of the website