August 10th, 2008
Lacquer work is a noxious medium which causes Urushi-kabure or lacquer poisoning. The lacquer is extracted from the lacquer tree I would suspect much like maple syrup. The juice that comes out has a molasses consistency that turns black when it touches air. It is from this raw lacquer that the disease comes not only from direct contact but also from the fumes of its evaporation. As the raw lacquer is processed with filters and color, it becomes less toxic until eventually when it is applied to a surface and hardens; Urushi-kabure is generally no longer an issue. The disease is part of the craft, it is said that every lacquer worker would get the disease to some extent and build immunity—but this is most likely a myth as some workers would get the disease 5 or 6 times (Scheube).
After references in several articles that Gray had the lacquer disease and continued with her work; this literal physical suffering for ones art, made me wonder what were the symptoms exactly. It is not fatal but it is not particularly pleasant. The Diseases of Warm Countries: A Handbook for Medical Men, 1903 tells us of the following symptoms:
“A few hours after the poison has taken effect, the patient is in a slightly feverish condition and complains principally of itching and a disagreeable feeling of tension of the skin of the head, face and limbs. Soon after oedema of the affected parts of the skin sets in with catarrh of the contiguous mucous membranes…Small red papules rise on the oedematous skin; they gradually increase in size and small blebs with sero-perulent contents form on their apices. On the arms the eruption usually extends to the elbows, on the legs to the knees, and at these limits sharp lines of demarcation are perceptible. In men the scrotum and the prepuce always participate in the oedema, and in women the labia majors are similarly affected… The pustules, which frequently become confluent, dry up or burst and become covered with eschars, but large purulent ulcerations, may result” (Scheube, 331).
All reports say that Eileen Gray just had it on her hands, but she was a private person. In her passion she continued to work with it and would eventually master the lacquer process that earned her place in the history of great lacquer artists. (Staunders).
Ms Gray was not only a fine crafts person, but an architect, textile designer, interior designer, and furniture designer. Most designers won’t be remembered longer than the blink that occurs after paging though the latest addition of Met Home; Next! Especially, here in Los Angeles where real estate is marked up and moved on so quickly such as fashion and prevailing taste–the transitory nature of interiors. I would call Eileen Gray my new design hero but I would hate to sound retrospect.