October 2009 | At the 1925 Exposition internationale des Arts décoratifs et Industriels modernes in Paris, the unquestioned star of the event was the furniture designer and ensemblier Émile Jacques Ruhlmann (1879–1933). Critics hailed his showcase pavilion—which he called the Hôtel du Collectionneur—as a masterwork, and as the design historian Alastair Duncan wrote decades later, “Had France of the 1920s been a monarchy, Ruhlmann would certainly have held the position of ébéniste [cabinetmaker] du roi.”1
As it was then, so it is today. Ruhlmann is unquestionably regarded as the greatest designer of his time; his furnishings frequently garner more than $1 million at auction and routinely fetch six-figure sums; and in 2001 he was the subject of the acclaimed traveling exhibition Ruhlmann: Genius of Art Deco that came to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. While coevals such as the design team of Marie Louis Suë (1875–1968) and André Mare (1885–1932) have also captured the interest of contemporary scholars and connoisseurs, such is Ruhlmann’s fame that he has cast a long shadow over designers who not only pioneered the style in which he worked, but also, ironically, almost certainly had a decisive influence on his own oeuvre—most notably Maurice Dufrêne (1876–1955) and Paul Follot (1877–1941).
Numerous misconceptions emanated from the grand Paris design show of 1925. First, the exposition was only halfheartedly “internationale.” Though the Soviet Union, Sweden, and Poland produced noteworthy exhibits, the British and Italian pavilions were widely mocked as bland, the Netherlands blocked participation by its most innovative designers (the adherents of De Stijl), the United States chose not to participate, and Germany, France’s chief rival for preeminence in the world of design, was, for political reasons, not invited until too late. The true raison d’être for the exposition, it was more or less tacitly understood, was to cast a spotlight on new French design.2
Then there is the problem of the term art deco, which was plucked from the official name of the exhibition. Scholars and collectors complain that art deco—which was coined and popularized in the late 1960s and early 1970s—is so inclusive a term as to be useless.3 “Art Deco is used to describe everything from the work of Ruhlmann and Dufrène et al., to American streamlined industrial design,” says Jared Goss, associate curator in the Department of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and one of the organizers of the Ruhlmann show there. “And what do those things have to do with each other?” The Philadelphia antiques dealer Gary Calderwood believes that art deco should only refer to French design, and takes particular exception to the phrase art deco style. As he explains, three distinct approaches to architecture and the decorative arts were at play concurrently in France in the early twentieth century: that of the “purists,” such as Ruhlmann, Dufrène, Follot, and Suë and Mare, who saw their work as a refinement grounded in classical French design; the spare, sleek furnishings and buildings of modernists such as Le Corbusier, Robert Mallet-Stevens, Pierre Chareau, and René Herbst; and, last, iconoclasts such as the Irish emigrée Eileen Gray, with her taste for Asian lacquer as well as the tubular steel construction beloved of high modernists, and Eugène Printz, who was comfortable with both stern geometries and ornamental flourishes. “Rather than ‘style,’ I try to teach my clients to refer to the art deco ‘period’,” Calderwood says.
He defines that period as running from 1908 to 1950, which points up another misapprehension: that the designs on display at the 1925 Paris exposition came as a shock and a surprise to visitors. Design had begun to explore new styles shortly after the turn of the century, when interest in art nouveau—freighted by associations with Victorian era romanticism and sentimentality—began to wane. Calls for a major exhibition of new French design began as early as 1907, and successive plans were advanced in 1909, 1912, and 1914—until World War I intervened. Several postwar schemes for a show were thwarted before the event was finally staged.4 So-called pure art deco was a fully mature style in 1925, and modernism, which had taken on renewed energy after the war, was in the ascendancy. “In many ways, the 1925 exposition was really a swan song for the classically derived deco style,” says Barry Shifman, a curator of decorative arts at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.
The style was far from dead—in an indication that the design world was not ready to embrace modernism, the functionalist pavilion by Le Corbusier (1887–1965) called Esprit Nouveau was set up in an obscure corner of the exposition area.5 Follot and Dufrène worked tirelessly to showcase the best of purist deco design at the event. Follot contributed a vestibule to the show’s model “Modern French Embassy,” and, as head of Pomone, the furniture design studio of the department store Au Bon Marché, designed every room for the studio’s pavilion.6 Dufrène designed a petit salon for the embassy, the Rialto Bridge style row of shops that crossed the Pont Alexandre III, and the majority of the rooms in the pavilion of La Maîtrise, the furniture studio he ran for the Galeries Lafayette.7 For all the plaudits he won in 1925, some scholars say, Ruhlmann should have given a nod of thanks to these two men. “Follot and Dufrène had been working on a modernized classical style since at least 1903. Ruhlmann was a wallpaper designer then. He didn’t show his furniture for the first time until 1913,” says Goss. “There are gilded Ruhlmann pieces that were almost certainly inspired by Follot. I believe that Ruhlmann owes Dufrène and Follot a deep debt of gratitude.”
While the keynotes of Ruhlmann’s style are simple lines and rich finishes and materials such as ebony, shagreen, and ivory, Follot had much more voluptuous tastes. Trained as a sculptor, “Follot had a real emotional need to create beautiful things with decorative embellishments,” says Calderwood. He favored amply upholstered pieces contained in gently curved giltwood frames. A champion of ornament—“We know that the ‘necessary’ alone is not sufficient for man and that the superfluous is indispensable for him,” Follot said in 1928. “Otherwise let us also suppress music, flowers, perfumes… and the smiles of ladies!”8 The hallmark of his furniture is opulent and extensive carving, usually of stylized floral and plant forms. Writing for the magazine Art et Décoration in 1929, critic Gabriel Mourey may have summarized Follot’s style best when he noted that, in the designer’s interiors “[O]ne breathes a comfortable and precious atmosphere, sheltered from the noise, agitation, and tumultuousness of the outside world. No violence, no brutality.”9
Dufrène was much less doctrinaire than Follot, and more democratic than his luxury-loving colleague. In his “purist” deco phase, Dufrène developed a gentle ornamental vocabulary based primarily on neoclassical French design—the most recognizable form being a reeded chair or table leg, often topped with scrollwork. Dufrène excelled with veneers and marquetry inlays. A 1924 cabinet in the Calderwood Gallery inventory is faced in small blocks of kingwood—a tree whose slender trunk renders only small swatches of veneer—creating a striking patchwork effect (see Figs. 2–2b). Dufrène’s cabinets are frequently adorned with intricate marquetry trimlines and floral medallions fashioned from exotic woods such as amaranth, purpleheart, and ebony, and materials such as ivory and lapis lazuli. Though he had a notable private clientele—including the banker Pierre David-Weill (1900–1975) and the novelist Pierre Benoit (1886–1962)—as chief of La Maîtrise, Dufrène also created furniture suites for people of somewhat more modest means. He was happy to use machinery rather than traditional hand-carving tools, which allowed him to produce cheaper lines such as the Niagara furniture suite, with its cascadelike armrests and detailing. After the 1925 exposition Dufrène produced pieces with simpler, modernist lines,10 and by the mid-1930s he was making furniture with ebullient metal bases and stone tops, such as a boudoir suite featuring tables with ribbonlike bases in stainless steel. That suite was presented at Paris’s 1937 Exposition internationale des Artes et Techniques dans la Vie moderne, which Dufrène helped direct. In his introduction to the exhibition catalogue, Dufrène wrote that the show “is but one more stop on the way to the Good and the Beautiful, a springboard that serves to revive artistic, industrial, economic, and social progress. [It is an event] where the nations of yesterday and tomorrow embark on their journey.”11 Three years later, the city was under occupation by the German army.
1 Alastair Duncan, introduction to Maurice Dufrène, Authentic Art Deco Interiors from the 1925 Paris Exhibition (Antique Collectors Club, Woodbridge, Suffolk, 1989), p. 19. The book consolidates and reprints three volumes originally entitled Ensembles mobiliers published by the editor Charles Moreau, with commentary by the designer Maurice Dufrène, shortly after the close of the 1925 exposition.
2 Jean Paul Bouillon, Art Deco, 1903–1940 (Rizzoli, New York, 1989), p. 163.
3 Bevis Hillier’s Art Deco of the 20s and 30s (Studio Vista/Dutton, London, 1968) is believed by many to be the first book to employ the term.
4 Charlotte Benton, “The International Exhibition,” in Art Deco, 1910–1939, ed. Charlotte Benton, Tim Benton, and Ghislaine Wood (V and A Publications, London, 2003), p. 142.
5 Duncan, introduction to Authentic Art Deco, p. 15.
6 Ibid., p. 40.
7 Ibid., p. 88, and Bouillon, Art Deco, p. 167.
8 Quoted in Alastair Duncan, Art Deco Furniture (Thames and Hudson, London, 1984), p. 10.
9 Gabriel Mourey, “L’Harmonie dans nos intérieurs,” Art et Décoration, vol. 55 (May 1929), p. 133; translation here is by Geraldine de Puy.
10 See Duncan, Art Deco Furniture, Pls. 53–58.
11 Maurice Dufrène, introduction to Ensembles mobiliers: Exposition de 1937 (Charles Moreau, Paris, 1937), p. 3; translation by de Puy.
GREGORY CERIO is a regular contributor to Antiques.