Saturday, April 05, 2008

French Art Deco: The Genesis of Modern Furniture

By Cynthia and Jean-Marc Fray

The term “Art Deco” was coined after the name of the prestigious French Decorative Arts Expo held in Paris in 1925: “L’Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratif et Industriels Modernes”. This post-war exposition, intent on showing the world that France would once again lead the way in creating new standards of taste in fine and decorative art, served as a showcase for the most talented designers and craftsmen of the time, and officially launched the period of an emerging style that would become known as the Art Deco Period (1925-1940).

Inspired by cubist artists of the time (Picasso, Braques, Gris…), Egyptian art and French colonial art, the designs of the Art Deco period are characterized by clean lines, exotic woods, bold colors and unusual materials such as glass and steel. The graceful curves of the early 20th century Art Nouveau period were suddenly replaced with a new kind of angularity. Geometrical shapes, symmetry and streamlined designs offered a stark contrast to the sinuous, organic feel of the Art Nouveau period. Craftsmen preferred imported materials such as macassar, rosewood and ebonized wood; ivory and bone became materials of choice for intricate marquetry designs. Leather, chrome and glass were also being used in unusual ways. French Art Deco design introduced an exciting new sense of exoticism to the decorative arts, serving as an international display of France’s tolerance for and acceptance of other cultures. This bold new style, a quintessential symbol of fine taste, would endure for over 20 years, and prove to be the ultimate reference in the history of modern furniture design.

Notable designers of the period such as Jacques-Emile Ruhlmann not only defined the furniture trends of the time but set the highest of standards in craftsmanship, just as their forebears did in the 18th century. In fact, Ruhlmann himself, along with several other French Art Deco designers of the time, was often compared to the cabinetmakers that earned France’s reputation as the indisputable world leader for fine furniture design during the reign of Louis XIV. For instance, Ruhlmann’s pieces were handmade by only the most skilled cabinetmakers in France. Their work was one of meticulous perfection, both technically and aesthetically speaking, and very labor intensive thus driving the prices to all time highs.

Yet despite the prices these works fetched from France’s social elite, Ruhlmann claimed he lost money on every piece due to the expensive materials he used and the time and effort needed to build each design. In fact, he has said that he earned his living with a second business.
Jean-Michel Frank was another influential designer and decorator of Parisian high society of the 1930s and 40s. Frank’s progressive style, inspired by Neoclassicism and the abstract quality of primitive arts, was understated and stark, yet undeniably elegant. The genius behind Frank’s designs lay in a powerful combination of minimalist forms and the subtle use of unexpected materials and luxurious finishes. His blocky, rectangular club chairs and sofas have been endlessly copied and reproduced, and the decorative principles he created – “le style Frank” as the French call it – continue to influence contemporary designers and decorators all over the world.
Today, leading designers and collectors increasingly seem to favor the streamlines of the 30s over the opulence of French or continental 18th century furniture. Sales at high-end auction houses from London to New York to Paris are driving the trend to collect Art Deco pieces. “Art deco was a rich and wonderful moment in the history of the decorative arts”, says Philippe Garner, International Specialist Head in Christie’s 20th-century Decorative Art and Design Department. “Collectors are seduced by the opportunity to furnish homes with pieces that are historic, but that also transcend their time”. This renewed interest in Art Deco and mid-century modern furniture coincides with a growing taste for a more purist modern home decor and sleek interior design.
As the signed pieces of the Art Deco period become more difficult to find, collectors are looking elsewhere for comparable quality and originality. Pieces made “in the style of” the leading designers of the period can be found for a fraction of the price of the originals. Numerous craftsmen in this period executed wonderful and well proportioned works without ever being brought to fame; such works need to be distinguished from French mass produced furnishings from the same era and a skillfully trained and reputable antiques dealer can help recognize the differences in the materials used, the construction, and the overall feel and style of a piece.

Posted by Jean-Marc Fray French Antiques at 05:04:00 PM
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