By: Doris Goldstein
Intrigued by the idea of transforming inexpensive materials into original and highly decorative artworks, the Swiss Art Deco artist Jean Dunand mastered the painstakingly meticulous technique of dinanderie. This method of hammering forms out of a sheet of metal such as brass or copper, which was then laid over a shaped mold, became the foundation for Dunand’s early creations. Later, he added lacquer to the mix, making elaborate vases and furniture that sometimes recalled the Art Nouveau style of asymmetrical designs but mostly relied on Art Deco’s use of geometric and stylized forms.
Visible reminders in Paris, where Dunand spent most of his career, illustrate the city’s esteem for his work: A commemorative plaque affixed to the house at 72 Rue Halle reads, “Behind these buildings stood the studios of the sculptor, coppersmith and lacquer artist Jean Dunand, 1877–1942.” However, despite this recognition, Dunand, whose career spanned five decades and included participation in more than 100 exhibitions, is not as well known as other designers of the early 20th century.
It wasn’t until 1985 that New York’s DeLorenzo Gallery presented the first exhibition devoted solely to the artist. And he didn’t receive his first museum show—though it was a small one with only 24 works—until 1998, when the Metropolitan Museum of Art mounted Jean Dunand: Master of Art Deco. The focal point of the exhibition was the master suite designed in 1928 for the San Francisco penthouse of Templeton Crocker, grandson of the founder of the Union Pacific Railroad. The seven pieces of bedroom furniture, Cubist in design, were lacquered in gray, black and silver; the bench and armchair were upholstered in white fur and the side chair in grey chamois. “Dunand stands at the top of the pyramid of French Art Deco designers alongside Jacques-Emile Ruhlmann and Jean-Michel Frank,” says Jared Goss, the Met’s associate curator of 19th-century modern and contemporary art.
Born in Switzerland, Dunand studied at the School of Industrial Arts in Geneva and received a scholarship, in 1897, to study in Paris. For the next five years, he worked as an apprentice to sculptor Jean Dampt, who is best known for his work in marble, bronze and gold, as well as for his egalitarian views toward the arts. Dampt encouraged his young apprentice to work in the decorative arts, offering Dunand the opportunity to collaborate on the interior design of a salon for the Comtesse de Bearn.
Dunand’s work in dinanderie (the name is derived from the Flemish town of Dinand, where brassware production had flourished during the Middle Ages) was gaining recognition from artists and critics at the time, and in 1905, he exhibited three vases at the Salon de la Nationale. In an excerpt of the Journal du Collectionneur of Geneva, a Paris correspondent writes, “This brilliant artist seems to have drawn from copper all that this metal has to offer by way of full and subtle form.”
A major turning point in Dunand’s career came in 1912 when he saw the possibilities of using lacquer to enhance his metalwork. He had admired the Japanese lacquer technique for years but knew little about the execution. By chance—and perhaps a little luck—Seizo Sugawara, a Japanese lacquer artist who lived in Paris, was confronted with a problem involving metalwork and sought out Dunand for assistance. Dunand, in turn, asked Sugawara for help in understanding lacquer. The two men agreed to an exchange, and Dunand revealed his hammering technique while Sugawara offered the secrets of lacquer application.
Dunand moved to new quarters after World War I, consolidating his lacquer, metal and coppersmith workshops, and began producing large lacquered wood furniture. Of his work, Dunand wrote, “There exist labors of pure patience, such as lacquer, which I love so much.” He sought to execute a majority of the pieces by himself but frequently collaborated with friends such as the Polish-born Cubist artist Jean Lambert-Rucki, whom he met in 1923.
Dunand also offered a variety of lacquer finishes to cabinetmakers Ruhlmann and Eugène Printz. His furniture was decorated with exotic animals, birds and fish, Oriental figures, as well as abstract and geometric designs. But it was Dunand’s mastery of the ancient art of using crushed eggshells as a decorative motif that is perhaps his greatest achievements. Developed as a substitute for a white coloring, which was unattainable using vegetable dyes, Dunand went as far as raising his own chicks to ensure that the shells would have the desired color. He would then encrust tiny pieces of the eggshell with lacquer, which produced a subtle craquelure effect (a precise pattern of cracks often used as a signature of authenticity).
A 1922 postwar exhibition of Dunand’s work included an eggshell lacquered drum table, purchased by an American collector. “The table is a tour de force with its surprise of a brightly colored lacquered interior,” says Frank Maraschiello, director of Bonhams’ 20th-century decorative arts department. The work descended in the family until it was offered at Bonhams New York in 2005, selling for $534,250, nearly tripling its high estimate. At Christie’s New York in September 2007, a Dunand lacquered dinanderie metal vase, formerly in the collection of Karl Lagerfeld, sold for $16,250 (est. $8,000–10,000).
During the 1920s and ’30s, Dunand received numerous commissions and his business was booming. For the 1925 Exposition International des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes, he designed a smoking room as part of a group project for “A French Embassy Abroad”; he also built lacquered panels for the French linerAtlantique’s first-class dining room in 1931 and created a series of incised gold-lacquered panels for the smoking room of the Normandie in 1935.
World War II brought a shortage of materials, a lack of business and personal hardship for Dunand—two of his sons were captured, and one, Jean-Louis, was killed. To make ends meet, he even sold some of his most-prized works. Eventually, financial woes forced Dunand to close his workshops, and he died in 1942, at the age of 65.
Today Dunand is most remembered for the unique skill and precision of his lacquer designs. In 2006 Christie’s Paris offered an Art Deco sale of the Claude and Simone Dray collection, in which more than 24 works by Dunand were included. The sale realized $63.5 million, a record for 20th-century decorative art. The top two lots in the group, both by Dunand, were a lacquered panel of three panthers, which was once owned by couturier Madeleine Vionnet, and a four-panel lacquered screen of fantasy animals executed in a collaboration with Lambert-Rucki. Each lot sold for $527,300 (est. $120,000–180,000 and $250,000–360,000, respectively). “Jean Dunand is rightly regarded as one of the defining artists-craftsmen of the Art Deco era,” says Philippe Garner, international head of Christie’s 20th-century decorative art and design. “His creations exemplify the style at its most luxurious and appealing.”
New York dealer Anthony DeLorenzo would certainly agree with that assessment. His gallery’s catalogues of Dunand’s artworks date back to 1981. “Dunand is a towering figure, not just of Art Deco, but of the whole decorative arts period,” says DeLorenzo. “He was a master.”
Bonhams, New York
DeLorenzo Gallery, New York
Galerie Jacques De Vos, Paris
Galerie L’Arc en Seine, New York and Paris
212.585.2587; 33.43.291.102 arcenseine.com