Before and right after World War II, the furniture makers of Paris crafted astonishing works that still charm aficionados with their surreal appeal.
By Dan Hofstadter
L’Enfant et les Sortilèges, a short opera by Maurice Ravel with a libretto by Colette, which premiered in Monaco in March of 1925, is about a naughty little boy who comes to regret his bad behavior. In the story a commode, a bergère and a grandfather clock all come to life and decide, to the strains of bittersweet, haunting music, to give the child a lesson. This coming to life was more than just a fiction; it was prophetic, because at that time furniture was about to acquire an extraordinary vitality in French society. Between roughly 1935, when the luxurious steamship Normandie was launched at Le Havre, and 1950, some of the most daring, brilliant and just plain goofy design concepts ever to occur to the mind of man were realized in and around Paris.
This multifaceted movement in furniture and design went quietly into retreat during the Nazi occupation of 1940–44 and reemerged as the reigning tendency thereafter. But soon it was all over, ousted by international modernism just as most of the artisanal furniture-making studios, short-staffed and dismayingly costly to run, were starting to close down. Great reputations lingered on, but by 1968, the year of the massive student uprising that extended to many sectors of French society, Gilbert Poillerat, who taught at the École des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, came to the melancholy conclusion that his skills and services would no longer be appreciated and resigned, to devote himself to painting. Poillerat has since been recognized as the greatest iron-forger of 20th-century France, one of a handful of designer-artisans who best exemplify the style quarante—what we call French Forties—and his departure from the scene may be said to mark the moment at which a special brand of creativity had become passé in the national consciousness.
Forties furniture, often executed in exotic woods with superb joinery, or in precious materials like rare marble, copper tubing or hand-made parchment sheathing, was relegated to the attic as preposterously fanciful or grossly emblematic of the purchasing power of the super-rich. Such pieces could be seen piled up in flea-markets, consignment shops or low-end country estate-sales, looking woefully out of date. There was about some of them, too, the look of the theatrical prop, as though they had been retired from a play that had enjoyed too long a run and whose scenery had been struck forever.
It must be said that this theatrical or historicist quality—the frequent quoting of precedents in Western design—is not the dominant characteristic of le style quarante, for the simple reason that the movement, though an offshoot of Art Deco, has no single dominant characteristic. It is a period, not a style properly speaking, and its chief exponents often veered into frank modernism or gladly enlisted many of modernism’s core principles, such the incorporation of industrial materials. But it is certainly true that a certain shift in taste—a recoiling from any hint of the decorative, an embrace of fastidious purism—led the public to misprize the exuberant impulses of the Forties.
Poillerat is a prime instance. French civilization has a marvelous capacity to ingest the most disruptive impulses of the human spirit and redeploy them as entertainments. In conversation, sarcasm is wielded decoratively, just for amusement’s sake. French novels seldom depict sex, yet almost all explore, in some foreshortened, sophisticated fashion, the infraction of the Seventh Commandment. In Debussy and Ravel, dissonance is employed continuously, but without any seeming desire to shock the ear. And what happens in Poillerat, not always but often, is that the world of the Freudian unconscious, the subject of so much terror and distress on the psychiatrist’s couch, reappears as an element of—of all things —refined interior design. You decorate your home with reassembled fragments of last night’s dreams.
Trained in gold- and silver-chasing and industrial metallurgy as well as artisanal iron-forging, Poillerat was attracted to the sensibility of those in the theatrical and decorating world, like Christian Bérard, Serge Roche and Jean Cocteau, who were inspired by Surrealism; some of Poillerat’s iron pieces would presage Cocteau’s film La Belle et la bête. Well before World War I, the Cubist painters had decided that what happened under the table in a quasi-abstract still life—the under-brace itself, people’s legs, glimpses of the floor, chairs, pets, other oddments—could play a vital part in the composition. In Poillerat’s tables, which may be intended for any part of the room and are almost all marble-topped, the surface serves as a sort of metaphor for consciousness, whereas the space underneath—the lawless realm where Cocteau’s enfants terribles might savagely kick one another—is claimed by mythology and dream. In Poillerat’s powerful yet delicate ironwork under-braces, you find menacing shackles and chains, crowns of thorns, hypertrophied calligraphic flourishes, acanthus scrolls writhing with demented energy, crippled astrolabes, inverted pyramids, trailing thorn-bushes and nightmarish sets of bows that recall Actaeon’s metamorphosis or the spirits who straggle forever through Boccaccio’s woods, pursued by cruel hunters.
Poillerat’s is an imagistic art, essentially sculptural, with some cousinship to that of Diego Giacometti. It reminds us there is some truth to the idea that French modernism went nose-to-nose for a while against a contrary movement embodying an interest (often rather tongue-in-cheek) in tradition. Before World War II, designers tended to group themselves into one of two camps, either the Union des Artistes Modernes or the Salon des Artistes Décorateurs; the latter, championed by the critic Waldemar George, reacted against the “frightful nudity” of molded wood and stackable tubular chairs. But by 1945 the two camps had intermingled, so frequent were the crossovers and hybrids. (In an ironwork gate, for example, Poillerat brilliantly juxtaposed one of his trademark calligraphic flourishes with two huge industrial drill-bits.) Even the briefest look at the backgrounds and achievements of some of the principal Forties designers confirms this abandonment of ideological partisanship in favor of a more catholic visual receptivity.
Jacques Adnet, who was born in 1900, trained at the École des Arts Décoratifs in Paris and worked for many years with the Compagnie des Arts Français, a firm historically associated with Art Deco. Yet if Adnet’s furniture, some of it ornamented with elaborate iron or gilded-bronze mounts by Poillerat, often appears playfully anti-modernist, especially before the war, he also became professionally involved with Léger and the Giacomettis. Toward 1950, Adnet designed some breathtaking stripped-down pieces (chairs, low chests and a desk, among others), using metal strapwork, leather belting and black metal tubing, creations that yield nothing to the most advanced modernist work of the period.
By the same token, it would be pointless to place the extravagant figure of Emilio Terry anywhere on a traditionalist–modernist continuum. Terry, many of whose prototypes for carpets and chairs survive only as delicate gouaches, liked to endow conventional motifs with acid or otherworldly color harmonies. He also liked to take neo-Gothic or Turkish patterns and overextend them till they drove the viewer to distraction and to scatter thorny bramble or coral imagery about till it looked like it might draw blood. His perilously lobed and overstuffed easy chairs might be notions for a musical-comedy version of Bleak House; in a rustic twig-chair, branches sprout leaves that turn autumn colors before one’s eyes.
A Cuban aristocrat of Irish extraction, born in 1890, Terry grew up largely in the chateau of Chenonceaux, which his father had bought; prevented by fate from attending art school or realizing many of his numerous designs, he was a bookish creator, a fantasist. He assembled a vast library of architecture and design and also filled many sketchbooks with ideas. Deeply enamored of neoclassicism, he liked to describe himself as the inventor of “the Louis XVII style” (there was no Louis XVII), but he found his true destiny among friends like Diaghilev, Jean Cocteau, Igor Stravinsky, George Balanchine and the painter and set designer Christian Bérard. He is not easy to type, but images of his interiors in old magazines suggest an essentially Piranesian or theatrical imagination, and upon entering one of Terry’s few fully-realized interiors you must have felt you were slipping onstage during a performance at the Theatre de l’Odéon or into a scene in some wigged-out court memoir of the Restoration. You just had to decide what role you were going to play.
* * *
If you wonder why designers like Poillerat or Adnet or Terry or so many others—say, Arbus, Prou, Dominique or Old—so renowned in the period preceding the fall of France, were widely discounted by 1968, you might do well to recall something else: that only one of the three major Paris figures in the field of fine arts who matured in the 1940s still had a secure international reputation by the 1960s. This was Alberto Giacometti. At this time Balthus was still regarded by many non-French critics as a throwback, an inspired illustrator, and this misconception would not be dispelled until his retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum in YEAR TK. Jean Hélion, a creator of superb abstractions in the 1930s who abandoned this mode in favor of a sort of Derain-influenced naturalism after the war, has only recently and grudgingly been acknowledged as a major painter. The truth is that by 1968 French creativity in the Forties was out of fashion, lock, stock and barrel, largely because of the rise of the New York School.
In Paris, the man to be credited more than anyone else with the rediscovery of le style quarante is Yves Gastou, an unpretentious chineur, or “picker,” with a fabulous eye, whom this writer had the pleasure of observing in action many years ago. Gastou not only adored Forties furniture and had the capacity to spot the best pieces, but he also sought out and befriended the forgotten artists who had created them, a number of whom were still alive. For many years the New York dealer Barry Friedman offered a discerning collection of French Forties furniture in New York, though in a shift of direction he put most of it up for auction in 2004, including some marvelous iron-work by Poillerat.
For decades Karl Kemp, also in New York, has specialized in this period; Kemp notes that although Art Deco is not “easily combined” with other styles, these “very tailored” pieces, many of which have roots in the sober, rectilinear Directoire style, go well with anything, especially with modern work. Kemp, whose stock is exceptionally well-chosen, has five agents scouring France for him. He’s been at it so long that, as he puts it, “a lot of pieces find me,” including, at present, an extraordinary René Prou grand piano of 1930, produced by Gaveau. Kemp also has several items from the suite of about 90 pieces from the recently dismantled wood-paneled Forties rooms at the University of Paris.
Gary and Janet Calderwood, in Philadelphia, also have a huge stock of style quarante furniture and have been buying in France for decades. A devoted student of the period and an assiduous collector of trade magazines and brochures going back to the 1930s, Gary Calderwood attributes the collapse of interest in this sort of decorative art around 1950 to the vagaries of taste: “Whatever is most in fashion is just what goes most out of fashion—often very fast. And then, this sort of work was fantastically expensive to make and to buy. The rare woods alone! Great stuff is done when there’s a lot of money around—which, after the war, there wasn’t.”
The Calderwoods used to buy in consignment shops. Prices are now exponentially higher, not only for customers, but also for dealers. Yet considering that the traditional métier of ébéniste, or artisanal cabinet-maker, has almost vanished from the earth, the cost of great French furniture from the 1940s shouldn’t stop anyone who’s fallen in love with that gorgeous table or sideboard. One thing’s for certain: this sort of treasure isn’t coming back.
Our Complimentary Bimonthly eNewsletter