French Design Icons
Last month's blogpost on American Design Icons got me inspired, and motivated to research interior design legends in other countries as well. Seeing as I am a bit of a Francophile, exploring the history of 20th century French interior was next on my to-do list. Disclaimer: this little article merely skims the surface of this subject – consider it an invitation to explore further and soyez inspiré!
Maison Jansen was a Paris-based interior decoration office founded in 1880 by Dutch-born Jean-Henri Jansen. His origins are a bit of a mystery, though it’s suspected he must have apprenticed at a prestigious architecture or decorating firm, as he seems to have had an extensive network of high-level contacts from the moment he set up his business. What’s certain is that he was an enormously talented decorator, entrepreneur and publicist because Maison Jansen quickly became a leading high-society tastemaker and remained one for the next century, with outposts in major cities throughout the world: London, New York, Buenos Aires, Cairo, Havana, Prague, Rome and Rio de Janeiro. The house's calling card lay in mixing period majesty with updated comforts, earning them commissions for palaces and royal residences all over the world. By 1900, Maison Jansen was designing so much custom furniture that it established its own atelier which, at the height of its operations, employed 700 artisans.
Designer and architect Pierre Chareau (1883–1950) was a pivotal figure in modernism. His extraordinary Art Deco furniture is avidly collected and his visionary Glass House, the Maison de Verre in Paris (image below), is considered a seminal moment in French architecture. It is notable for its use of glass blocks as architectural elements, as well as its marvelous embrace of exquisite design and technology. Chareau linked architecture, fine arts, and style; designed furniture for avant-garde films and chic homes; collected artists such as Picasso and Mondrian; and was a radical innovator in the use of materials.
Madeleine Castaing (1894-1992) France’s grande dame of decor, became an instant success in 1940s Paris with her signature style that was a unique blend of neoclassicism, Proustian romanticism, and whimsy. She counted Renaissance man Jean Cocteau among her friends and frequently collaborated with him (top: Castaing room with Cocteau murals, below: Castaing's design for Cocteau's house in Milly-la-Forêt). Her signature quirky design elements include jungle foliage motifs, elaborate swagged curtains, faux moiré finishes and leopard patterned anything. In her own words "Don't be intimidated by audacity. Be audacious - but with taste."
Jean-Michel Frank (1895-1941) enjoyed a relatively brief yet impactful career from the early 1920s up until his death, during which he created poetic spaces where simplicity and proportion are the key elements. An early mentor told him “Elegance is elimination.” and this became a guiding principal in his work. Indeed, Frank was known for minimalist interiors decorated with plain-lined but sumptuous furniture made of luxury materials, such as shagreen, mica, and intricate straw marquetry. His rooms were devoid of the unnecessary. Luxury was in the quality and not the quantity of the furnishings, quite a revolutionary approach at the time. Jean Cocteau once famously joked, while leaving Frank’s apartment for the first time: “Pity, the burglars got everything.”
Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, known as Le Corbusier (1887 – 1965), was a Swiss-French architect, designer, painter, urban planner, writer, and one of the pioneers of what is now called modern architecture. He was born in Switzerland but became a French citizen in 1930. His career spanned five decades and he designed buildings in Europe, Japan, India, and North and South America. He famously declared that “The house should be a machine for living in,” and proposed a revolutionary vision of the modern house that embraced prefabrication, mass production, technological advancements, new materials and abstract design. He sought efficiency in manufacture, construction and ways of living and ultimately defined a new approach to interior design that remains influential and relevant today.
Henri Samuel (1904-1996), considered one of the pre-eminent French interior designers of the twentieth century and acclaimed for his mastery of historic design, as well as his eye for contemporary presentation and furnishings. Born into a wealthy French family, he went to work for Jansen in 1925 at the age of twenty-one. But it wasn't long before he started his own firm where he catered to an international clientele. Samuel was one of the first true experts at mixing genres. He delighted in juxtaposing Louis XVI décor with abstract paintings or in placing Louis XIII amidst a collection of Oriental objects. The use of surprising and unusual tonalities was a trademark, as were quilted upholstery on chairs, mounds of cushions and a profusion of rare and curious objets. The results were spectacular and at the same time warmly welcoming—and perhaps it is in this that Henri Samuel's touch is most instantly recognizable. He believed a design could be counted a success only if nobody suspected that a decorator had been involved.
Stylish Parisienne Andrée Putman (1925-2013) came to world of interior design later in life, after a successful career as magazine editor and art director. As a young girl, she emptied her room in her family's Left Bank apartment, leaving little and only of the best: a bed, and a chair by Mies van der Rohe under a Noguchi lamp – a harbinger of what became her trademark style. She had a soft spot for French modernist furniture of the 1930s, a minimal aesthetic and a neutral – often black-and-white – color palette. She designed retail interiors, hotels – Ian Schrager's NYC Morgans Hotel among them-, the revamp of the Concorde and the the office in Paris of the French minister of culture. In her own words: “I have no recipe for how to combine things. But you must be sincere. And if you are, strangely, it will succeed.”