Published: June 8, 2004
Think of Paris in the 1920s, and sinuous, sophisticated images of the stylish Art Deco period come to mind. The glamorous period, typified by the furnishings produced by Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann, is currently being celebrated in an exhibition dedicated to the designer, “Ruhlmann: Genius of Art Deco.” The landmark exhibit, on view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, runs concurrently with “Art Deco Paris,” an exhibition of works by other leading Parisian designers of the period.
“Ruhlmann: Genius of Art Deco” is the first major retrospective dedicated to the entire career of the foremost proponent of high style French Art Deco. The cutting edge styles characterized a remarkable free-flowing era in many ways, and Ruhlmann was at its vanguard. The exhibit includes about 225 Ruhlmann objects and drawings from The Met’s own collection along with other objects on loan from public and private collections throughout North America and Europe.
It was the “Roaring Twenties,” the western world had just emerged from a long, dark and devastating war ready to dip deeply into the jazzy elegance that was hovering on the horizon. It was a brief bubble of extraordinary vibrancy in time between two wars and a worldwide depression. The sky was the limit in all things. And as for Ruhlmann, the times were made for the man and the man was made for the times.
Ruhlmann, a keen and pragmatic observer of the human condition and an immensely gifted designer, understood that if only the very rich could afford to pay for the latest style, then they were the ones who set the style. The very rich, not the less affluent, would pursue the fashions and fancies of the day and the talented and savvy designer would create these objects of desire. Ruhlmann also understood that the real purpose of fashion was to display one’s wealth. Bearing all that in mind, he embarked on a highly successful career catering to the newly rich class of post-World War I Paris.
Ruhlmann’s early work showed the influences of Art Nouveau and Arts and Crafts, and later of the Wiener Werkstatte, whose advocates used ancient Egyptian and Cubist imagery in their work. It was not long before he looked to the emerging international style in architecture and embraced its sleek and bolder forms. By the early 1920s, Ruhlmann’s pieces blended the modern with the extravagance of Louis XVI, a combination that was irresistible to the new self-styled aristocracy. His workmanship was superb; he looked to the exquisite craftsmanship of the Eighteenth Century cabinetmakers for inspiration. As exquisite as each piece was, Ruhlmann’s furniture was designed for function and comfort. Utility drove form and function; every time the result was a flamboyantly beautiful and perfectly usable piece.
Ruhlmann’s materials, too, were exceptional, the very height of elegance. He preferred exotic woods like Macassar ebony, Brazilian rosewood and amboyna burl because their very subtle grain would not compete with the form of a piece. He was also fond of sharkskin and bronze.
The forms themselves were quite simple, with only very subtle curvature and sleek lines. They were frequently decorated with classical images in geometric ivory inlay and with highlighted handles and feet in ivory. Above all was symmetry.
The extraordinary craftsmanship and the precious and exotic materials Ruhlmann used in his formal and elegant furniture made the pieces prohibitively expensive for all but the very wealthiest consumers. Ruhlmann’s name was on every piece. He envisioned entire rooms, entire houses. He was the mastermind of these exquisite designs, but he was no cabinetmaker. Ruhlmann employed the ablest and most talented craftsmen to execute his designs and supervised production with painstaking attention. He took so much care over each piece that his time and effort frequently resulted in a financial loss. One piece alone took more than 1,000 hours to make and cost the equivalent of a house.
Ruhlmann did not confine himself to furniture. He also produced highly stylish wallpaper, carpets, friezes and lighting to set off his furniture. Some believed that living with Ruhlmann furniture and decorations was akin to living in a museum.
So highly esteemed and desirable was Ruhlmann’s work that he was given several exhibit pavilions at the 1925 Exposition Internationale des arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes, from which the term “Art Deco” derived. The exposition had a pivotal role in the evolution of modern design – it was intended to reestablish French eminence in matters of taste and luxury goods and it was wildly successful. More than six million people visited during the six months of its run.
Ruhlmann’s Pavilion d’un Collectionneur was the most popular pavilion at the exposition. The pavilion was designed by Pierre Patout, based on the house he designed for Ruhlmann, and its palatial rooms were replete with Ruhlmann opulence. The centerpiece was the splendid grand piano Ruhlmann designed in amboyna and Macassar ebony. There was metalwork by Edgar Brandt, silver by Puiforcat, sculpture by Joseph Besnard, fabulous textiles and sumptuous silks and a jazzy Jean Dupas of female nudes and parakeets. The vast oval Grand Salon has long been thought the epitome of French Art Deco excellence.
This was an era of grand luxe and Ruhlmann was at its center. Ruhlmann even had a large hand in the design of the largest moving piece of Art Deco, the French Line’s Normandie, for which he designed the spectacular Grand Salon. The unique design of the ship allowed vast open spaces, a maritime innovation that Ruhlmann used to full advantage. He created a stunning room with wide gracious spaces, elegant furnishings and an Aubusson carpet that remains the largest handwoven carpet on record. Lighting was by Rene Lalique. No expense was spared in her creation and she was the essence of grandeur. When World War II broke out, the ship was converted to a military troop transport and her interiors and contents were removed and stored, a fortuitous event it turned out, as the ship caught fire at the dock, sunk and was ultimately scrapped. The contents were returned to France after the war and some pieces were refitted to the French Line’s Ile de France while others went into public and private collections, including that of The Met, and still others are seen occasionally in the marketplace.
A monumental Sevres white porcelain vase lamp on view is one of eight Ruhlmann designed in 1927, six of which were installed aboard Ile de France.
An early Ruhlmann work on view is the circa 1918-19 desk made for David David-Weill. It is of amboyna with delicate ivory inlay and fittings and has an oval work surface of sharkskin. It is a lively piece, with lots of bells and whistles, set on the slender tapered legs that were characteristic of Ruhlmann. It is from the museum’s own collection.
A later example of Ruhlmann’s “classical” pieces is the very splashy 1919 “Chariot” sideboard that was made of Macassar ebony with a sweeping ivory inlay image of an Attic charioteer. Ruhlmann’s distinctive tapering legs give the otherwise heavy piece a lightness it would not ordinarily possess.
An elaborately decorated cabinet with ivory floral inlay on view is similar to one on view in the 1925 Paris exposition that was commissioned by The Met that year. The museum was among the first to recognize the importance of French Art Deco and began to assemble its collection in the early 1920s. The Met commissioned several pieces directly from Ruhlmann.
The exhibit includes an array of the luxury objects Ruhlmann designed, such as his circa 1925 crystal and silvered metal chandelier, extravagantly patterned carpets, vividly colored textiles and wallpaper. The furnishings and the rooms for which they were made reflect a return to the lavish excess of the Eighteenth Century.
Some of Ruhlmann’s original drawings are also on view. They range from quick sketches to the elaborately colored presentation drawings he made for clients to full-scale working drawings used by his craftsman. They illustrate the process of a Ruhlmann object, from idea to finished product, with all the permutations in between.
The Art Deco masters represented in “Art Deco Paris” were colleagues and competitors of Ruhlmann who, like Ruhlmann, used classical imagery within geometric designs. And, also like Ruhlmann, they worked against the perceived excess of Art Nouveau. They were Louis Süe and Andrew Mare, and Clement Rousseau, designers Raoul Dufy and Paul Poiret, whose textile creations are on view, and jeweler Georges Fouquet. The visitor can view bookbinding by Pierre Legrain, lacquer by Jean Dunand, metalwork by Edgar Brandt, splendidly etched glasswork by René Lalique and costumes by couturier Jeanne Lanvin.
The 1925 Paris Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes produced two distinct and similar effects. On the one hand, designers produced luxurious objects of the highest quality for a select buying group. At the same time, modernists developed clean and simple shapes that were suitable for mass production. Art Deco caught on, far and wide.
“Ruhlmann: Genius of Art Deco” and “Art Deco Paris” remain on view through September 5, after which time they travel to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. The Ruhlmann show is accompanied by a 323-page illustrated catalog, published by Somogy Editions d’Art and co-produced by the Musée des Années 30, Boulogne-Billancourt, and the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Montréal, and available in English and French editions.
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