Tom Thomas

20th Century European Decorative Arts


November 3, 2003 - December 12, 2003

The 1940’s in France have received increasing attention as a subject for interior decoration. As Americans we have our own vision of the 40’s that is shaped by two events: WWII and Hollywood. The 40’s for us were a time of great heroism where the USA sacrificed, worked collectively as a nation to build wartime production and where our soldiers “rescued” Europe from the perils of war and German National Socialism. Hollywood also contributed strongly to our national identity. It was an age of large studios, lavish sets, big stars, glamour and even the emergence of powerful women as protagonists and antagonists within the drama of life. From both these viewpoints we proved ourselves the most powerful nation and the most glamorous. There was much to be proud of.

Gilbert Poillerat from a design by Lucien Rollin

In France and the rest of Europe there was great uncertainty and danger. The old values and social hierarchy that had held the 'ancient regime' together through the 19th century had all but disappeared. The decimation of Jews, artists, intellectuals, gypsies and homosexuals in Germany had sent a signal as to what could happen if one lived life on the edges. Life responded in two ways: through a flight into fantasy and absurdity and through a return to classical humanistic values that had guided the past. And sometimes, these two seemingly different directions converged in a strange harmony. In general, French furniture of the 40’s follows these two paths.

Maison Ramsay

Ironwork had been a strong part of decoration since the High Middle Ages in France. Gothic artisans fastened by hand the amazing hardware that made just about everything work in this period. There had been a longing to return to this kind of simplicity for decades. Ruskin and Morris in England had longed to return industrial England to days of the handmade. Even though France had not experienced industrialization to the same level and the art of the handmade article had not disappeared there was still a longing to return to the values of the past. The personal handmade quality of ironwork was a way to continue this lineage yet to do it in a modern way.

Although the Art Deco Movement had mostly been a movement that involved luxurious materials and sweeping cubist forms, the ironwork and Edgar Brandt and others found a strong place in it. But as life moved closer to war toward the end of the 30’s the art of ironwork began to change as well. Ironwork moved from decorative accessory to becoming a main medium for making furniture, lighting and objects. Furthermore, it began to take on a more dramatic, expressive flavor as many of the leading furniture makers such as Arbus, Adnet, Rollin, Quinet, Ramsay, Prou, Drouot, Du Plantier, Royere and Dupre-Lafon utilized ironwork within their decorative schemes. The 40’s became the decade of the ironworker in the 20th century.

Jean Royere

One must wonder what is it about Ironwork that caused it to be so special in this period? Ironwork is completely mold-able. It has a capacity to convey form with subtlety through the tracing the outline of objects rather than as a large mass of form. Thus, it can slowly guide the viewer’s eyes as to essence of the piece to allow it to be seen: by its outline, by it simplicity, by it details. Thus, it can create a kind of visual poetry out of a work of furniture or lighting. Furthermore, ironwork by its nature also conveys great strength. The period from the late thirties onward were time of fear and weakness. It was a time when fortitude and strength were necessary to combat everyday life. Ironwork served in this capacity. Through the inherent strength of the material it became a kind of transitory object that provided reassurance people needed. In addition, the theme of the ironwork was often neo-classical in inspiration and served as an outlet for values of dignity, integrity and loyalty necessary to the continuance of life in stressful times.

As Edgar Brandt had been the most important ironworker of the 20’s and Raymond Subes of the 30’s, Gilbert Poillerat’s became the most important of them all in the 40’s. Poillerat worked with many decorator-architects such as Andre Arbus, Jacques Adnet and Lucien Rollin and also worked independently on his own commissions. The striking thing about Poillerat’s work is that it has the capacity for the neo-classical values of strength, order and principles necessary to shore up a sagging society and the capacity for great neo-baroque fantasy as well. Poillerat’s Table for Lucien Rollin private residence speaks well to the capacity for order, balance and simplicity as it recounts French historical tradition while forging a modern character as well.

Adnet and Poillerat

Likewise, is the piece by Maison Ramsay: Fabulously gilded, nobly sitting on hoofed feet and held together by a curile x-frame construction as old as the Roman Empire, it possesses dignity and a power to dream.

Jean Royere exhibits a unique capacity for imagination and fantasy in his work. The baluster form table lamps attributed to him suggest the idea or image of a classical baluster yet at the same time they are only lightly framed images in gilded wrought iron that are airy and again possessed of a dream-like quality.

Jacques Quinet Standing Lamp

Perhaps, the most stunning piece in the exposition is the Red Lacquer Cabinet from Jacques Adnet and Poillerat. Brilliantly executed in fire engine red they are decorated with a lock-plate and sit on a stand from Poillerat. The character of the stand is light with cross-banded sides and given an edge with the addition of a band of gilt metal rope lacing the front.

Rene Drouet was another of the decorator architects of the period that frequently used very theatrical metalwork in his creations of tables, chairs, sofa bases, desks etc. In the cocktail table presented he uses sweeping arcs to form the neo-baroque legs and sets the rolled cream colored glass to rest on a series of balls.

Rene Drouet Cocktail Table

Finally, a standing lamp from the workshop of Jacques Quinet is presented. Quinet embraced the classical tradition of the Directoire period in his elegant, sober creations yet maintained the most modern spirit among the group. The standing lamp sits on flattened feet with its shaft of 4 joined columns held together by simple bands. It is as modern as it is classical as Quinet arrived on the scene at the end of the 40’s when the War was over and France was looking to new more modern senses of inspiration.

While no interpretation of the art works of any era can be completely definitive of the total ethos of that period, French Ironwork during the 40’s maintained not only unmatched craftsmanship; but, spoke to basic classical values of order, balance and dignity necessary to maintain pride during a dreadful period. We can only be grateful to the guiding legacy that the decorator-architects-ironworkers have left us.

Tom Thomas