Furniture Design of the 1920s and 1930s

Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann

Born in Paris, Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann was the son of François Ruhlmann, a prosperous interior decorator of painting, wallpaper and mirrors, located at 6 rue du Marché Saint-Honoré. In 1900 he joined his father's business at 21 and was put in charge of timber inventory and business negotiations. His father died in 1907, and Émile made his début in 1910 with a series of wallpaper designs at the Salon d'Automne and in 1911 with similar designs at the Salon des Artistes Décorateurs. By 1912 Ruhlmann began to design and model furniture. In 1919 he joined with Pierre Laurent, a painter, to form Etablissemens Ruhlmann et Laurent. The latter specialized in decoration while Ruhlmann was in charge of furniture. By 1920 the business included a cabinetmaking workshop, which eventually employed thirteen craftsmen and two machinists. Ruhlmann had no formal training in cabinetmaking and made drawings in ink with front and side views of furniture that were usually passed on to be transformed into a cabinetmaker's blueprint.

Ruhlmann wanted to use the best woods for his furniture. Rich and exotic veneers like palisander, macassar ebony, Cuban mahogany, as well as amboyna were used. Inlays were made of ivory, tortoise shell, and horn. Ruhlmann's furniture was purchased by wealthy clients. Ruhlmann remarked in a 1928 exhibition catalog for Lord and Taylor, that "the movement to develop a contemporary style in interior decoration will only come fully into its own when people of moderate incomes become interested." Yet, Ruhlmann felt that "costly experiments must first be made in furniture de luxe" and that "this art be developed under the patronage of the wealthy, just as the art of the older epochs was developed under the patronage of the courts" (quoted in Alastair Duncan, Art Deco Furniture, 164). Ruhlmann based his furniture types on 18th century designs, but simplified them through slight distortions. His pieces often had very slender legs with small feet tipped in ivory. The ivory contrasted to the veneers and was also used for ribs, key plates, handles and miscellaneous decorative patterns of dots. Massive sideboards or cabinets were "floated" in mid-air, and connected to the base by a short central column. Ruhlmann concealed the construction by placing thin strips of wood over a hardwood core. Up to seven layers of thin panels were crisscrossed over the previous layer with the grain going in opposite or perpendicular directions. The final veneer was cut from the finest woods and assembled in large sections which completely covered up the joints, giving the illusion of being cut from a single block of wood. In this illustration, to our left and above, we have Ruhlmann's corner cabinet [encoignure] of 1816 that is made of palisander, macassar ebony and ivory. It is one of the very fine Art Deco pieces in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

La Compagnie des Arts Francais: Louis Sue and Andre Mare

Louis Sue and Andre Mare came together in 1913 although their company was not formed until 1919, shortly after the end of World War I. The company had a very talented team of collaborators, and the firm created a wide range of products, including ceramic lamps, clocks, carpets, wallpapers, fabrics and silverware. They employed several rich woods for furniture including mahogany, macassar ebony, palisander, ebony, burl walnut and ash. Paler woods included beech and birch. At the 1925 Expo in Paris, the Company distinguished itself with a Pavilion called A Museum of Contemporary Art [Un Musée d'Art Contemporain], which was located not far from the Collector's House of Ruhlmann. The pavilion had a rotunda and gallery while the rich interior was highlighted with carved and gilded furniture and exquisite Aubusson tapestry. As Alastair Duncan notes in his Art Deco Furniture (1984), Sue and Mare were traditionalist in their furniture style with some reminiscences of Louis XV style and especially the French furniture of the 1830s and 1840s. The 1920 interview with Leon Deshairs (Art et decoration, 1920, and reprinted in Duncan, Art Deco Furniture, is given here: "The Louis-Philippe style (1830s and 1840s), for a long time favored in the provinces, is the most recent to date of French styles. It is rather clumsy, but earnest, logical, welcoming. It responded to needs which we still have. Its forms are so rational that the motorcar designer of today who draws the interior of a car uses them unconsciously. We are not reviving it, we are not deliberately continuing it, but we find it while seeking out simple solutions, and throough it we bind ourselves to the whole of our magnificanet past. We are not creating a merely fashionable art." Their furniture seemed traditional and appeared to be truly French in its feeling, which distinguished it from that of other nations. The legs of cabinets and tables were often applied outside the body of the piece, and carved in wood or cast in bronze and often in traditional shapes like the palmette. The firm excelled in mother-of-pearl marquetry, which we see on this magnificent cabinet illustrated in your book. This work was commissioned by the French actress Jane Renouardt for her villa-style house in Saint-Cloud, on the outskirts of Paris. This excellent piece is in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

Clément Mère

A landscape painter who shifted to the applied arts after the turn of the century, Mère turned to leatherwork, embroidery and fabric patterns. He used leather and then sharkskin and ivory. After 1910 his furniture included rosewood, maple and macassar ebony. Like Sue and Mare, he liked past styles, particularly the very popular18th century Louis XVI style. Mère was well known for his emphasis on materials and ornamental details. Here, on the right, we see a sideboard in macassar ebony. lacquered repoussè leather, ivory (Collection Primavera Gallery, New York).

Clément Rousseau

Rousseau trained as a sculptor with Léon Morice and exhibited his furniture pieces at the Société des Artiste Français. In the early 1920s commissions by private clients as respectable as the entrepreneur and couturier (fashion designer) Jacques Doucet and the collector Baron de Rothschilds made him well known. Each object of furniture is a highly individual interpretation of 18th century furniture style. He liked to use fairly dark palmwood or rosewood that was rich in grain and veneered with sharkskin or snakeskin and striped or dressed with ivory on the feet. Sharkskin was customarily dyed green or bleached in the natural gray. It is very durable and has a sheen, and a certain grain that radiates outward. Stylized flower petals, volutes and sun rays make up decorative patterns on these chairs (from our list of illustrations) that are characteristic of Art Deco. These chairs ar made of rosewood and sharkskin and have secondary decorations in ivory and mother-of-pearl (Virginia Museum of Fine Art).

Eileen Gray

Interior of Suzanne Talbot:

Jean Dunand

After attending the School of Industrial Arts in Geneva, Switzerland, Dunand won a scholarship to study in Paris in 1898, where he would take up residence. He studied with the sculptor Jean Dampt in 1902, and soon worked with bronze, plaster, stone and ivory. He made metal vases in a variety of materials in an art nouveau style before turning to lacquer in 1909. He saw the lacquered works of Japanese artists in Paris. In 1912 he worked with the Japanese master Sougawara, with whom Eileen Gray had been working since 1907. After World War I, Dunand ran large workshops that included metal, cabinetry and lacquerwork. Dunand was also among the most important designers using egg shell [coquille d'oeuf] for ornament. It was a substitute for the color white which could not be obtained through vegetable dyes. Fresh egg shells either inside or outside, in large crushed pieces, could be applied to fresh lacquer, especially that which was of a red or black color.The egg shell had to be of a regularized size. Indochinese lacquer and lacquer craftsmen were preferred by Dunand, and Indochinese lacquers were popularized in France during World War I, for their role in sealing wood propellers of the French Airforce. Dunand applied as many as 40 coats of lacquer for his deep, smooth and lustrous finish. He liked to use overlapping chevrons, triangles or squares by the early 1920s on his furniture surfaces. This table (1925), of lacquered wood and egg shell, is also illustrated in your textbook

Gerrit Rietveld

The son of a Dutch cabinetmaker, Gerrit Rietveld was trained in his father's trade, and set up his own furniture shop in 1911. At that time, he was much inspired by the Dutch Arts and Crafts Movement which emphasized simple and carefully crafted objects. In 1916 Rob van t'Hoff showed him examples of Frank Lloyd Wright's plank and rail furniture. Rietveld joined the movement known as De Stijl in 1919. According to Theo Van Doesburg, the leader of the movement, De Stijl sought to lessen the distinction between fine and applied arts and make all forms of art interactive with one another. These two goals could be accomplished by the use of a universal visual language that would transcend the personality of individual artists. The minimal geometric shapes of squares, rectangles, vertical and horizontal lines as well as primary colors would create compositions that contained a "dynamic equilibrium." Like Van Doesburg, Rietveld spoke about interior furnishings as if they were sculpture, with open construction.

The restoration of Schröder House in Utrecht displayed the aesthetics of De Stijl. There, space was partitioned into cubic units by means of freely interpenetrating planes. There were no curves and circles and the interior wall and floor partitions were painted in primary colors. In this interior, we see Rietveld's famous Rood Blauwe Stoel (Red/Blue Chair). Rietveld wrote about the Red/Blue Chair: "That chair was made to the end of beauty, a spatial object, showing that a thing could be made of nothing but machined materials." The 1917 dark brown prototype and the 1919 Red/Blue Chair were made up of seventeen elements, machine cut in the form of thin boards and lintels, which crisscrossed one another, meeting at right angles without penetrating or passing through one another. In 1971, Rietveld said that this chair was made with the purpose of displaying how "an aesthetic and spatial object could be constructed with linear material and made by machinery. I therefore sectioned the central part of the plank into two, obtaining a seat and a back; then, with lintels of varying lengths, I constructed a chair. When I made it, I did not realize that it would have such enormous significance for me and also others . . . When the opportunity arose for me to build a house [Schröder House] based on the same principles, I naturally did not let it pass me by" (Quoted in Frederick Brandt, Late 19th and Early 20th Century Decorative Arts, 164).

Rietveld's chair would influence the furniture of the Russian Constructivist and Bauhaus designers of the 1920s.

Marcel Breuer

Wrought-iron furniture, which was fashionable in Art Deco France, was regarded more as works of art than as pievvces of furniture. Nickel- or chrome-plated steel furniture was austere and bare looking, and did not catch on with the public. Yet, metal furniture was seen by its designers and manufacturers as a solution to two problems: first, it responded well to the severe shortage of timber in the years during and after Worl War I. Tubular stainless steel furniture was, in fact, quick and inexpensive (compared to wood) to produce. It was also stronger than cork, ebonite or glass. Second, central heating (a new convenience at that time) was proving destructive to wooden furniture.

The first tubular chair was the creation of Marcel Breuer in 1925, when the 23-year old designer was the director of the Bauhaus furniture workshops in Dessau, Germany. A bicycle that Breuer purchased in 1925 inspired him to experiment with tubular steel. He hired a plumber to weld the tubes together for his new prototype, which gave to onlookers the impression that the chair was constructed from a sinngle piece of tubing. In 1928 Breuer created his own version of the tubular cantilever chair. The first chair to use the principle of cantilever construction was made out of gas pipes and fittings by Mart Stam, and then followed up shortly afterward by the architect and designer, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.

We saw earlier how Joseph Hoffmann made use of bentwood chair construction. The popularity of bentwood furniture by Thonet Brothers in the later 19th century helped to pave the way for the public acceptance of tubular steel furniture. Thonet in fact agreed to produce tubular steel furniture. In Marcel Breuer's Cantilever Chair, shown here, the bent stainless steel is held rigid by the bentwood frame of seat and back, which is sufficiently strong to support the chair without rear legs. It was promoted by its producers as having an elasticity that: "makes a light, completely self-sufficient seat, which is as commfortable as an upholstered chair, but is many times lighter, handier and more hygienic, and therefore more practical to use." In an essay entitled "Metal Furniture" of 1928, Breuer wrote: "What happened was precisely the opposite of what I had expected [from the public] . . . I first experimented with duraluminum but because of its higher price, I went over to using precision steel tubing . . . Steel is lighter than wood . . . Even soft steel, though weighing 9 times as much as beechwood, is 13 to 100 times stronger . . . steel can be much more easily formed into stress-resistant shapes (i.e. tubular cross section) than wood, whose mechanical properties are limited by its tendency to splinter and its non-homogeneous nature." Courtesy of Frank Whitford, The Bauhaus: Masters and Students by Themsleves (1993).