The Fate of Fonts, Part One

The Fate of Fonts

Typography in the 1920s, Part One

Until the 1920s, a printer’s font was selected and combined into words with the intention that the words were going to be read. This assertion may seem axiomatic at first, but, in the modern era, fonts were rethought as elements of graphic design because texts had become an object to gaze upon and not to be closely scrutinized. The Art Deco revolution towards modern fonts went hand-in-hand with the changes in magazine layout which, thanks to print technology, could incorporate images seamlessly and artistically. Free from the stifling grid, artists could reconsider the arrangement and relationship of text and image by equating them in importance. Once the text–letters–fonts–became part of an overall design, it became clear that fonts had to cease their independent existence as letters and become objects in their own right that were a part of the overall design. Old fashioned fonts with their combination of thick lines and thin lines and the accompanying array of bristling serifs simply did not work well with the new dynamics of twentieth-century design. Typography was part of the literate modern world that included books and magazines and advertising and bill boards and posters all demanding attention, and like the rest of the world, old typefaces needed to be updated into modern fonts.

Adolphe Jean-Marie Mouron, who went by the professional nom de plume “Cassandre” (1901-1968), was a famed poster designer and, as one of the pioneers of Art Deco graphic design, was well aware of the need to signify “modern” with words or fonts as well as shapes and formats to the potential consumers of modern stylish products. A Ukrainian exile living and working in Paris, he experimented at will, often using his own fonts, Bifur, for his graphic work for his clients, free to be creative and unhindered by local political needs that he would have encountered in the new Soviet Union. Because he was the co-founder of his own agency, Alliance Graphique, the designer had the good fortune to experiment without the government interference that would later plague the German designers. The German colleagues of Cassandre began with the same clean slate as he had but, by the early 1930s, seemingly innocent fonts became entangled with national identity.

Bifur Font by Cassandre

Germany was the home country of the famed inventor of movable type and the printing press, Johannes Gutenberg (1398-1468). Before Gutenberg improved the already existing movable type, printed pages were pressed onto inked woodblocks with raised letters carved out. These white pages with elaborate letters marching across from one side to the other, from top to bottom, or incunabula, very rare and prized today. The printing press could have been invented in Holand or in Germany by the middle of the fifteenth century, but it quickly replaced the manuscript. Called “mechanical writing,” the pages produced by Gutenberg’s very excellent press looked back to the past, to the handwritten manuscripts with hand lettering that dated back to Medieval times. In addition, many, if not most, of the early manuscripts were liturgical in purpose. In fact, in order to pay off his debts, according to Graphic Design History, Gutenberg printed papal indulgences and Bibles. The consumer or reader would not accept a new “book” if it did not look like a manuscript with all of its handwritten authority. The printer replicated the Textura Quadrata, or the “blackletter” font. Almost five hundred years later, Germany was still using the blackletter font for nearly all official printed materials, from magazines to books to government documents.

Old Type Guttenberg A font

One of the oddities of modern German was not just that the nation kept a font for hundreds of years old but also that capital letters were used to designate nouns, making any page an uneven jumble of large and small letters with on design logic. As early as the 1820s, there were attempts to reform and update the printing of German, using capital letters for the start of sentences and for proper names only as like the rest of the European languages. By the early twentieth century, it was simply absurd to continue the tradition of replicating the handwritten manuscript lettering of the Medieval period, which was calligraphic, dense and elaborate, and one of the self-imposed tasks of the Bauhaus was to update calligraphy and remake fonts into something suitable for the modern era. Students at the Bauhaus were required to take two semesters of typography and letter design. Their teacher, Joost Schmidt, broke individual letters of the alphabet to their basic elements: a circle, a square, and a rectangle. The goal was to create a universal or international alphabet. The word “international” is significant in this context, for the Bauhaus, as has been noted in previous posts, made itself an outlier in Germany by stressing a neutral international identity over a specific and proud national identity. However, in 1923 when László Moholy-Nagy arrived at the Bauhaus in 1923, the politics of identity seemed far away. The designer concentrated upon the concept of typography as an instrument of “clarity” in the service of the “message.” It is clear that the whole of the graphic design resources of the school was oriented towards reform and those efforts at updating including fonts. In the newly inaugurated the Druck und Reklame (printing and advertising) workshop, Herbert Bayer (1900-1985), a former student at the Bauhaus, was head of this new department.

The Director of the art school, Walter Gropius (1883-1969) asked Bayer to design a unique and distinctive typeface that would be the “face” of Bauhaus. The selection of Bayer was a judicious one. The artist had been asked in 1923 by the State of Thuringia to design their new bank notes for a series of million marks bills. Shockingly enough, his design used sans serif type, but two years later, the same government withdrew support from the Bauhaus. Two years later, when Bayer returned in 1925, the school was in a new home, Dessau, and had a new frame of reference. Bayer became head of the typography workshop and decided to create a single font face that would be “universal.” He made a bold leap away from the traditional German blackletter and designed a lower-case only alphabet in which the simplified and reduced font without serifs. which became associated with the Bauhaus and with artistic design. Each letter was constructed with great economy, an arc here, a straight line there, nothing else was necessary. In contrast to the traditional justified right side, Bayer justified only the left side and allowed the right side to be “ragged.” His Universal alphabet did not become “universal,” but the future of fonts would be sans serif, which, like Bayer’s lower case only fonts, was a rebellion against the serif sprouting fraktur and its forest of capital letters. At first, when it came to politics, Bayer proved to be surprisingly open to the blandishments of the Nazis when they came to power. His neutral attitude towards the party of Adolf Hitler was surprising, given that it was the Nazi party that had pushed the Bauhaus out of Weimar, however, for their part, the Nazis were equally flexible in their willingness to hire the former Bauhaus star to do their bidding.

Herbert Bayer’s “Bauhaus” font

As Alice Rawsthorn wrote for The New York Times, “In the 10 years from 1928, when he left the Bauhaus to open a studio in Berlin, until his departure for the United States in 1938, he produced posters, brochures and other promotional material for a succession of government projects. Bayer later tried to erase this period from his biography, describing it as ‘my advertising purgatory..'” It seems that Bayer, like many artists needed the work and could not afford to be political. In the early years, the Nazis cloaked their more evil intentions under programs of rebuilding, but those in power took a dim view of modern art and design. The author continued, “Bayer rapidly became one of Germany’s most prolific commercial designers. But by the mid-1930s, the Nazi regime was increasingly repressive and many of his friends, including the Gropiuses, had left the country. Bayer remained, and worked on high-profile government projects, including the propaganda exhibitions ‘German People, German Work’ and ‘Germany.’ Disapproving though the Nazis were of Modernist design, they were willing to use it whenever it seemed expedient.” However, it was impossible for a modern artist to say in favor with the Nazis indefinitely. By 1938, Bayer had fallen from favor. In 2014 Rawsthorn wrote, “Bayer was desperate to leave Germany, but too broke to do so until Gropius arranged for him to curate an exhibition about the Bauhaus at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. He left for the United States in August 1938…Looking back on his life in Berlin, Bayer admitted to being ‘appalled how blind’ he had been to the horrors of Nazism. He also acknowledged the folly of thinking that designers, artists or anyone else could isolate themselves from politics, as he had tried to do.”

It would be safe to say that Bayer’s alphabet is still the face of the Bauhaus, but, even though his font existed only as a design its impact lingers on. As Sarah Archer wrote in 2015 on a change in the Google font, “Bayer set out to create a typeface that was “universal” and could be deployed in a variety of creative ways, at different scales. Each element was lowercase so that the typeface could be adapted to typewriters, books, posters, and signage — in other words, all the ways in which we interact with type on a daily basis as we navigate the world. The premise that each letter was the same “weight” in typographic terms, that is, the same thickness, meant that each character was interchangeable and thus the process of design and implementation was simplified. Bayer’s original design now exists as Bayer Universal and inspired the related typefaces, Architype Bayer and Architype Schwitters. Google’s new face, “Product Sans,” faintly resembles Bayer’s Universal Alphabet in its heavy, rounded forms, each of which seems to “fit” in a circular fashion over the footprint of the other.” Archer explained the suitability of a “universal” alphabet for a universal search engine like Google: “Why do this at Google, and why now? Bayer and Tschichold, along with their Bauhaus colleagues like architect Walter Gropius, addressed the struggle to reconcile the human, tactile, and affective experiences of design with the aesthetics (and recent ravages) of the Machine Age. How could people expect to navigate a world that was made of cold materials on a giant scale? Though the concerns of World War I-era Europe seem less pressing now, the spirit of those worries is as relevant as ever: our connections to other people, in ways both good and bad, are mediated by technology, gadgets, and data, from our physical location on earth to the way we “appear” online to others. Google’s breadth and scope essentially makes its array of products the 21st-century equivalent of Modernist architecture or mass production: Google is everywhere, unavoidable, greatly beneficial if used right, and it requires the finesse of forward-thinking, humanist designers to make it accessible.”

New Google font in 2015

Herbert Bayer, like his mentor, Walter Gropius, was successful in America where he lived a safe life in a nation where he could enjoy artistic freedom. The goal of the designers of the 1920s was a simple one–to make fonts legible and readable. In other words, while Cassandre was being creative with fonts in France, his German colleagues were reforming nothing less than how their countrymen read and their inventions were out of necessity. In the next part of this topic, the fate of the other designers and designs in England will be discussed.

 

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Temples of Desire: The French Pavilions of Art Deco

Architecture of Commerce

Selling Art Deco

From Spring to Fall of 1925, The International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts in Paris captured the attention of Europe and visiting dignitaries from America. Like the decade itself, this Fair was both forward looking and backward glancing. After the Great War, there was a general desire to return to normal, to “order,” as Jean Cocteau put it. What the writer, and other commentators who shared his sentiments meant, was a turn towards conservativism and caution. The Twenties was a decade of consolidation in the French art world, a digestion of the troublesome avant-gardes of the pre-war that had to be tamed and recycled as “modern art.” Designers, however, faced more complex challenges. Their bête-noir was Art Nouveau and its now old fashioned elaboration. After a terrible war, such decadence seemed obscene and such exuberance became unbearable in a new age of machines. Kenneth Frampton described Hector Guimard’s famous Métro entrances, which marked the Paris subway stations in these terms: “Constructed like the Crystal Palace out of interchangeable, prefabricated cast iron and glass parts, Guimard created his métro system in opposition to the ruling taste of French classical culture…Guimard’s system flourished, emerging overnight like the manifestation of some organic force, its sinuous green cast-iron tentacles erupting from the subterranean labyrinth to support a variety of barriers, pergolas, maps, hooded light fittings and glazed canopies. These surrealistic ‘dragonfly’s wings’—to quote a contemporary critic—received a mixed, not to say chauvinistic, press, the verdigris colour of their iron supports being regarded as German rather than French.” Frampton was describing one of the three types of entrances designed by the artist–the delightful “dragonfly.”

By the 1920s, the time of such flights of fancy had passed. Art Nouveau and its attachment to nature were simply out of step with the Machine Age. Guimard himself noted, “Nature is a great book from which to draw inspiration..Having myself undertaken this study, I discovered three principles which should have a dominant influence on every architectural work: logic, harmony, and feeling.” When he spoke in 1902, a naturalistic design for the Métro entrances was precisely what the Parisians needed. As Marianne Ström noted in her book, Metro-art in the Metro-polis, “The underground has long been synonymous with anguish, fear, and repulsion. It evokes images of funerals, the dead, and hell-fire, sanctuaries (Lascaux and Altamira) and sorcerers.” She could have added the fact that, in Paris, the underground was an ossuary, the graveyards of millions of unknown city dwellers from hundreds of years. Guimard’s entrances were a welcome touch of beauty that would have welcomed tentative visitors to the new mode of travel. But after the war, such superstitions were stripped away and the public accepted the mechanical and technology, even under the earth. Slowly, one by one, Guimard’s one hundred forty-one lovely passages between light and darkness were removed and it was not until the late 1970s that their artistic value was recognized. Only eighty-six remained after the frenzy of modernizing in the 1960s and 70s.

In Architecture of France, David A. Hanser noted that “..Guimard created a new style in which modern, unconventional materials (iron, steel, brick, glass block, glazed tiles) were used openly and mixed with traditional materials, and in which asymmetry predominated..To some, Guimard’s ‘Metro Style’ was modern; to some it was nightmarish; to others, it represented bad taste..” Also very modern in 1901 was the fact that “Guimard’s entrances were made from a kit of relatively few prefabricated parts of cast iron that could be assembled in a wide number of variations.” Despite the advanced materials and building techniques employed, the entrances, as the author pointed out, caused controversies. Guimard was from Belgium, and the French took a dim view of such a foreign invasion and the architect bowed out of the project by 1902. The Art Nouveau stations themselves continued to be built until 1913, but after the Great War, in ten years, the world had changed and a new style, a rejection of Art Nouveau–Art Deco–arrived.

It should not be assumed, however, that Art Deco was a wholesale rejection of the past. Far from it, Art Deco philosophy rejected its near relative, Art Nouveau, but looked back to a very specific time period for inspiration. As Jared Goss, the historian of French Art Deco noted, the Art Nouveau artists were themselves not particularly good craftspersons and did not understand the relationship between art-for-art’s-sake and mass production. The style became a statement of luxury for the few but could not be easily refitted for broad consumption. According to Goss, “..the commercial failure of Art Nouveau was a national embarrassment, as other nations seemed able to succeed at expanding into a wide consumer based without sacrificing quality. Art Deco Designers rejected the sacrifice of quality for the sake of “art” at the expense of execution and “looked back to the preindustrial past, when guild-trained artisans, with their combined mastery of conception and execution, set international standards for excellence in the applied arts. Because the last generation of artist-craftsmen lived during the reign of Louis-Philippe, many designers chose to relate their own work to that style, although some looked also to the earlier eras of Louis XV, Louis XVI, the Directoire, and the Empire. Indeed historical connection became central to the mission of the Art Deco designers.”

One of the foremost designers was Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann (1879–1933), who, by 1920, shook off the heritage of the past and moved out of Art Nouveau and into Art Deco. While he had been influenced by the arts and crafts movement in general and Art Nouveau in particular, he criticized its mode of production, saying, “A clientele of artists, intellectuals, and connoisseurs of modest means is very congenial, but they are not in a position to pay for all the research, the experimentation, the testing that is needed to develop a new design. Only the very rich can pay for what is new and they alone can make it fashionable. Fashions don’t start among the common people. Along with satisfying a desire for change, fashion’s real purpose is to display wealth.” In other words, despite the apparent luxury of Art Deco objects, each object was designed for mass consumption, or, at least, for educated consumers. In addition, it should be pointed out that Art Deco designs, with their simple lines and geometric aspects, were far better suited to being manufactured than the complex configurations of Art Nouveau. The straightforward shapes of the “moderne” also lent themselves to a “downgrading” of materials used so that the Art Deco “look” could move down the economic chain, so to speak, and attract the vast and lucrative middle-class market. Ruhlmann pointed out that “Whether you want it or not, a style is just a craze. And fashion does not come up from humble backgrounds.” In other words, the designers and the objects in the various French pavilions were intended to educate the public, advertise a new style, and sell merchandise. The Fair was an opportunity to educate the French public–potential customers–on the superiority of Art Deco as modern “taste.”

Image

The organization and arrangement of the Fair’s shops, holding an extensive range of merchandise, were laid out in vertical lines, suggesting, to the contemporary eye, an outdoor shopping mall. As the Panorama of the Place des Invalides suggests, a magic carpet of shopping meccas, spread out at the feet of the Fair goers, all to tempt them to shop and to be informed and to learn about the latest styles from famous designers. Christopher Green explained, “In 1925, as in 1900, the middle class were the dominant force in French society; it was they, especially the lesser middle classes known in the 1870s and 1880s as the ‘new strata’ who brought back to power the Radicals in the 1924 Left coalition, the ‘cartel des gauches,’ after half-decade of right-wing dominance in the Chamber from 1919, and brought back with them the rationalist libertarian values of 1900-1914. Indeed, the 1925 Exhibition is one testimony to a mid-twenties desire to remake the image of a new modernity the Belle Epoque, imagined as a time of realized ambitions and sated appetites..” The importance of the “lesser middle classes,” who “worked with their hands” and “aspired socially” was the consumer base for the Art Deco artists. In Art in France, 1900-1940, Green explained that the pavilions appealed to “..the lesser middle classes (who lived in) scaled-down versions of the comfortable households of the bourgeoisie rich. It was its lavish appeal to this kind of social emulation that made of the 1925 Exhibition a popular as well as élite success.” The major sites of desire were the pavilions of the leading department stores of Paris–each structure dedicated to the targeted consumer, females with discretionary income, considered the prime customers of these temples of fashion, art, and design.

In their book on Art Deco, Victoria Charles and Klaus H. Carl discussed the extensive layout provided for the French buildings in the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes.“The French section comprised two main areas, almost perpendicular to each other, one of them marked by the Seine between the Pont de la Concorde and the ALms Bridge, the other one, leading alongside he Avenue Nicholas II, the Alexandre III Bridge, and the alley bisecting the section cutting across the Esplanade des Invalides from north to south. On the quays of the right bank of the river and the Cours-la-Reine, the visitor would successively encounter the foreign and the French pavilions, then the French Village and the colonial pavilions. On the left bank, some more pavilions, miniature toys presented in a model village, the transport gallery, and the amusement park. On the Esplanade, symmetry, and variety, order and life, obtained by an extremely considered arrangement of buildings, predominately assigned to France. Lastly, in order to connect the two parts of the Exhibition, separated by the Seine and for fear the public would not be tempted to cross from one bank to the other under the summer sun, the Alexandre III Bridge was transformed, from two lines of shops into a kind of Rialto. It was, like certain bridges of the Middle Ages, a street spanning a river..”

The four pavilions of the four great departments stores of Paris were wedged into four corners of the Esplanade des Invalides. The Pavilion for the Printemps department store celebrated the fame of the establishment which had arisen from the urban renewal project of Baron Georges Haussmann in the 1860s. In 1865, the founder, Jules Jaluzot, surveyed the new terrain of Paris and selected the 9th Arrondissement as the site for his new enterprise. A former employee of Le Bon Marché, Jaluzot understood the importance of foot traffic and recognized the convenience of being near the Gare St. Lazare and the covered “passages” or mini malls of the Grandes Boulevards. From the beginning, one of the characteristics of Printemps would be the huge display windows, reminiscent of the old fashioned markets on the streets. The “store” was really an assortment of buildings, starting with a building on Boulevard Haussmann and expanding to several other adjacent structures, all of which were destroyed by a fire in 1881. The original “stores” were expanded when rebuilt, rebounding to greater elegance. Under Jaluzot, the newest department store in Paris, became the most innovative, initiating the idea of a “sale” (les soldes) of older merchandise. Customers were offered a bouquet of violets on the first day of spring and, in the windows, elegantly dressed mannequins–an art form in and of themselves–wore the latest fashions. With the new owner, Gustave Laguionie, who purchased the store in 1905, came more innovations. Laguionie topped the main building with a stunning dome, complete with a terrace. Today it is still possible to sit on the roof terrace and have a meal while surveying all of Paris. The famous dome of the original Printemps roof was made with reinforced concrete, which incorporated glass creations by the artist Réné Lalique. In 1912, another much-copied innovation for Printemps was begun when René Guilleré, the founder of the Société des Artistes décorateurs, suggested the firm initiate a department dedicated to displaying and selling artisanal objects and unique furniture pieces. These art works would be designed by the most fashionable designers of the day, including Guilleré’s wife, Charlotte Chauchet, who would go on the design the interiors for the Pavilion in 1925. Faced with a second fire in 1923 that destroyed the Art Nouveau façade, spiral staircase, and mosaic tiles with their flower motifs were destroyed, Laguionie rebuilt the famous dome, reconstructing it as a stained glass masterwork, again by Lalique. And the “Printemps Haussmann” had another innovation to present: special displays for Christmas in the windows, which were now thought of as sites for installations of merchandise arranged with the care of a museum curator. The notion of holiday window displays was quickly copied by New York department stores.

The Pavilion for the International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts in 1925 had to be a celebration of the survival and renewal of Printemps, rising like a phoenix from the fires, an advertisement for the first department store to display furniture and design. The architects were as famous as the store itself: Henri Sauvage (1873-1932) and his collaborator Georges Wybo, was was the chief architect of the store itself. Sauvage had been one of the pioneers of Art Deco architecture but also excelled in functionalist architecture and in decoration. He and the architect of the Le Bon Marché Pavilion used the cast iron support columns of the station at Les Invalides which was under the building to support the structures above. As the book, The Architectural Drawings of Henri Sauvage: Architectural works, c. 1905-1931, reported, “Given the fragility of the Invalides Station roof on top of which the building was erected, its was necessary to bear the load on the existing supports by means of reinforced concrete girders carrying the cantilevered pavilion posts.” The Pavilion was dominated by a remarkable frustoconical “dome” that expanded outward from its clipped-off top, enabling the architects to encompass the entire template allotted to them by the officials of the Fair. In fact, as Victoria Charles and Klaus H. Carl pointed out that the architectural use of “..reinforced concrete dominated the event.” They added that while architects had used concrete in a utilitarian mode, it could “assume, on the contrary, a certain elegance. Even if the Exhibition did not help the new concept of construction progress on a technical level, the date is marked in the history of its diffusion. It accustomed the eyes to its bond spans, its simple shapes, and its large cantilever overhangs. It established its recognition.”

The dome, which quoted the one on the store itself, was built by the Etablissements Perret Company and made of vitreous cement, manufactured by Jean Séailles and his partner Eugène Freyssinet. This kind of cement was a relatively new product, used by Séailles to coat the sides of the Printemps swimming pool in the store’s Salon d’Automne. L’architect magazine of 1925 described the process: “In order to occupy the maximum volume, the architect has ultimately been required to completely fill the imposed template. The result was a very simple envelope which was very richly coated with precious materials. Indeed, all the bases are executed in vitrified cement called “Lap d’Or” of which we have already seen a first application in the Spring Pool. The cement designs are nipped with filaments of gold drowned in the mass and crowned by a cornice with a mosaic of black and gold sandstone. The reinforced concrete roof lined with straw compressed in its lower part, to maintain the freshness of the premises in summer, it is covered with large glass lenses cast, executed by Lalique and giving a little impression of big pebbles with a general tone light chamois. Light hidden concealed fireplaces throw their fires on the facades and the cover.” The magazine elaborated further adding that René Lalique, the artist-decorator, designed “the reinforced concrete roof lined with compressed straw (solomite) with colored glass lenses resembling pebbles.” The effect, as the magazine suggested, was as if colored stones were shining from a journey tumbling down a stream of rushing water. The book on Sauvage described the “gold and black mosaic tiling cornice” made by Gentil and Bourdet and that the wrought iron main door was made by Mozer. The author and editor, Jean-Baptiste Minnaert, noted that “at night the facades of the pavilion were spot-lit.” The book’s section on the Pavilion continued, “The Pavilion did not always get good press. Criticism was leveled at the lack of harmony between the openings requested by the Primavera studios and the interior decoration, decided upon later. The interior layout program, the home of a great artist, was a disconnected suite of juxtaposed rooms. The Pavilion has since been demolished.”

As is evident, the Pavilion was the work of many hands and many designers, all brought together to create a striking and controversial building which, if nothing else, had been created to attract attention. The design or designs were exquisitely elaborate and it is doubtful if any of the artists were familiar with the idea of ornament as a “crime.” Alphonse Gentil and François Bourdet, who designed the elaborate tiles for the cornice were architects, classically trained at the School of Fine Arts in Paris and yet they were also entrepreneurs, who created their own company in 1901, Gentil, Bourdet et Cie, creating exterior embellishments in sandstone and ceramics. Their intention was clearly architectural elaboration and the pair began as Art Nouveau designers, as did many of the other designers, who worked on the Pavilion. Although Gentil was Algerian, Bourdet hailed from Nancy, the capital of Art Nouveau, where both artists were well-known crafters of Art Nouveau vases. With the greatest of ease, after the Great War, they shifted their designs towards Art Deco. The point is that the department store pavilions were all small jewel boxes masquerading as architecture. Given that all the artisans, who collaborated on this and the other structures for les grands magasins were veterans of Art Nouveau, they were not part of the new generation which eschewed ornament. The outsides of these glittering gazabos of shopping promised rooms full of the most fashionable and desirable wonders—a lure that the plain white walls of Le Corbusier were incapable of achieving. Fabrienne Fravalo wrote in 2009 in an article entitled, “Primavera, the Art Shop of the Printemps Stores,” that the theme of the Pavilion was the “house of an artist.” He noted that, in comparison to the contributions of other department stores, this pavilion was very original, so much so, it was disparaged as being a “hut,” because of the cone shaped roof. But this “hut” was encrusted with precious decorative coatings, not to mention the huge planters overflowing with draping flowers. As Fravalo wrote (in translation) for L’historire par l’image:

Evoking a temple, this unusual building houses an interior that is both modern and refined, designed according to the wishes of Spring and that of an artist. Its design made by the different workshops of Primavera contrasts rather strongly with the exterior aspect, as shown by the view of the vast living room. All the furniture in this room meets a spirit of modern comfort: the wide divan, the carpets with geometric motifs, the small coffee table with clean lines, the piano on columns where a large lamp with the shade pleated. Inviting to contemplation and aesthetic reverie, the art objects arranged in this reception room accentuate yet the elegant and refined atmosphere. The interior layout of the Primavera pavilion, a true demonstration of the creative possibilities of the Spring workshops, also clearly reveals the guiding principles of the department store: to offer guests a harmonious, comfortable and designed as a whole. Thought differently according to whether it is addressed to a man or a woman, the decoration also takes into account his profession: the 1925 pavilion thus corresponds to the dwelling of a male artist. The decorators pay as much attention to the furniture as to the accessories: from the wallpaper to the lamps, to the glassware, ceramics and statuettes, all the elements are important.

The conceptual juxtaposition of Le Corbusier’s all white undecorated Pavilion at the Fair and the fully dressed and “clad” department store pavilions pointed to a contradiction in terms within the practice of architecture itself. If one follows the reasoning of Mark Wigley in his famous book, White Walls, Designer Dresses. The Fashioning of Modern Architecture, the color white, which “dressed” the walls of “modern” architecture, was related in concept to the reform dresses and to the simplified designs with sharp edged cuts by radical designers, such as Coco Chanel. But in rejecting ornamentation and decoration and period styles, the radical architects also insisted that they were rejecting changeable fashions. But Wigley, following the trail of references dropped by the architects in their writings, saw a “psychosexual economy of fashion” buried in the subtexts. In addition to refusing to use ornamentation and decoration and references to the past, the modern architects were rejecting color or polychrome exteriors as form of “clothing” or a “cloaking” of the surface. As is known, the unadorned surfaces of the modern buildings of the architect Adolf Loos shocked the Viennese public with their “naked,” meaning unclothed or “undressed” exteriors. For many observers of the older generation, a “naked” building was obscene and scandalous, akin to a nude body walking down the street.

Le Corbusier preached the superior “morality” of white as a chaste and pure color but Wigley commented that the “..whole moral, ethical, functional and technical superiority of architecture is seen to hang on the whiteness of its surfaces.Although white surfaces were put forward by modern architects as superior to decoration and polychromy, Wigley argued that the insistence upon white was a “very particular fantasy. it is the mark of a certain desire, the seemingly innocuous calling card of an unspoken obsession.” If one accepts the notion that white architecture, such as Le Corbusier’s Pavillion L’Espirt Nouveau at the Exposition, was the architectural the equivalent to putting on a plain but beautifully tailored crisp white shirt, then the Pavilion of Printemps was a statement of fashion and decoration and other marvels that appealed to (female) fantasies of accumulation and acquisition of adornment. While the architect dons a white shirt and wears a black suit, the female consumer changes her outfit every day and follows changing styles devotedly. The contrast in attitudes towards fashion is a gender dialectic that was played out in the built environment. Le Corbusier was so disturbed by the excesses of Fair architecture and the unbridled decoration of Art Deco that he wrote L’art décoratif d’aujourd’hui (1925) in protest, putting forward his opposing philosophy. But these four department store pavilions at the Paris Fair had to be “clothed;” it was necessary for them to be wearing the latest styles. In contrast to the wealth of display on the outside–the contributions of many designers and artists–a white building displays a prim hygiene.

As Wigley noted, “The white surfaces that traditionally mark cleanliness do just that, they mark rather than effect it. The whiteness of supposedly hygienic spaces originated with the garments and cosmetic powders that were periodically changed in order to take sweat of the body out of sight but not remove it. Putting on a new shirt was equivalent to taking a bath… Cleanliness was the visual effect that marked one’s membership of a social class rather than the state of one’s body. The look of hygiene was a kind of label that classifies the person who wears it.” The Printemps Pavilion wore its exterior decorations like a collection of metaphors, all signifying the interior contents which collectively were advertising a modern way of life for a very modern and aware individual, the artist who is always on the cutting edge, a denizen of style.

All images courtesy of Wikipedia.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

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Art Deco as Product Design

Defining Art Deco as Consumerism

The Artist and Product Design

In the spring of 1925, the city of Paris hosted the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes (International Exposition of Decorative Arts and Modern Industries), which was a trade fair. The emphasis was on merchandise was carriers of design and art with the goal of demonstrating the post-war dominance of French artistry and French taste. Aside from being a national gesture of using art as part of a conflict arrière, the Exposition fitted neatly into the financial boom of the 1920s when money flowed as freely as wine. The Great War had been a period of deprivation and sacrifice, and, by the mid-twenties, a social shift had taken place. This change in culture accompanied the artistic modifications of the avant-garde to a more platable and more purchasable tamed Cubism and the release of women and the rise of new attitudes and new life styles. Mass media, advertising, and film, spread new styles and new ideas and, in the process, created a new person: the consumer, the buyer, the individual who desired something new and attractive. Made for the modern consumer, part of a now large middle class, the Paris Fair of 1925 was an enlarged and sprawling department store.

Ticket to the Exposition

What made Art Deco “Moderne” was quite simple, it banished the curved lines of nature and ushered in the lines made with mechanical drawing instruments, meaning the circle or a curve was allowed as long it was clearly machine made. Like the radical modern, Art Deco looked back to the past but in a different way. Le Corbusier meticulously traced his architectural theories and, consequently, his architecture, to the rationalism of the classical age of Louis XIV. The trajectory of the modern was a straight progressive line, based on the logic of a teleological purification. Art Deco was more rooted in the eighteenth-century sense of the decorative among the aristocrats, who prized high elegance and accepted the motifs of other cultures filtered through a French sensibility. In addition to the telescoping of the past and present, the old and the new, Art Deco also became the style in which new technological advances, from cars to radios, expressed their novel modernity. Writing for ArchDaily, Luke Fiederer said,

During its six month run, the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs attracted roughly sixteen million visitors, creating massive international demand for the style to which it ultimately lent its name. In accordance with the organizer’s aims, the Exposition also established France as the arbiter of taste and fashion in the interwar era; Paris itself was put on display as the world’s most fashionable city. But the ramifications of the Exposition Internationale would spread far beyond Paris. Though several similar world’s fairs would follow in subsequent years (including two more in Paris in 1931 and 1937), none would have such a resounding impact as the one which took place in 1925. Time would eventually move past the frenzy of Art Deco that followed the 1925 Exposition, giving way to Modernism in the wake of the Second World War – but no single event would ever have such a profound effect on global design sensibilities ever again.

Because of its dominance in consumer goods, ranging from ash trays to fashion to rugs to liquor cabinets, Art Deco became the style of choice for the interwar generation, the Jazz Age, Les années folles, the decade of the Flapper, the decadence of the Lost Generation. The embeddedness of Art Deco in a consumer culture is significant because the “modern” of radical architecture and furnishings was embedded in a social theory of utopian socialism with the goal—not only of providing pleasure but also of providing pre-fabricated affordable housing furnished with affordable mass produced furniture and household objects. Therefore, there was a clear distinction between classes: pure theory based modern styles was an attempt on the part of the intellectuals to aid the working classes, but Art Deco was for the well-to-do, the sophisticated members of high society who could afford superfluous luxury goods and could afford to buy beauty for beauty’s sake.

Crowds at the Exposition

In fact, Grace Glueck of The New York Times scorned the style: “…Art Deco — a conservative but catchy fusion of earlier neo-classical styles like Louis XVI and Empire laced with Cubism, Futurism and late Art Nouveau — was all the rage. Sumptuous materials were its hallmark..” The art critic was making a larger point that the Fair woke up, not just America, but the rest of the world to the lucrative significance of design. More importantly, it could be added that art and design had become a modern mode of manifesting an international presence. The Americans, feeling that the nation had nothing of note to offer to the Parisians, turned down the invitation to participate, but observers were present, taking mental notes, as it were, and by the end of the decade, an American version of Art Deco would manifest itself in the skyscrapers now rising from the bedrock of Manhattan Island.

After the Great War, by the 1920s it was clear that much of the pre-war avant-garde, the bright colors of Fauvism, the sharp edges of Cubism, the fascination for speed from Futurism and the strong designs of Orphism, the exoticism of the Ballets Russes, and the fanciful dresses of Paul Poiret had been absorbed into the visual culture and had been disgorged as applied art. While the theme of the 1925 Fair was supposedly a form of industrial design, the actual standard for admission was simply “new inspiration and real originality,” encouraging artisan objects rather than manufactured objects. Stressing spectacle and focusing on glamour, the Exposition re-centered France as the capital of luxury goods and was what we today would term “feel good,” a sensation greatly valued after a terrible War. The Germans, invited belatedly, did not make an appearance but history shows that the Bauhaus machine-inspired industrial designs would consign the luxury style of Art Deco to historical dust. Art Deco was fated to suffer the fate of “style,” its day would pass; but the Bauhaus designers offered more than a style–they offered a lifestyle, one that would define the “modern.”

But the future was not known in 1925, and, despite its generational loss in the war, France asserted itself as the national leader among nations in modern style and cutting edge design. Absent dissenting voices from Germany or America, France reigned supreme. Designer Maurice Dufrène created the Rue des Boutiques along the Pont Alexandre III, providing a strip mall for consumer goods. The publicity for the event announced, “The new art has created a new artist.” This new artist is described as an “ensemblier” who, as the writer stated, “Is not a technician but a designer who has studied all the arts and all the crafts going into the composition of the interior.” Many of these new artists were connected to the major department stores in Paris, each of which was represented by their own Pavilions, underlining the Fair’s unabashed commercialism. This analysis comes from Simon Dell who wrote an important essay on “The Consumer and the Making of the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes , 1907–1925” in 1999. The essay highlights the significance of the many pavilions built by the French to showcase their wares, allowing the objects to be displayed in domestic or department store type settings, exhibited to their best advantage, with the intention of arousing the desire to purchase in the hearts of the consumer. Dell pointed out that the Fair exhibited a significant shift from simply making or producing artifacts to what he termed “the presentation of consumption.”

Louis Cartier and Maurice Couët. Clock (white jade, onyx, diamonds, coral, mother of pearl, gold)

The genius of the designer as one who produced an assemblage or a total work of art meant that the well-heeled consumer had to move into an Art Deco home, furnished with new Art Deco furnishings from floor to ceiling and was required to wear coordinating fashions. The word for the Exposition was “ensemble.” The visitor should be consumed with desire for the new, not just one desire but a series of cascading and interlocking desires that led the viewer, soon to the be consumer, from one created “need” to another. This combination of retail and art was potent. The designs by the artists-craftspeople were so beautiful and exquisitely made they were simply irresistible. There was a psychological aspect to the elegant pavilions, their seductive way of presenting objects clearly proffered to the affluent–the mode of installation and display made people imagine themselves through design. Donning an Art Deco dress or sitting down at an Art Deco desk or purchasing an Art Deco lamp became part of a self-fashioning of a persona: the consumer was expressing him or herself through the acquisition of objects of desire. It is important to think of the Exposition as an exercise in mass social education. The middle class was being knitted into the fabric of the upper class and its tastes in order to create a knowledgeable buyer and consequently a reliable customer. The goal of this consumer was not just to purchase a luxury item or indeed to express him or herself through consumption, rather the end point of the project was to demonstrate what Pierre Bourdieu termed “distinction,” the ability to distinguish oneself from those who were not “in the know.” As Bourdieu stated,

Consumption is, in this case, a stage in a process of communication, that is, an act of deciphering, decoding, which presupposes practical or ex­plicit mastery of a cipher or code. In a sense, one can say that the capacity to see (voir) is a function of the knowledge (savoir), or concepts, that is, the words, that are available to name visible things, and which are, as it were, programmes for perception. A work of art has meaning and interest only for someone who possesses the cultural competence, that is, the code, into which it is encoded. The conscious or unconscious implemen­tation of explicit or implicit schemes of perception and appreciation which constitutes pictorial or musical culture is the hidden condition for recognizing the styles characteristic of a period, a school or an author, and, more generally, for the familiarity with the internal logic of works that aesthetic enjoyment presupposes. A beholder who lacks the specific code feels lost in a chaos of sounds and rhythms, colours and lines, with­ out rhyme or reason.

In his important book, Distinction. A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste in 1979, Bourdieu stressed the “aristocracy of culture” as signified by a grasp of “culture” that could be “symbolized.” This symbolic culture was manifested as a displayed knowledge of how to comport oneself, how to act, how to speak, how to move through the world with what he called “habitus.” For Bourdieu, this “habitus” is part of the class structure or the social system which divides classes, not so much by economic differences but by an understanding of social codes or the ability to read crucial signals. If, as Bourdieu, pointed out, one lacks the ability to recognize the “codes,” one revealed through ignorance that one did not belong. This innate class knowledge, once granted on to those born into a certain social sphere, was now for sale at the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes.

Horrified by the appearance of the new style, eventually called Art Deco, Le Corbusier preached, “Trash is always abundantly decorated; the luxury object is well made, neat and clean, pure and healthy, and its bareness reveals the quality of its manufacture.” Not only was the architect echoing Loos, he was also channeling William Morris who decried the false ornamentation of manufactured products for the middle-class home. Over fifty years later, Le Corbusier observed that the cheap consumer goods were festooned with elaborations while the truly elegant objects were clean simple designs that need nothing more than their pure form. The “Decorative is disguise,” he proclaimed. In keeping with Loos, Le Corbusier also assumed that design, like art, would evolve from a state of impurity—that is decoration—to a state of purity—that is the objet-type or the rational object. In representing the theories of the modern, Le Corbusier was alone—Germany refused to participate, complaining of the late arrival of an invitation, and America, the recognized home of the industrial and the mechanical, declined, stating a lack of development in the decorative arts. Only the Russian Pavilion could match the edginess of Le Corbusier’s Pavillon de l’Esprit Nouveau as an example of functionalism and constructivism. But in terms of proselytizing in the French language, the Swiss architect became the main bulwark against creeping impurity. Art Deco, which took modern shapes and forms and repurposed them as a new décor, was, in his view “the final spasm of a predictable death.”

Le Corbusier’s Pavillon de l’Esprit Nouveau

In some ways, his prediction was correct for the unadorned work of architecture or stripped down object became identified as “modern,” while Art Deco had to wait decades before being recognized as a style in its own right, not a “fallen” version of modernism. A style of luxury, targeting connoisseurs prone to avant-garde aspirations, Art Deco or Art Moderne, was simply erased after the history of the interwar era was written after World War II. In its own time, however, Art Deco ushered in a new age of commercialism and commodities, announcing a new style that swept away Art Nouveau which demanded a new wave of redecorating to conform with the age of the automobile. Like its more serious and theoretical cousin, modernism, Art Deco insisted that art must be of its own time, but, unlike the modern style of the Bauhaus and Gropius and Mies van der Rohr or the Purism of Le Corbusier, Art Deco evoked an ethnic and historic mix of references.

Post card of the Eiffel Tower at Night

If Le Corbusier had visited the Fair at night, he would have been treated to the sight of the Eiffel Tower, normally unadorned, decked out like a Christmas tree with some 200,000 light bulbs if six different colors that were coordinated to create different light shows, including the logo of the sponsor, Citroën. The prominent position of the automobile company looming over Paris might explain why Citroën was not interested in sponsoring Le Corbusier’s Pavillion. The plan to hold an exhibition based on the machine predated the Great War when French critic Roger Marx said in 1909 that such an event would “bring to an end the scorn to which the machine has been subjected, and end the longstanding antagonism between architects and engineers..” The real story of the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes was the famous pavilions, the stylish containers of objects of desire, bound inside of Art Deco styled buildings that were–alas–temporary, where the consumer could be overwhelmed by a desire to possess. The next post will discuss these elegant pavilions.

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

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Le Corbusier: Purism as Architecture

The Pavillion de l’Esprit Nouveau (1925)

The House as a Machine

Although the Pavillion de l’Esprit Nouveau met the fate of all exhibition buildings—it was demolished in 1926—the famous dwelling was rebuilt in Bologna Italy in 1977 by the architectural firm Oubrerie e Aujame, which dealt with the technical aspect of replication. The artist Giulianon Gersleri recreated the artistic elements of the home. The white cube, perched on trademark pilotis, which elevated it slightly, was revealed as being opened by a wall of windows, shrouded with white curtains. At the original Exposition, the International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts in 1925, the sheet of material was parted, draped so that spectators walking by could see inside. Next to the roof-to-ground window was an open courtyard, the roof of which had a circular opening, cut to allow a tree, already on site, to grow out of the atrium and rise above the flat roof. The circular opening was a preview of the unexpected circular form–an attached building or blimp-ish extension–attached to the cubed house. This spherical bulge squared off by a straight wall on the side housed a diorama, tucked away in the back of the Pavillon.

But back to the Pavillion proper, the pure white cube–the atrium itself, the heart of the home, was sheltered from the elements by a partial glass wall, adjacent to the window wall. As the entrance to the home, the atrium signified projection the L shape of the monk’s cell, which had an adjoining garden. The modest unadorned and unassuming entrance to the atrium was reached by a round-about path which allows the visitor to admire the subtleties of the structure. The almost invisible portal was deliberate on the part of the architect who disapproved of over decorated doors. Indeed, the interior doors were simple metal Ronéo doors, used in offices. This entry via atrium arrangement would be copied in many modern homes in the future. The 1960s designs of Joseph Eichler, found in his post-World War II housing developments in northern and southern California, were constructed around an entrance atrium, open to the sky with a garden to be enjoyed by the residents. The open area of the Pavillon was a garden or patio, paved with concrete slabs and edged with planters. The tables were cantilevered from beneath the glass partition, one table was a rectangle and one was a semicircle. The chairs were outdoor versions of the indoor Thronet design. The patio looked out to a white craved sculpture on a pedestal, the work of the Cubist sculptor, Jacques Lipchitz. Incidentally, in the 1920s, carved sculpture was ascendent over the modeled (additive) sculpture of Auguste Rodin who had died at the peak of his fame in 1911. By the early 1920s, his reputation was in decline, and, in a period of Retour à l’ordre, modern artists were returning to tradition. Carving suddenly seemed more historically viable than working in clay and the appearance of carved sculptures, one inside and one outside, was significant of the classical French tradition of directly carved cathedral sculptures.

The other side of the house revealed the fact that the building had two levels: two rows of clerestory windows brought light to the rooms and an exterior staircase, rising in three angles, allowed the owner access to the top floor. The right flank of the house was closed in, save a small window at the end of the ground floor, but the wall carried the logo, the large capitals E and N in yellow against a grey ground, and the name of the exhibit, “Esprit Nouveau,” was spelled out on a small black and white sign, mounted just below the center horizontal of the crossed beams, dividing the words. This house, so clearly a prototype for modern houses to come, was a philosophical statement by Le Corbusier, who believed, as did most modern architects of his time, that architecture should represent the spirit of the age and that, as an artist, he had an important mission to show the public the face of their own era. However, Le Corbusier was swimming against a tide of nostalgia for the lost past of France.

The Great War had brought an enormous loss to France, the nation with the highest casualties. Entire regions of northern France, the site of the battles of the War on the Western Front, were wiped out, turned into moonscapes. For years after the conflict, the nation struggled to resurrect and restore these blighted and wounded regions, but many small towns, the “martyred villages,” simply ceased to exist. After four years of shelling, there was not enough left to rebuild. Today the memory of those martyred is kept by village signs for the extinct streets rising in the lightly wooded forests that have overgrown their sites. During this reconstruction of France, the national identity shifted from Paris, the site of modernity for a hundred years, to the “regions” or the provinces outside urban areas. Here, the last supposedly authentic French people lived, many of them still peasants, who now carried the heritage of national history. This cultural longing for the rural past played out, not only in the sense of an avant-garde returning to a classical order but also as a backward-looking revisionary interpretation of nineteenth-century art. Gustave Courbet, once lauded as a precursor to Cubism, was transformed into the local artist, his provincial origins now prized. Jean-François Millet rose in the public estimation as an eye witness to the golden age of peasant life, as evidenced in his paintings that idealized the piety and the perfect harmony of the lives of those who tilled the soil. After the Great War, the Fauvist enfant terrible, Maurice de Vlaminck left Paris and moved to a village in a rural province. Here he became a modern day Millet, producing dark-hued landscape paintings, honored for their homage to a longed-for past.

Le Corbusier himself was a bit more realistic and pragmatic. In writing The Decorative Art of Today (1925), the architect expressed sympathy for the lost past and for local cultures, but he understood that these societies had either vanished or were on the verge of extinction. As he wrote of his school years in Switzerland, at La Chaux-de-Fonds:

Our childhood was illuminated by the miracles of nature. Our hours of study were spent hunched over a thousand flowers and insects. Trees, clouds and birds were the field of our research; we tried to understand their life-curve, and concluded that only nature was beautiful and that we could be no more than humble imitators of her forms and wonderful materials.

My master was an excellent teacher and a real man of the woods, and he made us men of the woods. Nature was the setting where, with my friends, I spent my childhood. Besides, my father was passionately devoted to the mountains and the river which made up our landscape. We were constantly on the mountain tops: the long horizons were familiar.

Although Le Corbusier said “quite a long time ago I too was a regionalist,” he was never overpowered by nostalgia. Despite the Romanticism of his teaching, there was a Platonic cast to his education that, as Emma Dummett suggested in her article, “Order in Nature: Le Corbusier’s Early Work and his City Plans of the 1920s.” Far from being wild and unruly, nature was the reflection of a machine which imposed order upon the world. The concept of universal forms led him to create his own version of the “type-objects,” a fundament part of the machine age. As he said,

The machine is all geometry. Geometry is our greatest creation and we are enthralled by it. / The machine brings before us shining disks, spheres, and cylinders of polished steel, shaped with a theoretical precision and exactitude which can never be seen in nature itself. Our senses are moved, and at the same time our heart recalls from its stock of memories the disks and spheres of the gods of Egypt and the Congo. Geometry and the gods sit side by side! / Man pauses by the machine, and the beast and the divine in him there eat their fill.

The memories of yesterday could not be the present, much less the future. The architect warned that any art replicating the past could be only decoration, empty of meaning. Instead, he extolled the machine and its geometry, explaining that the purposeful apparatus aroused the desire among artists to create pure forms. However, he was alarmed at the artistic use of the vocabulary of the machine, which, in a simplified form, was easily repurposed into commercial design, becoming a fashionable style. The machine, he was convinced, would awaken what he called “the intense joy of geometry” and “a reformation of the spirit.”

Therefore, rather than speak of the timeless of works of art, Le Corbusier wrote of the objet-type, or typical object, manufactured by industry, expendable and fleeting, like the laboratory flask he used as a vase in the Pavillion. On the other hand, there was a custom-made table in the Pavillion living room: a metal table fashioned by Schmittheisler, a hospital equipment manufacturer, and the club chairs were made to order in special proportions. “Pure forms” were those forms which were manufactured, free of historical baggage, shapes reduced to their most efficient essence. Clearly, Le Corbusier was convinced that the Pavilion was an opportunity to demonstrate to the people the virtue of this kind of modern design, based upon universal timeless “types.” As the attached appendage for the Pavillion, the diorama was a place where he could show his ideas and his creations, for this architect had nothing less in mind than a massive rebuilding project—the remaking of Paris itself. But Le Corbusier and his Pavilion, complete with diorama, was part of one of the great commercial ventures of the 1920s, a place where the modern was packaged and sold to the masses as “Art Moderne.” It is against this background of mordant nostalgia and rampant commercialization, that the architect’s vision of how Paris could be modernized should be viewed.

In fact, in a play on names, he designed “Maison Cirtohan” in 1920, an early model for the ideal affordable home for the masses—a new kind of house that would be as efficient as an automobile. The materials for this dwelling were mass produced and easy to obtain and cost effective, namely concrete. Such a structure could be produced, like a Citröen, on a production line. Exhibited as a model at first, the Maison Citrohan was represented in 1922 at the Salon d”Automne as a theoretical housing development in which the “maison” was replicated some 200 times. Based on the Charterhouse of Galluzzo, where the monks lived in two story cells with gardens, the Maison Cirtohan was manifested as a Pavillon for the fair, but, because it could be endlessly reproduced, its usefulness for solving the housing shortage needed to be demonstrated to the attendees of the exposition. Emerging from the “Maison Cirtohan,” the two-story Pavillon was the next stage of a mass produced model home, laid out with efficiency, keeping in mind that the layout had to be convenient. The kitchen was on the ground floor, tucked away in the back, playing only a small role in the narrative of modernity. The drama lay in the interior which reflected the open atrium on the exterior of the house. The public area—the living and dining area–was open to the second story where the bedrooms were located. Allowing the inhabitants to look down, the living room had a balcony on the upper level. Just beneath this balcony, as if to draw the eye of someone on the ground floor upward, was another sculpture on a ledge. Like most modern homes, this Maison had a roof garden and its many windows provided vistas of nature for those who lived in it.

The famous Pavillon de l’Esprit Nouveau by Le Corbusier was a prototype for much larger projects. This cellular unit, complete with internalized garden, could be replicated infinitely, stacked unit upon unit, rising to the sky, or spread out along a flat plain. As Le Corbusier stated, what started as a modern version of a monk’s cell could be used for residential needs as a practical, habitable cell” that could be “grouped in large colonies, both in height and breadth.” Le Corbusier imagined a garden city of the future, a building or set of buildings where nature and modern engineering could be combined. Although the original inspiration was a humble monk’s abode, the architect accepted that hateful loud and smelly symbol of all things modern, the automobile, not only as a permeant fixture in the city but also as the reason for redesigning a new city that could accommodate the car. Keep in mind that the complete idea for the Pavillon de l’Esprit Nouveau included a diorama demonstrating Le Corbusier’s vision for the city of tomorrow. Searching for sponsors for his project for the Fair, Le Corbusier approached automobile manufacturers, such as Peugeot, Citroen, and Michelin, but only Voisin, a maker of cars and airplanes, looking to expand into prefabricated housing, responded.

Gabriel Voisin, an architect in his own right had made a fortune selling airplanes during the Great War. After the War, the need for aircraft diminished, and Voisin turned to designing luxury automobiles that were as forward thinking as the Pavillon. In their day, the 1920s and 1930s, these beautiful cars cost as much as a Bugatti; today one of these Jaz Age gems could easily cost $5 million. Built with lightweight materials, aluminum, and magnesium, in contrast to the heavier steel used in other cars, the Voison was extremely stylish. There was craft in the execution, the taillights were handmade and the dashboard sported gauges in an era when most cars did not have even a gas gauge. Le Corbusier, along with Rudolf Valentino and H. G. Wells drove this car, and named his ideal city the “Plan Voisin.” The Pavillon’s diorama, which had originated in a separate project, was the ideal place to display his long-held vision of the city in a modern age. These maps, drawings, and models of his vision of a new Paris indicated to the viewer that little of the past would be retained.

Unlike the Prefect of Emperor Napoléon III in the 1860s, George Haussmann, who, generally speaking, demolished slums, Le Corbusier was no respecter of history or of favorite tourist sites or of the architectural or urban elements of Paris that gave it a distinctive character. At the very heart of Paris, there was ruthless but rational sweeping away of several square miles of the Right Bank, including the Marais, for a new ground zero, mounted on a grid. Out the grid sprang clusters of skyscrapers, each one a cruciform structure, a towering X, as it were. Gardens and green spaces spread out between the buildings, which were visionary high-rises, a design for “the three million inhabitant’s city.” This city for 3 million people had been on the drawing boards since 1922, as the Ville contemporaine, and, in one iteration, the architect envisioned highways suspended from the towers. Le Corbusier was prescient enough to understand the need for a municipal airport. In the diorama, the theoretical city, Ville Contemporaine was placed so that it faced the Plan Voisin as the actualization of the theory imposed upon an actual city, Paris itself.

Le Corbusier was convinced that the city had to be remade with streets redrawn, not as “donkey’s paths” but as straight lines to relieve congestion and open the city to the modern mode of transportation—the automobile. Le Corbusier could imagine that “the passage of cars” would leave “traces” of “luminous tracks” “like the tails of meteors flashing across the summer heavens,” a sight seen almost nightly in any big city today. The grid, the acceptance of traffic, the skyscrapers, were understood by the visitors at the time as an Americanization of Paris, but with a rational mind working on a blank canvas. Unlike New York, where the skyscrapers crowded each other, standing in the way of light and air, the rebuilding of Paris would be controlled and rationalized. Le Corbusier envisioned a consequent end to the chronic housing shortage in Paris and the commensurate rise in real estate values. For some this

Le Corbusier envisioned a consequent end to the chronic housing shortage in Paris and the commensurate rise in real estate values. For some viewers, this sparkling series of towering cruciform rising from a green plain, seemed like the sapins or evergreen trees that were the distinguishing feature of La Chaux-de-Fonds, the Swiss town where Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris was born. The substitution of tall buildings for tall trees was terrifying. The vision seemed totalitarian and even fascistic in its ordering of daily life, but the Plan Voisin was a modern solution to a modern problem of overcrowding in an old city. It is interesting to note that Le Corbusier’s family in Switzerland had been involved in an artisan enterprise, watchmaking for Longines, and that, by the end of the nineteenth century, their livelihood was threatened by factory-made watches. La Chaux-de-Fonds was the center for over half of the watches and clocks made in Switzerland, manufactured by the beginning of the Great War. As an artist, the young Jeanneret-Gris, would not be a watchmaker, he would place his artistic talent elsewhere. In 1917, after an apprenticeship in Switzerland, Le Corbusier began his career in Paris, aware of the inexorable progress of technology, the changes it wrought, and the necessity to be prepared for the future. It would be many decades before this future would arrive and another war had to be fought before Le Corbusier would have the opportunity to build his ideal city.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

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Le Corbusier at the Paris Fair, 1925

Le Corbusier (1887-1965)

From Purism as Painting to Purism as Architecture

To use the term “Art Deco” today is to introduce an anachronism, because to the extent that the style of this period had a name at all it was “Art Moderne,” a name used in the 1920s and 1930s. In contrast, the architecture by the small group of radical architects is always termed “modern” to distinguish its extreme modernity, which was based upon construction and structure, as a contrast to the surface decoration of the descendent of Cubism, called Art Moderne. To reinforce the difference, an Art Deco building—and there are only a few in Paris today—can be identified by certain applied decorations, usually simple geometric shapes, while the modern building comes, not from painting but from architecture, reduced to its most minimal elements: walls, floors, ceilings, openings—windows and doors–organized within an open cube. Inspired by the assembly line of a factory where standardized parts could be combined as modules, the “home” had been transformed from a hand-built structure that reflected the rituals of life inside to a machine-made structure made according to the demands of the mechanics themselves. The architect Le Corbusier, a prolific writer, sometime painter, waded decisively into the contemporary debate over the rule of architecture in the early twentieth century. In a time when France was intent upon honoring tradition, Le Corbusier was determined to redefine the domestic domicile. “A house,” he famously intoned, “is a machine for living.”

This quotation does not mean a home filled with machines but an architectural design based upon the efficiency of machines which were automated, identical and composed of modular parts that had to be similar and interchangeable but with each element having a specialized function. The machine is purposeful and direct with all its wheels and gears moving in unison, working towards a single goal. In its plainness, its refusal to appeal to the viewer through surface blandishments, Le Corbusier’s offering to tThe International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts in 1925, the Pavilion de l’Esprit Nouveau, named after his magazine of the same name, was stubbornly unclad or naked. A small cubed structure, constructed paradoxically out of wood and then coated with white stucco for cleanliness and contemporaneity, the Pavilion stood as far outside the official boundaries of the exposition itself as possible but also near the Grand Palais. The officials grudgingly granted the Swiss architect among their midst the worst site on the Left Bank, but despite the independence of the architect’s offering to the public, the horrified officials of the Fair erected a twenty-foot high fence to shield the eyes of causal passersby from the offending sight of the modern. The French Minister of Fine Arts, however, removed the barrier.

If one were not offended by radical architecture and dared to enter the Pavilion, it would become clear that the project was not just a modern house, a “machine,” a machine à habiter, where one could live a contemporary existence, but was also a didactic exercise that explained the concepts and philosophy of Le Corbusier. The main room, a display of modern living, provided a view of the way in which the interior had been constructed on two levels. The second story was opened by a loft balcony punctuated by a carved sculpture on a pedestal cantilevered from the railing edge. For those who had no idea of how to furnish such a dwelling with its open and free plan, he selected appropriate furnishings and arranged the rooms into areas of activity with modular bookcases or storage units which broke up the open space of the room. Building the machine for living was simple enough. Le Corbusier, inspired by monastery architecture, simply designed an open cell, which could be arranged and or partitioned according to the owner’s needs. These dividers cum furniture were as open and light weight as the plan ilbre The Pavilion was a case study, presented to an audience aware of the need to update housing in Europe. Designed as a “base cell,” the home could be duplicated endlessly as modules or “Immeuble Villas.” The international jury awarded the Pavilion first prize; but the French Academy, offended by the brazen challenge to tradition, vetoed the gesture, bringing instant fame and publicity to Le Corbusier.

Le Corbusier sought totality or at least compatibility between the modern open space, the design of the pavilion and the furnishings through his own designs. These designs were, like the modular spaces themselves were cubic. In the 1920s, modern furniture was being invented, mostly by architects who, like Le Corbusier, were forced, as it were, to make the kind of furniture that would be aesthetically in harmony with a white cube free of ornamentation. As was the custom with Art Nouveau when the artist and architect always sought a “total work of art,” Echoing the work of Marcel Breuer who was also experimenting with bent steel tubing at the Bauhaus as early as 1925, Le Corbusier finally designed his own line of furniture, leather chairs and sofas regimented into cube shapes which echoed the geography of the rooms or cells in his homes by 1928. These soft cubes with their rigid shapes were further constrained by tubular steel frames, exhibited on the outside as if clutching the organic material to keep them under control. In the Pavilion, however, Le Corbusier used Thornet chairs, a bent wood chair he particularly liked and used in his own home, designed in 1923 and, in the house he designed for the Wiessenhof Estate in 1927. Although in the 1930s, the architect designed his own bentwood chair, he deliberately chose the Thornet chairs, side chairs and dining room table chairs, for the Pavilion in 1925 because they were familiar and famous and ubiquitous. In fact, this chair was an accent piece, reinforcing, not the horizontals and verticals of the interior of the Pavilion but the curves of the still lives of the paintings hanging on the walls. Hanging above a suspended cantilevered shelf was a Purist work by the architect, while nearby were important paintings by close colleagues, Fernand Léger and Juan Gris. These paintings were part of the conservative post-cubist art that looked beyond the pre-war avant-garde.

The architect himself had been a painter, working originally under his “real” name, Charles-Édouard Jeanneret. The movement he began with the painter Amédée Ozenfant was called “Purism,” an indication of a return to classicism and a rejection of Cubism. The still life paintings produced by Jeanneret, who was wise to move on to architecture and become Le Corbusier, were curves, circles and all things round, compared to the angles and shards of Cubism. Ozenfant and Jeanneret made their debut as intellectual and artistic partners, in the fall of 1918 and announced their opposition to Cubism in their catalog essay, “Après le Cubisme.” In contrast to the cubism of Picasso and Braque, who deconstructed ordinary objects, Jeanneret presented each product in full, without complications, in a straightforward perspective. The objects depicted were “Types” of standard mass manufactured guitars bottles jugs and so on, reflecting the ideas of the artists who sought the purity of universal shapes. These shapes, simple and basic, were those suitable for mass manufacture and industry and the clean and undecorated surfaces, flattened on the canvas by the artist were the only ones proper and fitting for an industrial age. When the artists issued their manifesto for Purism in 1920, they stressed logic and order and the laws that governed form. To publicize the movement, they also published a journal, L’Esprit Nouveau, published from 1920 to 1925, which stressed the historical lineage of contemporary French art. The magazine announced itself by proclaiming that, “L’Esprit Nouveau is the first magazine in the world truly dedicated to living aesthetics.” The idea of ideal Platonic forms would be a guide to understanding the reasoning found in L’Esprit Nouveau. The artists themselves used the term “primary elements,” or the simple and basic shapes, the circle, the triangle, the square and the three-dimensional shapes that would result, the sphere, the cone, and the cube. In the 1925 Pavilion, the architect had reinvented himself as Le Corbusier, but his thinking was the same, and he applied the ideal form to architecture, and, predictably, to the furnishing of the interior. The lines of the wood may have been bent into curves, but it was the concept of a common chair or an ideal chair based on an idea shape—the circle–that attracted Le Corbusier, who stressed the importance of thinking in terms of “type” for modern building. As opposed to the decorative art—the theme of the exhibition—which the artist abhorred, he used “real” materials from the real world of modern industry. One of the sponsors of the Pavilion was Ingersoll-Rand, an American company that manufactured a cement gun, crucial in mass housing. This firm advertised in the 1925 issue of the artist’s Almanac d’architecture modern. Standardization was the key to rebuilding France, redefining the city of Paris as modern, through the multiplication of cells—inspired by the living quarters of a monk—an assemblage of geometric shapes, a typical cube, which could be arranged and rearranged in endless variation. The assembly of prefabricated units could be confined to a single dwelling or expanded into an entire city. And by 1922, Le Corbusier began to plan the new city for the new century.

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Art Deco Architecture in Paris: Robert Mallet-Stevens, Part Two

Robert Mallet-Stevens (1885-1945)

The Architect of Art Deco, Part Two

The semiotics of Robert Mallet-Stevens was completely different from those of the other modern architects, such as Mies van der Rohr. The radical modern architects were dedicated to building for the masses, providing affordable housing for them, buildings that, grouped together, became contemporary villages, prefabricated, assembled out of modules, they were meant to improve society as a whole. In contrast, the clients of Mallet-Stevens were avant-garde and wealthy and artistic and the villas he built for them were meant to display the elevated social position of the inhabitants. His architectural accomplishments were signs of privilege and elegance, shining in the sun, expansive in their display of distinction. Begun a year after the Villa Poiret at Mézy-sur-Seine, Yvelines, the Villa Noailles was started in 1924 at Hyères. the Vicomte and Vicomtesse de Noailles were close friends of Jean Cocteau and were the kind of owners excited to work with a cutting-edge architect who, not so incidentally, had no particular connections with socialism or Communism and no obvious desire to change the world. This large villa was also precisely situated on a hill with a magnificent view of the town below, stretching out towards the horizon. What is striking about both homes is their large and expansive size, the gardens that are enclosed within a structure where its grounds were carefully laid out in a grid pattern punctuated with lushly planted with trees and grass.

Villa Noailles in 1929 Photographe: Thérèse Bonney

The most notable garden at Hyères, completed in 1928 was triangular cubist inspired design by Gabriel Guevrekian (1872-1970), who was one of the stars of the Paris Fair of 1925.

This villa is characterized by contrasting textures on the exterior slabs, some of which are rough and some are quite smooth in contrast. The Villa Noailles has expanses of blank unbroken walls, giving it a more closed in and shuttered look from the outside, keeping the openness of the interior spaces a secret. Inside, the architect was apparently unable to bear the blank wall and frequently used indents, created squared insets or niches to break up the flat expanse, causing long walls to be framed like cabinets. Robert Mallet-Stevens, also a set designer, had written an article “Le Cinéma et les arts: Architecture,” in 1925 explaining the idea of repetition in film. “Architecture plays,” he said, indicating that architecture had to be a “player” in the film by doubling the narrative or the reappearance of certain motifs throughout the film. In the movies, such reoccurrences were termed photogénie. It is clear that this idea of restating a theme was also the architect’s method of design–an eclectic and inclusive combining of modern art movements and modern architectural theories. For example, the ceilings are adorned with glass lit soffits with the De Stijl grids demarcating the light streaming down.

When he was asked in 1928 by the owner to make a film about the home, the repetition of obdurate cubic form inspired the photographer and sometime filmmaker, Man Ray (1890-1976). Ray, eying the tumbling squares, stilled by blank surfaces, thought of the famous poem by Stéphane Mallarmé, Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hazard of 1897, and reimagined that the poem with the die as a house. The idea of a thrown di, rolling across the landscape became the theme of his 1929 film Les Mystères du château du dé.

The Villa Noailles today

A Robert Mallet-Stevens interior was always more elaborated than one by Le Corbusier or by Gropius simply because there were more shapes, a multiplication of edges. An interior staircase allowed him to show off the zig-zag progression of the stairs rising up a straight ascent or, in a tight space, stairs could be tucked into a tight curve or folded into the side of a cone shape. The Villa Cavrois, a later work of 1932 of which more will be said later, had unique dining room furniture, a long wooden table, and many wooden chairs, resting on a parquet floor of zebra wood squares. The wall is broken with beams of zebra wood, reinforcing the theme of horizontal stripes, which fame a mural by his long-term collaborators the twin Martel brothers Jan and Joël. The commission for the Villa dated back to the Paris Fair of 1925 when the partnership of Robert Mallet-Stevens and the Martel Brothers came forcefully to the attention of the fairgoers when the concrete Cubist trees for the Garden of Modern Housing by Mallet-Stevens became the scandal of the event. The famous Cubist trees, designed by Robert Mallet-Stevens and executed by Jan and Joël Martel, were destroyed after the Fair was closed in October of 1925 and exist today only as maquettes.

Cubist Trees by Robert Mallet-Stevens and the Martel Brothers

Models wearing Sonia Terk-Delaunay Designs

The notorious Cubist trees were executed in concrete and sprouted from a garden was located next to the Pavillon for the twin cities of Roubaix and Tourcoing. Located on the Belgium border, a few miles from Dunkirk, and quite near Arras but dominated by Lille, these towns specialized in the manufacture of textiles. Roubaix was one of the first sites of French industry when in 1469 Charles the Bald gave Peter of Roubaix permission to manufacture cloth. Two centuries later, Charles the Fifth allowed the town to manufacture velvet, fustian, and linen for the common people. By the middle of the nineteenth century, Roubaix called the “Manchester of France” specialized in the spinning and weaving of wool and was the principal supplier of wool yarn for France. Like Roubaix, its twin, Tourcoing was the coveted site for the enemies of France and Belgium, being attacked and conquered by the English, the Austrians, the Dutch and the Saxons. This industrial town also specialized in wool manufacture but there was more of an emphasis on fine cloth and tapestries of mixed silks and mercerized or lustered cottons and “oriental type” carpets. Although today these towns have been deindustrialized, at the of time of the 1925 Fair, they were studded by smoking chimneys of the many factories.

Because both of these towns had been conquered by the Germans in the wake of the fall of Lille in October 1914, the presence of fabric manufacture at the Fair meant more than a mere presentation of the most recent textile manufacture. The area, the battleground of the Western Front would not be liberated until October 1918. Now fully recovered, the towns celebrated the end of a brutal occupation and their subsequent recovery. Designed by the Dutch architect Georges de Feure, the Pavilion for these twin towns was a small brick building, hexagonal in shape. De Feure copied the local architecture by selecting the local brick, which could be red, yellow, brown or cream as his building material. These native brick structures were traditionally capped with white accents blocks, that were used to underscore the shape of the roof or to accent windows and doors and call attention to the angles. The significance of de Feure’s presentation was its unalloyed regionalism. It is often assumed that the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes was strictly modern, but, despite its name, the sub-text of the event was its emphasis on the French provinces, upon the regions with their unique cultures. The building of brick from the Western Front not only echoed the local architecture of the region, decidedly historical and not modern but also emphasized the towns’ long affiliation with industrial arts and crafts. De Feure alluded to the many factories through the stacked entrance terminating in a chimney shape.

Georges de Feure. Pavillon of Roubaix and Tourcoing

Adjacent to this Pavillion was a long garden, complete with a cooling fountain. The fairgoers could rest on small wooden folding chairs under the dubious shade of sculptured trees. These concrete trees were the most prominent manifestation of Cubism at the Fair, where the administration was extremely conservative and tended to exercise censorship. Mallet-Stevens, a good friend of the painter Fernand Léger, installed one of his post-Cubist works in his Tourist Pavillon and was asked to remove the offending object from the wall. The architect refused and the painting stayed in the Pavillon. It is possible the grove of trees was a defiant answer to the would-be censors, but Mallet-Stevens frequently used the shattered forms of Analytical Cubism in his architecture. One need look no further than the protruding blades of the Tourist Pavillon or the layered coat rack at the Villa Noailles or his fractured lighting fixtures to see the prior use of intersecting shards. The height of each Arbre Cubiste in the garden was about twice human size, a scale made clear when Sonia Terk-Delaunay posed her models wearing the Cubist-inspired clothes she designed beneath the Trees around the fountain. As if it were a decade ago, cartoonists once again had their way with Cubism, signifying that the movement was still not understood or accepted. The attribution for the Trees has been muddied over time, sliding in favor or the Martel brothers, but, when one examines Mallet-Stevens, his architecture, his interior design and his product design, it becomes clear that the Trees were his invention. That said, the silly scandal of the Cubist trees led to an important commission in 1929 from Paul Cavrois, an industrialist from Roubaix.

Villa Cavrois showing use of yellow bricks

Cavrois owned an old textile firm, the Cavrois-Mahieu company, located in Roubaix, “the city of a thousand chimneys.” His five factories employed some seven hundred people and created high-end fabrics destined for the Parisian market. Cavrois, who had seven children, needed a large house for his family and decided against an abode in the traditional regional style. Perhaps he met Mallet-Stevens in Paris in 1925 and quite possibly may have watched the construction of six of his houses on a narrow dead end street in the sixteenth arrondissement, now called rue Robert Mallet-Stevens, completed in 1927. For whatever reason, the factory owner selected this well-known and proven architect of wealthy clients for the commission. The architect’s brief from Cavrois was “Abode for a large family. A home for a family living in 1934: air, light, work, sports, hygiene, comfort, economy.” The very large villa was built in the residential suburb of Beaumont and is covered completely in long yellow bricks—an alkaline color, imported from Belgium. These bricks, used without restraint over the entire surface, constituted a decorative motif, an external texture. Mallet-Stevens had a penchant for seizing upon building materials and turning the act of building and construction into décor. This willingness to respond to the environment was his trademark that made each of his architectural works site specific and also separated him Mallet-Stevens from the pure modernists. A comparison of the bricks used in the buildings in Roubaix and Tourcoing and those applied to the Villa Cavrois shows that the yellow bricks of the Villa are so long and narrow that they make a fabric or a facture, a surface rather than a pattern that embraced the entire house. The unrelieved stripes of yellow on the outside are echoed by stripped woods, ranging from light to dark tones inside. Planks of wood were used to border the walls and simple slabs constructed the made-to-order furniture.

Interior Design by Mallet-Stevens and the Martel Brothers

Like his colleagues, Mallet-Stevens refused to use any ornamentation but then he didn’t need to. He allowed the dance of light and shadows and the materials themselves to be the stars in their own right, allowing on art on the walls. The villa was one of the highlights of his career and became a metaphor for the decline of the reputation of the architect. Overshadowed by Le Corbusier, who knew how to publicize himself, Robert Mallet-Stevens died in obscurity and poverty in 1945, ordering his archives to be destroyed. The Villa Cavrois suffered equally. Occupied by the Germans in 1940, the home was purchased by a hostile and unsympathetic developer in the 1980s. The unscrupulous businessman stripped the home of its furniture, its exotic woods and even ripped out the plumbing–all sold–in a craven act of vandalism.

By the mid-1990s, the home was devastated seemingly beyond repair but famous architects intervened in a long campaign to save the home. In 2001, France purchased the home and began a 23 million euro restoration that took years. Much of the house had to be recreated completely from photographs, the only records of the building’s former attributes, and slowly some of the authentic materials have been found and bits and pieces of the unique furniture have been located and put back in place. As with the Bauhaus faculty houses for Klee and Kandinsky, the restorers re-discovered the original deep De Stijl colors used on the walls. The parquet flooring, 90% recovered and restored, was relaid by the very same Belgium firm that installed the floor in 1932. Meanwhile, in 2005, the reputation of Robert Mallet-Stevens was also restored with a long overdue restoration at the Centre Pompidou. The Centre des monuments nationaux reopened the home after fifteen years, its distinctive brickwork carefully reglazed. After a decade of careful building, a forgotten and insulted work of architecture that had become a ruin was transformed into a masterpiece again. Open today for pilgrims who now appreciate this remarkable architect of Art Deco, this home exemplifies what Mallet-Stevens once said, “Genuine luxury is living in a well-heated, well-ventilated, gay, and light-filled setting, requiring the least number of useless gestures and the smallest number of servants.”

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

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Art Deco Architecture in Paris: Robert Mallet-Stevens, Part One

Robert Mallet-Stevens (1885-1945)

The Architect of Art Deco, Part One

The architectural counterpart to Le Corbusier and his purist radical modern architecture was the less purist less radical yet still modern architecture of Robert Mallet-Stevens. Time and shifting interest has shunted Mallet-Stevens to one side, while headlining Le Corbusier, and yet Mallet-Stevens was far more persuasive in his own time in the popularization of Art Deco architecture. One could argue that most of the Art Deco architecture of note in Paris was his work. Robert Mallet-Stevens, a most elegant architect, who resembled the dancer Fred Astaire, was to the manor born. Specifically, he was born in Maison Lafitte, a seventeenth century home designed by François Mansart, after whom the famous “Mansard Roof,” the signature architectural look for that century in France, was named. The son and grandson of art dealers, Mallet-Stevens was very well connected: his mother, the source of his name “Stevens” was the niece of the well-known painter from Belgium, Alfred Stevens.

Palais Stoclet

Another member of the Stevens family, Suzanne, had married very well, to none other than Adolphe Stoclet, whose famous home in Brussels was designed in 1911 by Austrian designer, Josef Hoffmann. The influence of Hoffmann’s Palais Stoclet tempered the modernist architecture of Mallet-Stevens whose practice was focused mostly on domestic architecture for a wealthy avant-garde clientele. He designed an elegant studio for the painter Tamara de Lempicka; he began a new home on a hillside for Paul Poiret, but the 1921 villa was never completed, and he created the exquisite Villa Noailles for Charles and Marie-Laure, the Vicomte and Vicomtesse de Noailles, descendants of the Marquis de Sade. This yellow-bricked home was a collaborative exercise for the noble couple, and the design team included Eileen Gray and Theo van Doesberg.

Mallet-Stevens paused in this project in Hyères when he was invited to participate in the Paris fair of 1925, the International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts. His signature work for the Exhibition was a towering Tourist Pavillon, which had a place of pride at the Exhibition, at the entryway transition. Its tall and narrow tower made for an impressive display of the abilities of reinforced concrete, a strong statement, announcing the arrival of modern architecture in a distinctive Art Deco style. The Tourist Pavillon, unlike Le Corbusier’s Pavillon de l’Esprit Nouveau, was placed advantageously, adjacent to the Grand Palais, creating a strong comparison between the eclectic structure from 1900 and the daring upward march of the Pavillon’s tower, built only twenty-five years later. Interestingly, Le Corbusier’s Pavillion was also in the sight line of the Palais, but he deliberately cropped the older building out to give the illusion that his radical building stood alone, like a work of sculpture. More than an announcement or an introduction to the Fairgrounds, the structure by Robert Mallet-Stevens marked the difference a new century had made and closed the door on a terrible war.

Pavillon du Tourisme

In opening the entrance to the future, the tall vertical for this soaring structure became an exclamation point of a building, topped by a clock face. The sharp tower rose above its counterpart, a long narrow building devoted to Fair information, a horizontal dash adjoining the vertical. The best way to describe the style of Mallet-Stevens was “mannerist.” In contrast to the architectural system devised by Le Corbusier—the concrete columns, the ribbon windows, the open plan, and so on—Mallet-Stevens was the decorator who adorned the surfaces of geometric forms and he often acted as the multiplier of the modernist cube, which he was stack vertically or would arrange horizontally. At the top of shaft of the tower over the entry for the Tourist Pavilion, he mounted non-functional rectangular wafers shapes inserted into the structure, rather like a set of blades had flown in and had become embedded in the spire. The vertical of the clock tower played off the horizontal juxtaposition of two long extensions, which were The Pavillon itself was a two level horizontal extension, stretching out behind the clock tower, as if the vertical member was duplicated and then grounded. The exterior sides of the long grounded hall were studded with non-functional pegs popping out along the lengths of the two halls.

Home for the brothers Martel. Mallet Stevens Street, Paris (1928)

If Robert Mallet-Stevens was an architect of the twentieth century, he was less a creator of new forms and more of a hunter-gatherer who acted like a bricoleur who borrowed modern shapes from late Cubism, from radical architecture, from Mondrian, juggling concepts and playing with philosophies and theories and turning them into style. Although Mallet-Stevens was termed a “Functionalist,” much like Le Corbusier, but he took the elements of modern design, such as the glazed window walls, cantilevered overhangs, exterior staircases and played with them, as if he were juggling a multiplicity of geometric shapes and allowing them to coalesce into a single complex building. As a multiplier of geometric forms, Mallet-Stevens was also an assemblage artist, putting section upon section together. On the street that bears his name, a short street in Paris where six of his domestic homes are clustered, one can see his sheer exuberance in stacking cubes, one on top of another, a balancing act rather like a Mondrian painting. Instead of restraint, Mallet-Stevens took up the available modern forms, all geometric, borrowed them, displacing them from their radical origins in architectural theory, and deployed the shapes with visible pleasure, engaging in exercises of sensuous elaboration. Adolf Loos would have been suspicious, sensing that the use of the apparently bare and plain forms in such extravagant numbers was somehow decorative and lacking in restraint. Indeed, architects and architectural critics of the 20s and 30s expressed their opinions of Mallet-Stevens, based upon comparing him with his radical and purist counterparts. Sigfried Gideon called him “elegant “and a “formalist.” Marie Dormoy used the term “aesthete.” These were not necessarily compliments, but his work was motivated by forces quite different from the architects who can be termed “modern,” for the term “Art Deco” comes closer to explaining the work of Mallet-Stevens, because his was an architecture of high and self-conscious style.

The desire for elaboration seemed to drive the architect, a prolific furniture designer in his own right, who also created specialized furniture for his homes. The metal chair he created for Mobilier was his take on a Thornet chair. This chair seems to be drawn in black outline around the wooden seat and extended to the legs which are tilted backward and slanted forward, opening its stance to a slightly splayed appearance. The back of the chair is half an oval, contrasted by two straight lines cutting through the middle emptiness. Elegant, simple, and stackable, the chair could be black or white or chrome, wooden seat, cushioned seat or metal seat.

Chairs by Robert Mallet-Stevens

Infinite variability was one of the calling cards of Mallet-Stevens. His wooden chairs were strongly reminiscent of De Stijl, based on a couple of open squares, like his Udara design, using open squares which support two comfortable square cushions.

Robert Mallet-Stevens Udara Chair

To describe this architect one uses another vocabulary, one alien to radical modern architecture coming out of the Bauhaus in Germany, for example. One would never use the word “Beautiful” to describe a work by Le Corbusier, nor would one say “exaggerated” or “exuberate” when referencing Bauhaus buildings. In addition, the words “associative” or “referential,” much less “quotation,” all of which were outside the discourse of the purity of modern architecture. But Robert Mallet-Stevens was all of these words, with his buildings gesturing towards De Stijl—making allusions to painting—and playful in his delight in throwing architectural elements together. Lacking the rigid theoretical foundations of his contemporaries, he was closer to the Wiener Werkstätte and the idea of the total work of art, a notion quite different from following the rationality of the machine and the logic of structural construction. As opposed to thinking of architecture as form, Mallet-Stevens seemed to think of a building as a presence in the environment, casting a spell, creating a mood, and, most of all, setting a scene. In his placement of a building, in his creation of a sense of place, Mallet-Stevens practiced a mise-en-scène approach, setting a stage for a work of architecture in the same way he designed the sets for the films he worked on. Buildings are presented and displayed, set at their best vantage point, drawing the viewer towards the site, moving forward expecting more delights to unfold as she or he is drawn towards the building-as-display.

The Villa Poiret

The Villa Poiret (1925) near Mézy-sur-Seine was a case in point, where the architect, acting like a set designer, placed a long white building on the crest of a hill, sited so that the fashion designer, Paul Poiret, could watch races on the river below. The visitor, then, inevitably approaches from below and is asked to look up to the top of the hill. The Villa takes on an aloof appearance, blindingly white in the strong sun, refusing to blend into the surroundings. In contrast, Le Corbusier’s contemporaneous work, the Villa Savoye, has no vantage point, no particular environment, and is presented rather baldly, like a white box on a flat plate. The Villa Savoye can claim an exchange between the inside and outside, thanks to its ribbon windows and roof garden, but it does not respond to the setting. Alone it stands with the aloofness of a sculpture on a socle. This independence is precisely what the architect intended. However, Mallet-Stevens always reacted to the site and used to the advantage of the building, to show off his design, so to speak. Depending upon how it is photographed, the building for Paul Poiret has the look of an ocean liner, cresting the rolling waves of the green hill, with a pair of exterior staircases, one of the architect’s favorite devices, making a V at a corner to stress the appearance of the prow of a ship, pushing the ocean aside.

Villa Poiret

Viewed from the other side, there is a curved wall that resembles the promenade deck of a ship. As if to enhance the illusion of being a sea-going vessel, the wall was punctuated by small square openings that look like portholes on the side of an ocean liner. From another angle, the Villa is deeply reminiscent of the Palais Stocolet in its memories of restrained ornament. The entire structure is a textbook example of how to use reinforced concrete to take advantage of the support system to open the walls. As a result, some windows are large, some are medium sized, some are round, some are square, some rise floor to ceiling, balancing each other in a patterned asymmetrical harmony, like a Mondrian painting. This referencing to another medium, the play between the actual water at the bottom of the hill and the suggestion of the mounds of earth being ocean waves, hoisting the ship/house above towards the sky–all of these conceptual moves by Robert Mallet-Stevens were alien to modern architecture but integral to Art Deco design.

The next post will discuss Part Two on this architect.

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

Thank you.

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Art Deco in Post-War Paris

Defining Art Deco

The Meaning of “Moderne”

One should always beware of long titles, too many words usually conceal or reveal inner contradictions. Take, for example, the 1925 Paris International Exposition, the name of which is long and self-defeating: “Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes” or the International Exposition of Decorative and Industrial Arts, begging the question of whether the arts could be both decorative and international. Not until 1968 were all the adjectives swept away in favor of two signifying words “art deco” coined by the historian Bevis Hiller in his book Art Deco of the 20s and 30s. The fact that neither the exposition nor the impact of the numerous exhibitions was discussed at any length until 1968 indicates the uncertain relationship between the past, present, and future that existed on the Fairgrounds in 1925. Hiller was correct that a style he called “Art Deco” emerged and this style certainly indicated “modern,” but, in 1925, being modern was fraught with tensions. As Jared Goss explained in his book French Art Deco:

The narrative of French Art Deco was firmly established by the time of the 1925 Paris Exposition, formed in large part by the designers, museum professionals, and academics who had helped shape the style itself. In books and newspapers and magazine articles, they defined Art Deco’s characteristics and explained its philosophy, noting that it was distinct from manifestations of the movement in other countries by its embrace of its national past as the intellectual point of departure for creating something new. While designers elsewhere often rejected earlier aesthetics, materials, and manufacturing techniques. French designers sought innovation by embracing history. Specifically, the roots of French Art Deco are to be found in the ancien régime–the political and social system of France before the Revolution of 1789–and its time-honored traditions of apprenticeship and guild training. During the eighteenth century, France established itself in the forefront of the luxury trades, producing furniture, porcelain, glass, metalwork, and textiles (not to mention clothing, perfume, wines, and cuisine) of unsurpassed refinement and elegance. Indeed, Paris became what could be considered the style capital of the Western world.

Poster: “Exposition internationale des Arts Décoratifs et industriels modernes ” (1925)

This Exposition of 1925 was intended, by its founders, to restore or to reiterate the dominance of France in the applied arts and decorative design. Interestingly, this large event did not include the fine arts, France’s historical pride, but focused on showing how the nation still stood astride of the luxury trades. In stepping aside from the current avant-garde, especially Cubism, except as the handmaiden to applied art, Art Deco, like much of the visual culture in France between the wars, situated itself part of the larger cultural desire to stop time and to retour à l’ordre. The need to freeze any forward motion in the arts was coupled with an anxiety over the nation losing its dominance in the arts, especially the decorative arts, a concern that dated back to the pre-war era. The source of this worry was, of course, Germany, the perpetual enemy and rival to France. But by 1925, Germany was defeated, excluded, outlawed, and was not even invited to this Exposition until the last minute. The goal of the event was to assert the continued dominance of France in the decorative arts, which heretofore had been expressed only through fashion. In addition to establishing the authority of France in all things decorative, the characteristic of what precisely “French” stood for had been reduced to the classical or the timeless. Therefore, to be French in the art world, from fine arts to architecture, was to extend the historical styles into the twentieth century. Art Deco, as a modern style, was an applied version of late post-war conservative version of pre-war Cubism, which found a natural home in decoration. To the extent that Art Deco was modern, it was that this style was linked to all manner of objects which were, in turn, part of a growing consumer culture, an aspect of modernism that the French had virtually invented. The problems emerged with the term “industrial” or the machine age, which was linked to industrialization. On one hand, the idea of industrial design had to be reckoned with—Germany and the new Soviet Union were making strides in this new and modern area–but, on the other hand, France was reluctant to industrialize and would continue to resist that form of modernization well into the Vichy period of the Second World War.

Pavilion of the Magasins des Galeries Lafayette, Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes, Paris 1925

Beau, Georges (1892-1958)
Dufrene, Maurice (1876-1955)
Hiriart, Joseph (1888-1946)
Tribout, Georges Henri (1884-1962)

In 1925, the Great War had been over for seven years and the European nations were slowly recovering from the ordeal. As English speaking and English writing people, we tend to hear more about the brief American Experience in this war and we are familiar with the British anti-war poetry and the legend of the well-born and the well-bred, the flower of English manhood dying on the battlefields of Flanders, alongside their colonial allies. But it was the French who suffered the most during the Great War. The battles were fought on French soil, on the border shared with the Belgians. German strategic plan for winning the war was to bleed France white, to fight the war until there were no French men left to block the way to Paris. The exsanguination tactic worked quite well—the French lost the most men of any nation—but Germany also bled itself in the effort, and, unsupported by allies, was forced to surrender. When one asks the question: why did the French surrender to the Germans in 1940, one has only to look at the statistics of loss to realize that the nation would have done anything to survive, gone to any lengths to save its new generation of young men, now so precious to its uncertain future. But in the 1920s in France, the future was unknown, Germany had been vanquished, and it was finally time to celebrate.

Joséphine Baker est une artiste emblématique des années folles, qui correspondent aux années 1920

But in the 1920s in France, the future was unknown, Germany had been vanquished, and it was finally time to celebrate. The années folles was the jazz age in Paris, the years of the new woman in France, the time of the Lost Generation, nomadic and unsettled, presided over by Gertrude Stein the expatriate American poet. Behind the fun was caution, for, despite its exuberance, the mood was conservative, regardless of the presence of modernity, the gaze was firmly fixed to the past. It is out of the odd paradox of post-war modernism and the retrospective mindset among the French that the glittering and commercial spectacle of the 1925 International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts in Paris emerged in all its glitter and glory. Taking advantage of good weather, the Exhibition opened in April and closed in October, attracting thousands of visitors, most of whom were delighted with the expansion of commodities crafted in the name of all that was modern. However, there was the presence of the radically modern, represented by the Pavillon de l’Esprit Nouveau by Le Corbusier, tucked away behind the Grand Palais in obscurity, and the Soviet Pavillon by Konstantin Melnikov; and the modern that was precisely the opposite of radical. The other modern, which was later termed “moderne” an appellation of light mockery, or Modern Light, was exuberantly decorative and ostentatiously ornamental. That said it was the “Moderne” that dazzled and thrilled the crowds; it was the Moderne that cemented the French reputation for being the queen of the decorative arts, the arbiter of luxury goods, the seer of all things fashionable.

Iron and copper grill called “Oasis” by Edgar Brandt, who also designed the ornamental gates at the main entrance of the Exposition

The 1925 Exhibition in Paris cemented Cubism as a style for applied art and was notable for its rejection of industrial design and modern architecture, despite its long and unwieldy name. Years passed, another War intervened, post-World War II aesthetic judgments rejected the decorative and rejoiced in the abstract. It was not until the 1960s, a decade beloved for its Youthquake styles, neon colors, curvilinear psychedelic designs and a new appreciation for the decorative, that this exhibition was revisited and renamed: ART DECO. By the 1960s and the definitive volume by Bevis Hiller, modern architecture had long since been winnowed out from its original surroundings and now reigned supreme as the International Style, while the prevailing style of the 1020s had slid into oblivion and disapproval. Since the sixties, Art Deco has been named and understood as an important style, which was not to be disparaged but was to be appreciated on its own terms which were part of its time, those few fragile years between the Wars. Like Germany, France has a housing shortage and, like Germany, the nation needed to modernize its infrastructure; but unlike Germany, Holland and even Russia, France decided to reject the future for an exploration of a contradiction in terms, a historicized modernism.

Exhibition Catalog with cover by Robert Bonfils

This modernity, like Baudelaire’s modernity of the 1860s, was expressed safely, through fashion and style. This modernity was drained of any threat and was safe and positive. Lacking any philosophical or theoretical underpinnings, Art Deco was, nevertheless expansive and inclusive and open-minded, accepting ancient Egypt and American culture, cashing in on the discovery of the tomb of King Tut’s Tomb in 1922 and turning the engineering triumph of an ocean liner into a decorative poster. Closer to home, Art Deco sampled the Wiener Werkstätte designers, especially Josef Hoffmann and Kolomon Moser, gave a nod to Russian Constructivism, and repurposed Cubism to its own ends , An accessible accumulative style of quotations and appropriation, Art Deco is perhaps best understood through the artists who represented it, not necessarily the fine artists—that would be the Cubists or the post-Cubists—but via the works of the decorative and applied artisans, the graphic artists, and the interior designers. As for the architects, the best examples of Art Déco architecture were in New York, but in Paris, some remarkable temporary buildings at the Fair, built for the French exhibits introduced the French stance on decorative and ornamental art to the rest of the world. The Fair was a frank and unapologetic trade fair for French merchandise, especially luxury goods and consumer goods of great style and the undeniable Gallic flair for the chic. Art Deco, in its eclectic way, signified “modern” and in doing so also signaled that old styles were now outmoded. This signal educated the potential buyer as to what to purchase next. The most succinct description of current trends was made by the painter, Charles Dufresne, who explained the difference twenty-five years had made to French design: “L’art de 1900 fut l’art du domaine de la fantaisie, celui de 1925 est du domaine de la raison.” Indeed, the Fair marked the low point and eclipse for Art Nouveau and the advertisement of Art Deco, the new synthetic style of applied art, was marked, not by nature but by the machine.

General View of Exhibition Pavilions

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Constructivism on Display, Part Two

The Brief Existence of Constructivism

At the Paris Fair of 1925

The International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts was “international,” stressing the nationalism of the post-war period, but the French, the host nation, proved to be cautious with which countries were invited and included. The French government had officially recognized the new Soviet Union in 1924, so the invitation to the Exposition was belated, but the artists sprang into action. Along with Le Corbusier’s Pavilion de l’Esprit Nouveau, the Soviet Pavilion stood out as the two buildings resisting the blandishments of Art Deco and memories of early pre-war modern architecture. Only in these two buildings was the Bauhaus spirit manifested and only in these two buildings was ornamentation and decoration resisted for an assertion of the philosophy of Construction as Design. The Soviet Pavilion, which exists today only as a series of photographs, was a series of slices of architecture composed of slants and diagonals. The Pavilion was daring and simple: two triangular volumes sliced in half by a staircase. A glazed wall, windows stretching from roof to road, bend steeply to make way for a rising flight of steps. From the outside one could look through this sheet of glass and view all the exhibitions inside the building. Above the stairway, the series of diagonals crossed like swords above the processional also functioned like a faux set of roof beams supporting nothing, existing only as formal shapes. This stunning building turned the architect, Konstantin Melnikov (1890-1974) into a sought-after celebrity among the Parisians. Only Le Corbusier, a Swiss architect, working and practicing in Paris, had offered such an architectural work of such revolutionary impact. Perhaps because he was representing a far-away and still unfamiliar government, Melnikov’s offering was better received than that of Le Corbusier whose threat to the status quo in France was far more apparent.

Soviet Pavilion at the World’s Fair, Paris 1925

The best analogy to this building would be the contemporary design for the Wexner Center of the Arts in Columbus, Ohio, designed in the late 1980s by Peter Eisenmann. Eisenman took his abstract philosophical theories of deconstruction as applied to architecture and refused the architectural dictates of straight lines and enclosure for broken angles and opened walls.

The Wexner Center of the Arts

But Melnikov was using abstract two-dimensional shapes from painting as architectural slabs fitted together into a dynamic and daring pavilion. However, Melnikov’s working method revealed a deconstructive mindset, for his preparatory drawings showed that he played with geometric shapes which he broke up and reconnected through causal intersections. Indeed, much of the building was glass, buttressed by an occasional slab wall here and there. Topping the building was a tower of open work trusses, suggesting the Tribune of El Lissitzky. The skeletal projection was also a flag pole, and it should be noted, that, at the closing of the Exposition, the flags of all nations were ceremoniously lowered, except for that of Russia. For days afterward, the red flag with the gold hammer and sickle rode the late summer breezes. Clearly, Melnikov was experimenting with the language of architecture, as was Eisenman, almost one hundred years later, deconstructing the concept of “structure” in what was probably an experiment in formal language. Even Le Corbusier’s offering was conservative compared to the Russian architect’s design that was as savage and brutal as it was a fragile accumulation of teetering walls, leaning against each other. As if to emphasize the precariousness of the structure, a conglomeration of words suspended in air, somehow attached to the building, announced that this was the Soviet Pavilion. If anyone was in doubt, a hammer and sickle rose in the air, cutting into the sky. While he was in Paris, Melnikov gave an interview, recently translated, in which he laconically described his intentions:

This glazed box is not the fruit of an abstract idea. My starting point was real life; I had to deal with real circumstances. Above all, I worked with the site that was allocated to me, a site surrounded by trees: it was necessary that my little building should stand out clearly amidst the shapeless masses through its color, height, and skillful combination of forms. I wanted the pavilion to be as full of light and air as possible. That is my personal predilection, but I think it reasonably represents the aspiration of our whole nation. Not everyone who walks past the pavilion will go inside it. But each of them will see something of what’s exhibited inside my building all the same, thanks to the glazed walls, and thanks to the staircase that goes out to meet the crowd, passes through the pavilion, and enables them to survey the whole of its content from above. As far as the intersecting diagonal planes over the route are concerned, may they be a disappointment to lovers of roofs corked up like bottles! But this roof is no worse than any other: it is made so as to let in the air, and you keep out of the rain from whatever direction it may fall.

Interior of Soviet Pavilion

The Soviet Pavilion, with its interior exhibits, was a container that was a Constructivist “thing” or object that, in turn, held more “objects” from the utopian society. And yet, Melnikov’s design intention was never symbolic. He was concerned with the site itself only—where the building was located at the fair and the fact that the exposition was a temporary event, destined to be torn down. As the result of accepting the ephemeral nature of the placement, there is a thrown-together-soon-to-be-demolished temporary air of casualness about the Pavilion that reinforces the artist’s statement: “..why should a building whose function is temporary be granted the false attributes of the everlasting? My pavilion doesn’t have to keep standing for the whole life of the Soviet Union. It’s quite enough for it to keep standing until this exhibition closes. To put it briefly, the clarity of color, simplicity of line, and abundance of light and air that characterize this pavilion (whose unusual features you may like or dislike according to taste) have a similarity to the country I come from. But do not think, for goodness sake, that I set out to build a symbol.”

The Temporary Soviet Pavilion in 1925

In addition, as with the displayed objects inside, the object/structure was an example of faktura or the practicality of industrial materials used as materials without disguise or cladding or decoration. Glass was glass, steel was steel and wood was wood. However, although the architect intended the building to be read as an independent Constructivist object in its own right, the Pavilion was understood by others as a propaganda document, advertising the modernity of the USSR, a newly arrived political entity, which, by ingesting European modernism, had forged forward on its own unique path. Inside the Pavilion, the Monument to the Third International by Vladimir Tatlin (1885-1953) rose toward the ceiling, pointing to the sky and to the future of the Soviet Union. Alexander Rodchenko’s Workers’ Club, which served as an interior room and exhibit and as an object all at the same time, followed the utilitarian and ideological philosophy that an experimental construction or an example of how studio “laboratory” work could become a practical object. An abstract sculpture could become a building, an abstract painting could become a pavilion, and faktura could be mobilized to build simple and useful tools for the workers to use. The Club, which is an ideal model, was conceived by Alexander Rodchenko (1891-1956) as a three-dimensional design for education and comradeship among workers. There is an exchange between the workers’ bodies and the activities practiced in the space: the long table is a communal affair, a place where workers congregate on both sides, facing each other. The worker is contained in an enveloping chair that curves around in a semi-circle, embracing him or her with the arms of comradeship.

Reconstruction of Rodchenko’s Workers’ Club

Rodchenko imagined these Constructivist objects to be comrades in their own right: friends and allies for the workers, working in unison with the laborers. Unlike the rather rigid and uncomfortable chairs, the tabletop could be altered. The top could flip up for writing or down for reading, but based on the photographs and reconstructions of this table, such alterations would have to be communal, at least on that side—everyone must read or everyone must write. And there are racks for magazines full of educational materials for the edification of the labor force. In describing these structures, Stepanova referred to them as “wall newspapers,” which like all the objects in the Club could be manipulated and controlled by the worker seeking knowledge. While newspapers dangle like towels from a white rack, Lenin peers down benignly from a photograph a year after his death. This is the “Lenin corner” with the photograph of the recently deceased and embalmed leader taking the place of the religious icon in the traditional Russian home. The corner is carefully designed, from the white square left blank, waiting for the requisite photograph, to the timeline constructed of a series of arrows. This corner was conceived of as more than a cult site where the worker was expected to peruse the archive of materials on Lenin that would, over time, accumulate as the heritage of the leader grew in Russia. In the place of religion, there was the cult of Lenin, who became the founding father about which all should learn and from whom all would be inspired. Rodchenko preferred the authentic record of Lenin, that is the many photographs taken of him to traditional portraiture. Lenin was modern, like the workers’ club and he was present, not in representation but in a substitute reality, hovering in the index of the camera’s record of his existence.

True to the desire to educate the worker, there is a speaker’s lectern and a movie screen, allowing the club to be turned into a site of saturation, where Communist philosophy could be absorbed by the now passive audience. As with his posters, Rodchenko demanded that the workers participate with and manipulate the media stands in order to obtain the information contained in the various stands. Above the heads of the activated workers, electric lights hang, symbolizing the goals of Lenin–to electrify and thus to modernize the nation and the desire to educate the people in the ways of Communism. There is an air of efficiency, from the simple and inexpensive materials used for the furnishings to the sense that the Club was completely transportable and could be set up in any available room. Time was precious and could not be wasted with fun and must be used for edification, put to good use in this Club that has everything but relaxation and enjoyment. The placement of the Club inside the Soviet Pavilion, suggesting an alternative to capitalism, in the City of Light, Paris. In Paris, one wasted time and sat at a sidewalk table and sipped a café au lait while chatting with friends and watching the parade of fashion down the boulevard. Such capitalist customs were a scandal to Rodchenko who was in Paris for the first and last time in his life. The contrast between the austerity and discomfort of the rigidly designed Workers’ Club and the long lunches enjoyed by Parisians could not be clearer: the Club was the Soviet rejection of Western decadence. It is impossible to miss the artist’s assertion of totalitarian control over the lower classes, their minds, their activities, their movements, and their time. The difference between the Leninist avant-garde and the Stalinist Socialist Realism is a distinction without a difference. It is clear, that, while the Workers’ Club was ostensibly a site of relaxation, complete with chess sets, this room was also a site of propaganda and control.

Writing about the Pavilion a few years after the Fair in the 1929 book, The Reconstruction of Architecture in the USSR, the artist El Lissitzky (1890-1941) said,

The first small building that gave clear evidence of the reconstruction of our architecture was the Soviet Pavilion at the Paris World’s Fair of 1925, designed by Melnikov. The close proximity of the Soviet Pavilion to other creations of international architecture revealed in the most glaring way the fundamentally different attitudes and concepts embodied in Soviet architecture. This work represents the “formalistic” [Rationalist] wing of the radical front of our architecture, a group whose primary aim was to work out a fitting architectural concept for each utilitarian task. In this case, the basic concept represents an attempt to loosen up the overall volume by exposing the staircase. In the plan, the axis of symmetry is established on the diagonal, and all other elements are rotated by 180 ̊. Hence, the whole has been transposed from ordinary symmetry at rest into symmetry in motion. The tower element has been transformed into an open system of pylons. The structure is built honestly of wood, but instead of relying on traditional Russian log construction [it] employs modern wood construction methods. The whole is transparent. Unbroken colors. Therefore no false monumentality. A new spirit.

The Soviet Pavilion 1925

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

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Constructivism on Display, Part One

The Brief Existence of Constructivism

The Years of Lenin

The word “Constructivism” was a Russian word that came from multiple sources in Russia and spread to Western Europe very quickly, as soon as the Civil War ended in 1921. In fact, the slogan of the 1920 Dada Fair in Berlin was “Art is Dead: Long Live Tatlin’s New machine art.” That same year, the term “Constructivism” was in circulation at the Düsseldorf Congress in May, where it signified a Bauhaus approach of using new construction materials rather than using conventional means of building and the Dada interpretation of anti-art or anti-traditional art. Constructivism in Russia, however, had an institutional home the job of which was to take the word from a name and an idea and to make the construction of a new art form a Soviet reality. That goal fell to the Vkhutemas, a new art school in Moscow, which sought to apply Constructivism to the Revolution and its needs. It was Vladimir Lenin (1870-1924) himself who established the Vkhutemas institution in 1920 and gave it his qualified blessing by visiting the classrooms in 1921. Fairly or not, the Vkhutemas, an acronym for the Higher Art and Technical Studios, is often compared to the Bauhaus in that it combined industry and design and art under one roof. Like the Bauhaus, the school was the result of a merger between two pre-existing institutions, the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture and the Stroganov School of Applied Arts, but unlike the Bauhaus which was a very small school, the Moscow college had 2500 students compared to the 200 annual enrollment at Dessau. Like the Bauhaus, the faculty was distinguished, with artist Aleksandra Ekser teaching “color in space,” Alexander Rodchenko was in charge of construction, while Nadezhda Udaltsova presided over “volume in space.” Most famously, it was Varvara Stepanova who was in charge of the textile department. It was Stepanova, who stated the goal of her department and of the entire school succinctly as being “devising methods for a conscious awareness of the demands imposed on us by new social conditions.” However, Lenin was disturbed by the lingering presence of Futurism and Suprematism, evidence of a past era still present among the students and faculty. Seeking to reassure Lenin about the Vkhutemas, theorist Aleksei Gan (1893-1942) wrote Constructivism in 1922 a year after Lenin’s visit, stating that “Our Constructivism has declared unconditional war on art, for the means and qualities of art are not able to systematize the feelings of a revolutionary environment.” As the leading theorist and agitator, Gan was responsible for the phrases that would be linked to the post-revolution Constructivist movement and its anti-art stance. “Art is dead!” he insisted, “There is no room for it in the human work apparatus. Work, technique, and organization!”

The Revolution in politics had acted like an earthquake on Russia, transforming the nation, and for a time, the new Soviet Union was a very good place to be an artist or a designer or an architect. For a few years, one could dream; one could create a new world; one had the freedom to create new objects for new purposes. In 1928, an American, Alfred Barr (1902-1981), active in the nascent New York art world, decided to visit Moscow to witness the new movement of Constructivism, where all disciplines intersected, giving birth to new forms. Upon his return, Barr, who would become the first director of the new Museum of Modern Art, wrote, “We feel as if this were the most important place in the world for us to be. Such abundance, so much to see: people, theaters, films, churches, pictures, music and only a month to do it in for we must attempt Leningrad and perhaps Kiev. It is impossible to describe the feeling of exhilaration; perhaps it is the air (after Berlin); perhaps the cordiality of our new friends, perhaps the extraordinary spirit of forward-looking, the gay hopefulness, of the Russians, their awareness that Russia has at least a century of greatness before her, that she will wax while France and England wane.”

To that end, Aleksei Gan set up the First Working Group of Constructivists, also known as “artists-engineers,” turning theory into application. In response to the need to honor Lenin, in Saint Petersburg—Petrograd–the Constructivist artist, Vladimir Tatlin (1885-1953) built the Monument to the Third International in 1919, a model for a structure that was never built. With his Constructivist experiments, Tatlin himself was the source of inspiration at At 1300 feet, the Monument, which was to have been the tallest structure in the world, was often on display, becoming the image of all that the Revolution aspired to. But this monument, like the unfinished project of the avant-garde in Russia, was never built and remains an unrealized requiem for unfinished dreams. In point of fact, while Western scholars toil to reconstruct the lost years of the avant-garde after the Russian Revolution, the present-day Russians themselves have a complex and ambiguous relationship with the past. The Russian schools hardly touch upon the Great War, now considered an imperial conflict best forgotten. Even in the centenary of the October Revolution of 1917, there is a gap between the sanctity Lenin and a respect for those years when he was in charge. This conceptual gap seems to be caused by the long reign of Stalin, during which he crushed the hopes and dreams of ardent believers in a social revolution during decades of terror. While evoking the memory of Lenin, Stalin wiped out evidence of his accomplishments, suppressing or killing the artists and architects he had promoted or supported along with unrelated political dissidents. Only recently have there been cautious and reluctant gestures towards what remains of avant-garde architecture still extant in Moscow and other Russian cities. These efforts, however tentative, are significant because little of the important movement of Constructivism remains today. Black and white photographs stand in for objects now lost and ideas never realized. Models of proposals exist but many plans remain on paper, preserving a poignant record of an artistic desire to change society. When one moves beyond the photographs and drawings and asks the pointed question—what has survived? Unfamiliar names emerge, standing alongside that of the leading Constructivist, Vladimir Tatlin. One could argue that it was Konstantin Melnikov (1890-1974), who left the most extensive record of the Constructivist and architectural avant-garde behind in a scattering of remarkable buildings still standing, and in the memory of his grand prize at the Paris Exposition of industrial design in 1925, won for the Soviet Pavilion. Like many of the Russian Constructivist movement, the architect Melnikov taught at the Vkhutemas school, but by 1925, he had separated himself from the institution. His desire to combine his dedication to the Revolution with his assertion that the individual should also assert him or herself in works of art led Melnikov to start the New Academy at the school as a separate program but he was marginalized when his department was absorbed into the Academic workshop.

In 1925, artists, Rodchenko, Tatlin, filmmaker, Sergei Eisenstein, and architect Konstantin Melnikov came together to display the Constructivist philosophy and practice at the World’s Fair in Paris in 1925. Now an independent artist, Melnikov became the architect for the Soviet Pavilion in Paris. It was here, at the heart of an Exposition that would later be thought of as the home of a new decorative movement, Art Deco, that Constructivism was manifested for the world in terms of a building, a workers’ club and a symbol of the Revolution. If the Constructivists had introduced themselves in the New Russia Exhibition in Berlin, their philosophy of new architecture was viewed and experienced by the thousands who attended the Fair, most of whom were seeing the Russian Revolution in action for the first time, alive and well at Melnikov’s remarkable Soviet Pavilion. The Pavilion itself was one of the first manifestations of what would be a short experiment in avant-garde radical architecture. Once Stalin was firmly established in power, those days of optimism came to an end to be quickly replaced with a very different vision of the task of architects. Writing in 1932, when Russia was in the grip of totalitarianism, Hans Schmidt explained in “The Soviet Union and Modern Architecture” what had happened after the Soviet Pavilion had won acclaim:

Unlike their Western colleagues, the Russian architects had no opportunity to acquire new skills by dealing with the problem of the working class dwelling or the middle-class house. The victory of the October Revolution brought to the forefront a number of young architects who identified with the aims of the Revolution. Taking up the cudgel in the fight with the older generation of architects, they apparently were bringing about the triumph of modern architecture. At a time when relatively very little construction could actually be realized in the Soviet Union, this young and technically inexperienced generation devoted all its energies to utopian projects, in many cases outstripping the real situation of revolutionary development by decades.

As shall be discussed in the next post, the Soviet Pavilion was a triumph of a “utopian project” build to display the designs of a new generation for their nation. But Melnikov’s was a fleeting moment and, in a very few years after the Paris Exposition, the plans for an avant-garde architecture would be halted. As Schmidt noted,

This defeat was rendered even more poignant in a situation which manifested itself by revealing an important difference between the West on the one hand and the Soviet Union on the other. In the West, the principles of free competition apply up to a certain point even in the field of the arts. In Soviet Russia, however, all ideas are expected to be subordinate to and integrated into the mainstream of the Revolution. As things stand now, modern architecture has gambled away its chance, at least for the time being. Even the broad masses and youth have joined the ranks of the general opposition. What is even worse, though, is the fact that the modern movement in architecture has presently run into a closed ideological front ranged against it.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

Thank you.

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