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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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

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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