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.

Thank you.

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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.

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

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

Thank you.

[email protected]