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7 mid-century designers who rewrote the rule book

From ‘Art Deco’s greatest artist’ to pioneering Modernists — the French mid-century icons who transformed interior design

Jean Prouvé (1901-1984), A pair of ‘visiteur’ armchairs, circa 1950. Produced by Ateliers Jean Prouvé, oak, plywood, enamelled steel tube, aluminium, upholstered cushions. Each 37 ½ in. (95.2 cm.) high. Estimate $40,000-60,000. This work is offered in the Design sale on 8 June at Christie’s New York

Jean Prouvé (1901-1984), A pair of ‘visiteur’ armchairs, circa 1950. Produced by Ateliers Jean Prouvé, oak, plywood, enamelled steel tube, aluminium, upholstered cushions. Each 37 ½ in. (95.2 cm.) high. Estimate: $40,000-60,000. This work is offered in the Design sale on 8 June at Christie’s New York

One of France’s best-known architects and designers, Jean Prouvé might never have become so had it not been for his family’s crippling bankruptcy, which forced him to abandon his studies at 15 and become a metalworker’s apprentice. During this period, early works by the self-taught designer caught the attention of leading intellectual André Fontaine, who declared him an upcoming talent. The pair would correspond regularly, with Fontaine’s doctrine — ‘ne jamais copier’ (never copy) — adopted as Prouvé’s règle principale.

As known for his architecture as for his furniture, Prouvé produced designs notable for their revolutionary approach to material, drawing upon industrial technology without compromising on aesthetic. Prouvé classics include designs in lightweight, folded sheet steel and chairs with triangular back legs, constructed to bear the greatest portion of their user’s weight. 

Charlotte Perriand (1903-1999), A ‘Mexique’ bibliothèque, designed circa 1953. Designed for the Maison du Méxique, Cité Internationale Universitaire, Paris. Executed by Ateliers Jean Prouvé, pine, mahogany, enamelled steel, aluminium, 63 in. (160 cm.) high, 72 in. (183 cm.) wide, 12⅞ in. (32.7 cm.) deep. Estimate $60,000-90,000. This work is offered in

Charlotte Perriand (1903-1999), A ‘Mexique’ bibliothèque, designed circa 1953. Designed for the Maison du Méxique, Cité Internationale Universitaire, Paris. Executed by Ateliers Jean Prouvé, pine, mahogany, enamelled steel, aluminium, 63 in. (160 cm.) high, 72 in. (183 cm.) wide, 12⅞ in. (32.7 cm.) deep. Estimate: $60,000-90,000. This work is offered in the Design sale on 8 June at Christie’s New York 

A frequent collaborator with Jean Prouvé — who produced the metallic elements of her furnishings in his Nancy ateliers — Charlotte Perriand came to be recognised as one of the most significant French designers of the 20th century. Concentrating on the development of affordable, functional furniture, she was convinced of the power of good design, declaring, ‘The extension of the art of dwelling is the art of living’.

Her ascent to popularity followed a stuttering start: in 1927, Le Corbusier rejected her application to work in his studio, famously retorting, ‘We don’t embroider cushions here’. Undeterred, Perriand carried on, attracting the attention of Le Corbusier’s partner Pierre Jeanneret, who persuaded the previously scathing designer to reconsider. Perriand was hired, and her collaborations with Le Corbusier resulted in some of the era’s most iconic designs, including the LC4 chaise longue.

François-Xavier Lalanne (1927-2008), ‘Moutons de Laine’, A Sheep and Two Ottomans, 1968. Wool, patinated aluminium, wood. Sheep 35 in. (89 cm.) high, 20 in. (51 cm.) wide, 39 in. (99 cm.) deep; each ottoman 22 ½ in. (57 cm.) high, 17 ½ in. (44.5 cm.) wide, 31 in. (78.8 cm.) deep, each stamped FXL 68. Estimate $500,000-800,000. This lot is offered in the Design sale

François-Xavier Lalanne (1927-2008), ‘Moutons de Laine’, A Sheep and Two Ottomans, 1968. Wool, patinated aluminium, wood. Sheep: 35 in. (89 cm.) high, 20 in. (51 cm.) wide, 39 in. (99 cm.) deep; each ottoman: 22 ½ in. (57 cm.) high, 17 ½ in. (44.5 cm.) wide, 31 in. (78.8 cm.) deep, each stamped FXL 68. Estimate: $500,000-800,000. This lot is offered in the Design sale on 8 June at Christie’s New York

A far cry from the function-focused design of Charlotte Perriand, pieces by François-Xavier Lalanne embrace the Surreal, with sheep-shaped stools and rhinoceros drinks cabinets among the menagerie of animal-themed furnishings that were the designer’s trademark.

As a student in Paris, Lalanne’s peers included Surrealist artists Salvador Dalí and René Magritte. Although he initially followed in their artistic footsteps — holding his first exhibition of paintings in 1952 — Lalanne later embraced design, with notable early projects including the complete refurbishment of Dior’s Paris branch together with a young Louis Vuitton. 

Jean-Michel Frank (1895-1941), A Games Table, 1938. Oak with wool surface. 28 ½ in. (72.5 cm.) high, 30 ¾ in. (78 cm.) square. Estimate $25,000-35,000. This work is offered in the Design sale on 8 June at Christie’s New York 

Jean-Michel Frank (1895-1941), A Games Table, 1938. Oak with wool surface. 28 ½ in. (72.5 cm.) high, 30 ¾ in. (78 cm.) square. Estimate: $25,000-35,000. This work is offered in the Design sale on 8 June at Christie’s New York 

Renowned for his collaborations with some of the 20th century’s greatest artists and designers — from the Giacometti brothers to Adolphe Chanaux — Jean-Michel Frank shot to fame during the 1920s, creating interiors that broke with the ornate styles of previous decades to embrace a new, understated luxury.

By the 1930s Frank was the designer of choice for Paris’s intellectual elite, his neutral interiors — incorporating bleached leather and vellum — providing a backdrop to the collections of clients, including influential arts patrons Charles and Marie-Laure de Noailles. Enormously successful in his professional life, Frank’s personal life was tinged with tragedy: a distant cousin of Anne Frank, in 1941 he thew himself from the window of a Manhattan apartment building. 

Described as ‘Art Deco’s greatest artist’ by the The New York Times, Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann designed furnishings and interiors that oozed the Gatsby-esque glamour of the 1920s, combining rare dark woods with rich bronze and hand-tooled leather.

Unabashedly luxurious, the designer’s work countered the Modernist idea that good design could either be mass-produced or inexpensive. ‘Only the very rich can pay for what is new and they alone can make it fashionable’, he observed. Technically complex yet minimal in style, his work been cited as an inspiration by restaurateur Michael Chow and fashion designer Rick Owens. 

A pair of Jules Leleu (1883-1961) walnut armchairs and associated burr walnut bench, circa 1950. The chairs stamped ‘J Leleu’. Each upholstered with orange velvet and sprung seats. The chairs 30 ¾ in. (78 cm.) high; 25 ½ in. (65 cm.) wide; 26 ¾ in. (68 cm.) deep; the bench 20 in. (51 cm.) high; 39 in. (99 cm.) wide; 16 ½ in. (42 cm.) deep. Estimate

A pair of Jules Leleu (1883-1961) walnut armchairs and associated burr walnut bench, circa 1950. The chairs stamped ‘J Leleu’. Each upholstered with orange velvet and sprung seats. The chairs 30 ¾ in. (78 cm.) high; 25 ½ in. (65 cm.) wide; 26 ¾ in. (68 cm.) deep; the bench 20 in. (51 cm.) high; 39 in. (99 cm.) wide; 16 ½ in. (42 cm.) deep. Estimate: £5,000-8,000. This lot is offered in the Design sale on 8 June at Christie’s New York

When the Leleu brothers, Marcel and Jules, inherited their father’s decorating company in 1909, Jules Leleu made it his own, opening an atelier where he began producing the distinctive Art Deco furnishings the brand would become renowned for. 

Coveted in France, Leleu’s designs soon acquired an international following after they were used to furnish transatlantic cruise liners the Île de France and the Atlantique — with Leleu hailed as Europe’s ‘Art Deco ambassador’. American collectors became avid collectors of Jules Leleu’s work, with notable clients including the wife of President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Jacques Adnet (1900-1984), An adjustable shelving system, 1950s. Leather, painter metal. 87 ¾ in. (223 cm.) high, 126 in. (320 cm.) wide, 9 ¾ in. (24.7 cm.) deep. Estimate $20,000-30,000. This work is offered in the Design sale on 8 June at Christie’s New York

Jacques Adnet (1900-1984), An adjustable shelving system, 1950s. Leather, painter metal. 87 ¾ in. (223 cm.) high, 126 in. (320 cm.) wide, 9 ¾ in. (24.7 cm.) deep. Estimate: $20,000-30,000. This work is offered in the Design sale on 8 June at Christie’s New York

Jacques Adnet pioneered his own brand of luxury Modernism, merging clean, geometric shapes with high-end materials such as leather. Initially known as one half of design duo J.J. Adnet together with his twin brother Jean, Adnet was elected director of La Compagnie des Arts Français in 1928, working with era-defining designers including Francis Jourdain, Charlotte Perriand and Georges Jouve. Personal projects included the redesign of the President’s private apartments at the Elysée Palace, and the refurbishment of Paris’s UNESCO headquarters.