Collecting guide: 10 things to know about Jean Royère
The French designer turned his playful creations into a serious business, winning admirers who have ranged from Middle Eastern royalty to Kanye West and Jennifer Aniston. Illustrated with works offered at Christie’s
In 1947, Jean Royère (1902-1981) designed a sofa that embodied both his own emerging style and the joie de vivre of the post-war period — an elegantly rounded beast in soft white velvet that came to be known as the Ours polaire (Polar Bear).
The sofa and the armchairs that went with it have since become collector’s items: in 2017, a cream sofa sold at Christie’s for €439,500; a pair of pale-gold armchairs (below) for almost double that.
On 30 June, a Polar Bear sofa and chairs, still in their original burnt-orange velvet, will be offered in the Design sale at Christie’s in Paris alongside other Royère classics, including a pair of Oeuf chairs, an Eléphanteau armchair and two pairs of Liane wall sconces.
All 19 lots consist of items that were commissioned directly from the designer in 1962 for an apartment in the affluent Paris suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine; unusually, they are in pristine condition.
‘None of Royère’s designs are unique,’ says Pierre Martin-Vivier, Vice-President of Christie’s France and the author of Jean Royère (Norma, Paris, 2017). ‘What is difficult to find is pieces in such an exceptional state of conservation.’
1. Royère was self-taught
Royère had no formal design education. Born in 1902, he was the only son of a high-ranking civil servant from Brittany and his French wife, who had been raised in Vienna and was related to Charles Darwin and the founders of Wedgwood ceramics.
‘He grew up in a cultivated and cosmopolitan environment in the Champs-Elysées district of Paris, later attending balls with the bourgeois and aristocratic elite, and frequenting a circle of intellectuals who revolved around the writer and philosopher Paul Desjardins,’ says Martin-Vivier.
After studying classics at Cambridge University, Royère worked with his uncle, a powerful figure in the import-export trade in Le Havre. In 1931, however, at the age of 29, he gave it up to become an interior designer.
‘For his father, it was a disaster,’ says Martin-Vivier. ‘He considered the job of an interior designer to be that of a flâneur. It took the intervention of Louis Metman, a family friend who was also the director of the Museum of Decorative Arts, for Jean’s parents to give in.’
2. Royère used modern materials such as metal tubing and Bakelite
After two years as an apprentice furniture-maker in Paris, Royère entered a competition to design the Brasserie Carlton on the Champs-Elysées — and won. Featuring modern materials including metal tubing and Bakelite, the project was covered by Art et Industrie magazine and brought him to the attention of Pierre Gouffé, a well-known maker of period furniture, who hired him to develop his contemporary line.
This led to Royère’s first appearance at the Salon d’Automne. At the Salon des Décorateurs five years later, he showed three designs that would become Royère classics: a Champignon (Mushroom) standing lamp, a Trèfle (Four-leaf clover) chair and an Eléphanteau (Elephant calf) armchair (below).
Royère would continue to show at national and European design fairs for the next 25 years, adapting the designs he showed in his interior projects.
3. Royère refused to conform to a single theory
In the early days, Royère was impressed by the quality and elegance of Jacques-Emile Ruhlmann’s furniture, says Martin-Vivier, and enamoured of the ‘metal furniture, new materials and simple, pure forms advocated by the great figures of the Union des Artistes Modernes, presided over by Robert Mallet-Stevens’. He was also influenced by the architect and designer Djo Bourgeois, who shared the modernists’ vision.
As a self-taught designer, however, Royère defended his freedom to create. ‘I’ll never be attached to one school or one theory,’ he said.
4. Royère experimented with materials ranging from raffia to ponyskin
Later, Royère would detach himself from functional aesthetics and the modern discourse to experiment with decoration and a wide range of materials, from raffia and rattan to ponyskin and zebrawood. Often, as in his Flaque straw marquetry coffee table of 1954 (below), it was the materials that provided the decoration.
5. Royère hid French Jews during the Second World War
Initially mobilised in the Second World War, Royère returned to work alongside Gouffé during the Nazi occupation, using his trade as a cover to hide French Jews and English pilots.
In 1942, he opened his own design studio in the 8th arrondissement, and in 1947, while redesigning an apartment for his mother on the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, he introduced the Boule — later nicknamed Ours polaire — sofa.
6. Royère had a sense of humour
The designs that followed — including his Hirondelle (Swallow) wall lamps, Oeuf (Egg) chairs and Flaque (Puddle) table — were similarly biomorphic and endearing.
His playful imagination found expression in his other designs, too, such as his ‘Yo Yo’ serving tables and Ski standing lamp.
7. Royère opened showrooms in the Middle East and South America
Royère had worked in Cairo before the war and in 1946, he opened a showroom there, followed by offices in Beirut and Tehran. In 1955, as the political situation in the Middle East deteriorated, he opened a gallery in Lima, followed by another, two years later, in São Paulo.
But the designer, who was a polyglot, also worked extensively in Europe. For downtime, he had a fisherman’s house in Saint-Tropez, a houseboat in the Forêt de Marly and a villa in Mallorca.
His travels proved a rich source of inspiration, as illustrated in an article, Travel notes from a French designer in Scandinavia, which he wrote for Le Décor d’aujourd’hui in 1949:
‘I saw living rooms in which ivy is wreathed several times around walls, zigzagging around the paintings and mirrors, and dining rooms where Virginia creeper tumbles down into chandeliers.’
8. Royère designed for royalty
Royère undertook more than 1,000 decoration projects during his career, many of them highly prestigious.
He designed interiors for Prince Faisal and King Saud of Saudi Arabia, furniture for King Hussein of Jordan and both for the Shah of Iran and his family, documenting his experiences in 1970 in a book, Harems et Pieds Dorés (Harems and Gilded Feet).
Other large-scale projects included the French Consulate in Alexandria, the Senate building in Tehran, and international hotels such as the Shepheard’s and Semiramis in Cairo and the Bristol in Beirut.
Back on his native soil in 1961, he designed the captain’s quarters of the ocean liner, SS France.
9. Royère grew to dislike ornamentation
By 1962, Royère’s vision was growing increasingly minimalist. He left the walls white, creating impact with a minimum of furniture in economical shapes and contrasting colours — a grass-green carpet, burnt-orange chairs, a black Formica and painted-zinc table.
‘I’m against furniture,’ he wrote a year later. ‘I think we should eliminate it as much as possible.’
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10. Royère’s devotees include Jennifer Aniston and Kanye West
Royère stopped designing in 1971 and in 1980, he moved to California to join his partner. A year later, he died in Pennsylvania, leaving his archives to the Museum of Decorative Arts (MAD) in Paris.
The market for his work went quiet for while, but since 1999, when the MAD staged a major exhibition of his work, and 2008, when Parisian gallerists Patrick Seguin and Jacques Lacoste organised a show at the Sonnabend Gallery in New York, Royère’s star has been in the ascendant again.
Today, he is as popular as his contemporaries Charlotte Perriand and Jean Prouvé, while his Polar Bear sofa is a favourite with the stars — Jennifer Aniston has one, and Kanye West once tweeted that it was his ‘favourite piece of furniture we own’.
In these less than carefree times, the combination of elegance, playfulness and comfort he offered might be just what we need. As Royère said, all he was trying to do was create a ‘harmonious spectacle to enchant the eye, rejoice the heart and elevate the spirit’.