French mid-century design: an introduction to the masters

France was a world leader in ‘the art of living’ in the mid-20th century. Here are nine of the pioneering designers who made it happen — illustrated with lots offered at Christie’s

Works by Noll, Royere and Prouve offered in Design on 23 May 2024 at Christie's in Paris

From left: Alexandre Noll (1890-1970), Tête, 1965. Gabon ebony. 35.5 x 14.5 x 14 cm; Jean Royère (1902-1981), a pair of eight-light ‘Persian’ wall lights, circa 1950 (one shown). Gilt metal, paper shades. 93 x 66 x 31 cm each. Sold for €126,000; Jean Prouvé (1901-1984), N. 356 ‘Antony’ light armchair, 1954. Painted folded steel sheet and beech plywood. 87 x 49 x 72 cm. Sold for €30,240. All offered on 23 May 2024 at Christie’s in Paris

Jacques Adnet (1900-1984)

Jacques Adnet pioneered his own brand of luxury Modernism, merging clean, geometric shapes with high-end materials, notably leather.

Jacques Adnet (1900-1984), Pair of side tables, circa 1950. Leather, brass. 16 x 12¾ x 12¾ in (40.6 x 32.4 x 32.4 cm). Sold for $6,875 on 9 December 2021 at Christie’s in New York

Initially known as one half of design duo J.J. Adnet together with his twin brother Jean, Adnet was elected director of the 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.

Pierre Chareau (1883-1950)

Pierre Chareau’s relatively short but highly influential career developed mainly between 1919 and the early 1930s. Intrinsically an architect, Chareau saw hardly any difference between the design of a building and that of a piece of furniture, save a question of scale. He saw space as a whole, to which furniture contributed. A planner above all, he conceived of an interior, in the words of Le Corbusier, as a ‘machine for living’.

Pierre Chareau (1883-1950), ‘SN 9’ table, circa 1930. Patinated wrought iron. 64.7 x 61.5 x 58.8 cm. Sold for €596,000 on 7 October 2021 at Christie’s in Paris

Chareau loved exotic woods — Macassar ebony, mahogany, rosewood, palm — and liked to play with the contrast of materials and colours, creating a dialogue between the warm tones of wood and forged metals such as iron or steel.

His first independent project was the interior design of the Paris apartment of Jean Dalsace and his wife Annie Bernheim in 1919. They would become his principal commissioning clients, entrusting him nine years later with the design and construction of another Paris house, the Maison de Verre, built between 1928 and 1932. Considered his masterpiece, the house remains a legendary testament to modernity and the originality of his ideas.

Georges Jouve (1910-1964)

Georges Jouve, one of the most important French ceramicists of the 20th century, had a background in sculpture, art history and theatre design. He encountered ceramics by chance, when hiding out during the Second World War in a potters’ village in the south of France. He became so inspired by traditional ceramic crafts and techniques that he opened his own studio in 1944, after his return to Paris.

Georges Jouve (1910-1964), A pair of ewers, circa 1947. Glazed ceramic. 38 x 24 x 28 cm each. Sold for €25,200 on 23 May 2024 at Christie’s in Paris

Jouve’s creations range from functional furniture to decorative household objects and abstract sculpture. He made individual objects such as pitchers, vases and bowls, and also incorporated ceramics into pieces made from other materials, for example in table tops, lamp bases and mirror frames. The designer favoured curved, organic shapes over the angular mass-produced aesthetic. His best-known pieces are in simple, bold colours — matte black, white, bright orange, yellow or red.

Le Corbusier (1887-1965)

Swiss-born architect and painter Charles-Edouard Jeanneret adopted the pseudonym Le Corbusier in 1920, three years after moving to Paris from his home town in north-west Switzerland. In 1922, he founded a studio with his cousin Pierre Jeanneret, later hiring designer Charlotte Perriand. Together, the trio championed industrial materials, mass production and new technology, with Le Corbusier at the helm.

Le Corbusier stopped creating ready-made furniture after 1929 to concentrate on architecture, although he continued to design pieces for his buildings. At his Cité Radieuse apartments in Marseille (1947-52), he designed all the furniture, carpets and lighting.

His furniture enjoyed renewed appreciation in 1958, when interior designer Heidi Weber convinced him to let her reproduce four of his early chairs. The run was a commercial success, and the start of an enduring friendship between Weber and Le Corbusier.

Serge Mouille (1922-1988)

Lighting designer Serge Mouille had a passion for metalwork from the age of 13, when he trained as a silversmith at the Ecole des Arts Appliqués in Paris. After the Second World War, he opened his own studio making metal chandeliers, handrails and wall sconces. It was not until almost a decade later, in 1953, that Mouille devoted himself to the design of lighting fixtures, after receiving a commission from designer Jacques Adnet to create a floor lamp for the Compagnie des Arts Français.

Serge Mouille (1922-1988), ‘Antony’ lamp, made for the Cité Universitaire d’Antony, circa 1955. Painted metal and aluminium, brass. 44 x 29 x 43 cm. Sold for €27,720 on 23 May 2024 at Christie's in Paris

The request sparked an interest in lighting design that lasted the rest of Mouille’s life. It was during this decade that he created his iconic series of minimalist black metal lamps — known collectively as the ‘Serie Noir’. From 1962 to 1964, he designed the short-lived ‘Totem’ series, considered among his rarest works. Thereafter, Mouille abandoned design to concentrate on his teaching career.

Alexandre Noll (1890-1970)

Sculptor Alexandre Noll worked almost exclusively in wood, and his creations often blurred the line between furniture and art. He first dabbled in the material through wood engravings in his twenties. In 1920, he left his job at a bank to pursue his craft, first creating small household objects and then larger pieces of furniture, eventually retailing his designs in 1943.

Alexandre Noll (1890-1970), Pitcher, circa 1945. Walnut. 24.5 x 20 x 16.5 cm. Sold for €16,380 on 23 May 2024 at Christie’s in Paris

While many of his contemporaries were embracing new industrial techniques and mass production, Noll personally selected his materials and handmade each unique piece. His favourite types of wood included ebony, beech, sycamore and pear.

As a designer, Noll paid little attention to trends, preferring to let the material guide his work — as his daughter Odile once said, ‘It was the shape of the wood that inspired him.’ Collectors of Noll’s work include the couturier Wolfgang Joop, as well as institutions such as the Musée Nationale d’Art Moderne in Paris.

Charlotte Perriand (1903-1999)

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. Focused on developing 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 had 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 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.

Jean Prouvé (1901-1984)

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. He founded his own workshop in 1924, at the age of 23, and established his factory in 1947.

Jean Prouvé (1901-1984), ‘S.A.M. Tropique N. 503’ table, 1951. ‘Rouge Corsaire’ painted folded aluminium sheet and painted folded steel sheet. 72 x 190 x 90 cm. Sold for €189,000 on 23 May 2024 at Christie's in Paris

Prouvé’s designs were notable for their revolutionary approach to materials, drawing upon industrial technology without compromising on aesthetics. Classic pieces include works in lightweight, folded sheet metal — such as a 1950s aluminium wardrobe originally created for hospitals and sanatoriums, balancing the needs of hygiene, strength and security with a sleek, modern style. Prouvé is also known for his chairs with triangular back legs, constructed to bear the greatest portion of their user’s weight.

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Jean Royère (1902-1981)

From 1931 to 1972, Jean Royère was one of the leading figures of French design. Countering the prevailing strict lines of the period with whimsy and colour, he developed a new and daring decorative grammar that emphasised sensuality and imagination over tradition.

Jean Royère (1902-1981), Four-light ‘Ondulation’ wall light, circa 1948. 18.5 x 187 x 28 cm with lampshades. Sold for €170,100 on 23 May 2024 at Christie's in Paris

In 1947, Royère designed a coffee table for his mother’s Paris apartment. The first of the biomorphic pieces for which he would become famous, the Flaque design evolved over time. While early versions featured opaline and marble tops supported by perforated shield-shaped legs, Royère exhibited a more mature example of the model at the Salon des Artistes Décorateurs in 1954, sheathed in straw marquetry with inlaid stars.

Today the table has become a signature piece in Royère’s oeuvre, and his fresh design aesthetic continues to captivate.

Christie’s Design season opens in Paris, with viewing until 23 May 2024 before the auction on 23 May. The New York sale takes place on 7 June, with a pre-sale view from 1 to 7 June

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