A defining moment in Modern design: the collection of the Maison de Verre

The collection of Annie and Jean Dalsace showcases the influential work of French architect and furniture designer, Pierre Chareau

Pierre Chareau, the Modern architect who worked during the first half of the 20th century, is perhaps best known for his legendary Maison de Verre. Built between 1928 and 1932, it was the first house to be built in France from glass and steel, and it would go on to influence architects such as Richard Rogers, Jean Nouvel and many more. The collections that were housed in the Maison de Verre for almost a century will appear at auction at Christie’s Paris on 3 October.

The house was commissioned by Annie and Jean Dalsace to be their home. The Dalsaces were connected to Chareau through a friendship between Annie and Chareau’s wife Louise Dorothy Dyte, known as Dollie.

Marc Vellay, the Dalsaces’ grandson tells the story: ‘Dollie had come to France after the death of her father. She met Chareau and married him in 1904. Shortly after that, she became Annie’s tutor and a friendship blossomed.’ These two women remained close friends and, as Vellay says, ‘shared many tastes for the music, painting and literature of their time.’

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The glass-and-steel exterior of Maison de Verre. Photo: © François Halard

The commission extended beyond the legendary Maison de Verre to include the collection of furniture within it. While this house became the foundation of Chareau’s reputation, he had a parallel career designing furniture.

Having failed to get into the École des Beaux Arts on his first attempt, he became an apprentice at a Paris-based British furniture company. He would go on to become their head designer. As Vellay says, ‘this gave him an understanding of the French cabinet-making tradition and the comfort of British furniture.’

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Pierre Chareau. Photo: © Archives Vellay-Dalsace

In the 1920s, Chareau spent a large part of his career designing furniture, even opening two boutiques in Paris — one that sold cushions and textiles and the other that sold furniture and lighting. Jean Dalsace had commissioned Chareau to design furniture for their previous apartment on Boulevard Saint-Germain. Chareau had also designed furniture for Villeflix, Annie’s parents’ country house in Noisy-le-Sec.

His work as a furniture designer is now represented in collections in museums around the world, from the US to Germany to Japan. Chareau’s work was celebrated in a retrospective at the Centre Pompidou in Paris in 1993-94, and in 2016, the Jewish Museum in New York dedicated an exhibition to him.

Pierre Chareau (1883-1950), Table de jeu mouchoir ‘MB 241a’, vers 1926. Walnut, brass, felt and partly gilt leather. Extended: 26⅜ x 57 x 41 in (67 x 145 x 104 cm). Folded: 27⅛ x 57 x 26⅝ in (69 x 145 x 52.5 cm). Estimate: €80,000-120,000. Offered in Annie et Jean Dalsace, Les collections de la Maison de Verre on 7 October 2021 at Christie’s in Paris

Among the works in this collection is a selection of armchairs, chairs, stools and desks, which includes the wood-and-metal desk ‘MB405’ and the typist desk, a piece designed uniquely for the Dalsaces in metal with leather upholstery. Some of Chareau’s best-known pieces, such as the ‘Mouchoir’ game table and the three variations of the ‘MB106’ table (four-, three- and two-element pedestal tables), are on offer. The ‘SN39’ coat rack, designed specifically for the Maison de Verre, is included in the auction, too.

The Dalsaces’ interest went beyond the Modern decorative arts to include what Vellay calls a ‘notable penchant for the architectural forms of Cubism and, in particular, for the papier collés of Picasso and Braque’. This can be seen in works such as Georges Braque’s Nature morte au verre  and Picasso’s Nature morte à la guitare.

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Annie and Jean Dalsace. Photo: © Archives Vellay-Dalsace

Not only did they collect this work, but they became friends with the art dealers who understood and launched this generation of Modernist artists in Paris, such as Jeanne Bucher and the artist Jean Lurçat. The collection reflects the Dalsaces’ interest in painting, sculpture, literature, cinema and photography. It is wide-reaching in both taste and medium. But, says Vellay, ‘if there is eclecticism, there is also a common thread during this inter-war period: friendship and the art of living.’

Annie et Jean Dalsace, Les collections de la Maison de Verre  represents both the extraordinary work of a couple who understood a defining moment in Modern design from the inside, as well as the epitome of Chareau’s work in furniture and architecture.

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