French designers who rewrote the rule book
From Prouvé to Perriand, Lalanne to Leleu and more, a quick guide to the leading figures of French interior design of the 20th century, illustrated with covetable pieces coming up for auction in New York on 20 June, and others previously sold by Christie’s
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.
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.
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. His first private commission was a sculptural bar for the home of fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Bergé.
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 has been cited as an inspiration by restaurateur Michael Chow and fashion designer Rick Owens.
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’. Style-conscious Americans became avid collectors of Jules Leleu’s work, with notable clients including the wife of President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
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.
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 a building’s design and the design 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 as a ‘machine for living’.
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 in 1919 of the Paris apartment of Jean Dalsace and his wife Annie Bernheim. 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 (1928-1932). Considered his masterpiece, the house remains a legendary testament to modernity and the originality of his ideas.
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.
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 celestial stars. Today the table has become a signature piece in Royère’s oeuvre, and his fresh design aesthetic continues to captivate.