Meredith Etherington-Smith on designer Jean-Michel Frank and pieces he created for a very special interior in Argentina, which sold for €1,174,625 in Paris
In pre-war Paris, the interior designer Jean-Michel Frank (1895-1941) was celebrated internationally as the apostle of Modernism. Nearly 100 years after his death, nothing has changed — as the Design sale on 19 November in Paris demonstrates.
Frank gathered around him a close circle of like-minded creators, including both Giacometti brothers, who sculpted lamps and wall lights; French painter Christian Bérard; Salvador Dali, who painted screens for him; and the Cuban-born artist, architect and interior and landscape designer Emilio Terry.
In the inter-war period, Paris was in party mode and themed fancy dress balls were the order of the day. Art, fashion money and society mingled to create a rich, glittering impasto of bright lights, elaborate costumes and fantasy masks. Jean-Michel Frank played a central part in this revelry, as did the young Picasso and Matisse.
During this time, Frank enjoyed the considerable patronage of well connected clients. These included members of the Rothschild family, wealthy South Americans such as the Lopez-Wilshaw family, the Comtesse de Noailles, the Guerlain and Hermes families, and the couturière Elsa Schiaparelli, for whom Frank designed a trend-setting interior for her house in the Place Vendôme in Paris.
For this scheme, the designer used monochrome leather, waxed parchment wall panelling, straw veneers and glazed plasters to create what one exponent of grande luxe modernism described as the ‘absolute silence of true luxury’. Many of Frank’s commissions survive in part today.
Frank’s most important project, however, was in Buenos Aires in Argentina. Between 1939 and 1941, Frank worked extensively on Born House, named after the family that had commissioned both the house and its interiors. Its rooms remain as they were when they were very first installed in place in 1940.
The project began back in Paris in 1939, where Frank was living and working at the time. He assembled the artefacts for the rooms; notably classically-inspired lamps from Alberto Giacometti, as well as bronze and alabaster wall lights — examples of which were in our Paris sale sale. Among the smaller treasures offered were an inkwell, a perfume box and vanity set.
Scale models perfect in every degree were made of the rooms being designed and decorated. These were then shipped to Buenos Aires as guidance of room layout and design, together with the finished artefacts to be placed in them, including lamps, tooled leathers from Hermes, and furniture.
In 1940, Frank fled occupied Paris and flew first to Brazil, then to Buenos Aires, where he worked with his friend and collaborator Ignacio Pirovano at COMTE, a decoration and cabinetmaking firm. Once Frank had settled in the Argentine capital, the decoration of Born House gathered pace. The rooms, which have remained unchanged nearly a century later, present the most complete vision of Frank’s pure aesthetic.