Armand Albert Rateau was one of France’s greatest Art Deco designers, creating everything from furniture to theatre interiors. Meredith Etherington-Smith
takes a closer look at some of the wonderful pieces he created for his friend, the legendary couturier Jeanne Lanvin, being offered in Paris on 16 May
Armand Albert Rateau was, according to Sonja Ganne, Christie’s International Head of 20th Century Decorative Arts, ‘a very singular personality, with a deep artistic sensibility. He was passionate about art and curious about all civilisations, and he developed an aesthetic that was, and remains, unique.’
According to American Architectural Digest, Rateau was ‘one of the most exclusive designers of the 1920s’. His work ranges from the bronze furniture inspired by classical antiquity, which made his name, to the Arpège scent bottle he designed for his client and eventual employer, the couturier Jeanne Lanvin.
‘Rateau invites us on a journey into a dreamlike antiquity, using bronze as well as delicately carved wood,’ says Sonja Ganne. ‘He had a preference for a noble and simple material such as oak, and he created sophisticated and extremely refined pieces of furniture, lighting, and objects in beautifully sculptural designs.’
In 1914 Rateau travelled with a group of friends, including Henri Cartier, the jewellery designer, to the sites of 18th-century archaeological excavations in Pompeii. There he saw the frescos that had been unearthed, and also visited the Naples museum, where he discovered examples of ancient bronze furniture.
This was where he acquired the lifelong taste for classical antiquity that would make his name in the 1920s. As a designer-decorator of bronze and carved wooden furniture, his list of increasingly important international clients included the Duke and Duchess of Alba, and Cole and Linda Porter. His first important American commission was for the swimming pool of George and Florence Meyer Blumenthal.
The couturier Jeanne Lanvin was one of Rateau’s most important clients. They met through the couturier Paul Poiret in the early 1920s. ‘These two remarkable, strong and independent figures of the time started a regular collaboration from 1921, when Jeanne Lanvin established her Lanvin Decoration department, headed by Rateau,’ Ganne explains.
Both Rateau and Lanvin shared a deep understanding of classic style, which they transformed into the modern language of the time. They collaborated on prestigious commissions such as the Daunou theatre in Paris, inaugurated in 1921, the interior decoration and furnishings of Lanvin’s villa in Le Vesinet, near Paris, and her townhouse in rue Barbet de Jouy. Furnishings from this scheme were shown alongside the Pavillion de l’Elegance at the 1925 Paris International Exhibition.
Rateau designed the entire contents of Lanvin’s apartment in the rue Barbet de Jouy, much of which is now in the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, donated by her son-in-law, Prince Louis de Polignac. Her carved oak desk and chair are offered in this sale on 16 May, and show Rateau’s continued devotion to classical antiquity and to Egyptian-based design.
The bronze lectern in the sale, also designed for Jeanne Lanvin, is an equally rare piece and is sure to inspire great interest among international collectors, as are Rateau’s alabaster and bronze table lamps supported by fennec foxes, resonant of the designer’s abiding interest in Ancient Egypt.
The collection offered in An Educated Eye, Chefs-d’oeuvre d’une Collection Privée Suisse, in Paris on 16 May, includes 12 pieces designed by Rateau, as well as furnishings by Peter Marino and notable pieces by Eugène Printz. All of the lots in the sale can be viewed below.