In 1924, the renowned artist and metalsmith, Edgar Brandt fulfilled a commission for the Cheney Brothers Textile company in New York. The Cheney brothers, originally of French origin, had prospered in the states with their silk manufacturing company and in that year, had signed a lease for the first four floors of the new Madison-Belmont building on 34th Street and Madison Avenue, a prime location even at that time. After viewing Brandt’s work in Paris, Henri Creange, the Cheney’s artistic director, hired the ferronnier for an ambitious project: Brandt was to design and decorate the exterior and interior of the building, including a showroom to display the company’s high-quality fabrics. The resulting showroom, lined with decorative grilles and fanciful wrought-iron trees draped with silk wares, revealed Brandt’s unique brand of whimsical practicality and was in fact his most prestigious American commission.
Edgar Brandt’s name is synonymous with the most exquisite Art Deco wrought–iron work and developed a true mastery of his chosen medium. While he was not the first to bring back wrought-iron as a medium of artistic importance at the turn of the 20th century–that being Emile Robert–he was outstandingly skilled at merging traditional hand-forging methods with technological advances. While he was already known for his superior iron work, his participation in the 1925 Paris Exposition des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes spread his reputation internationally.
Coming to America
America had declined to participate in the 1925 Exposition des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes on the grounds that there was no modern design to show for. The highly successful Exposition fostered a growing interest in modern design in the American media and the general public, and the unveiling of Brandt’s showroom for the Cheney Brothers was an important milestone. The showroom opened to wide acclaim, with Herbert Hoover, then secretary of commerce, leading an inauguration ceremony in which he praised the French for their recent exhibition in Paris and acknowledged Brandt as a master of decorative ironwork and a major contributor to American art and design. Exhibitions of modern design at department stores such as Macy’s became a new trend and were accompanied by an educational lecture series at the Museum of Metropolitan Art for their workers and sales people in order to improve the general public’s taste.
Edgar Brandt was fascinated by the technological advances made in America and particularly bythe auto industry in Detroit. Unlike many of his ferronnier peers, he appreciated technical innovation in the field of wrought-iron metalworking and viewed it as a new set of tools to achieve increasingly intricate and ambitious designs. Though well-versed in traditional methods of blacksmithing, Brandt was quick to embrace such revolutionary inventions as the oxyacetylene welding torch, power hammers and drilling machines. Others disdained the use of modern tools, feeling that they compromised a purist philosophy about ironwork or perhaps the nature of the material. However, these innovations allowed Brandt to compose elaborate works with a myriad of individual components and he was proclaimed “a great French craftsman whose productions are perfectly suited to the modern architectural forms” by the writer Paul Eisenbrey in 1924.
The “Tree” in Question
Hardly anything remains of the interiors that Brandt created for the Madison-Belmont Building, which also included entrance doors, window framing, grilles, gates and mirrors. The present tree sculpture is one of multiple display trees that were draped with bolts of silk, both ornamental and functional in use. Each of these trees was different: a palm tree, one with feather plumes, one with gilded birds and leaves, one with elaborate Egyptian fan flowers and leaves shaped like pea pod. While we have seen several examples of small, approximately 4-feet-tall trees, this is the first time that an almost seven feet tall tree is coming to the market, which makes it so special.