Discover why this leading Art Deco designer is regarded as one of the most innovative artists in non-precious metals, lacquer, and more
Much like his talent, Jean Dunand’s fame knows no bounds. Works by Dunand, who is widely considered one of the Art Deco era’s preeminent artists and designers, graced the homes of top aesthetes during his day, and his vases, screens, and other designs remain popular fixtures in esteemed collections today. Given his extraordinary eye and hand, Dunand was also selected for numerous public commissions, including world’s fairs.
‘What makes Dunand so special is the refinement of his technique. His iconography is very much in line with the 1920s — it’s geometric and graphic but with very modern and pure lines,’ says Daphné Riou, Head of Christie’s Design Department in New York, on what makes the Swiss-born French artists’ creations so timeless. ‘The shapes are so simple, yet so chic, so they go really well with contemporary art and give a sophisticated touch to any interior.’
Below, discover the many materials Dunand mastered throughout his career, the synergies between his work and Asian art, as well as the artistic movements of his time.
The range of his creations was extremely wide
As the son of a goldsmith who was later trained as a sculptor, Dunand worked across categories while constantly elevating his skill set. From dresses and belt buckles to tables and armoires, the pieces he produced were all exquisitely crafted, but it was his vases and screens that were his most sought after then and now. On several occasions, Dunand was commissioned to design entire rooms full of his panels for both private residences and commercial spaces. In 1925-26, at the height of his career, for example, he created a music room for Mr. and Mrs. Solomon Guggenheim.
He was a pioneer of dinanderie
Early on, Dunand developed a fascination with metals, and prior to the First World War, he became the most brilliant dinandier, or worker in non-precious metals, of his era. The unique finish of his metal vessels resulted from extensive research into and experimentation with patination. Dinanderie was a technique of creating a structure by applying single sheets of metal and then delicately hammering other metals atop for further decoration. Dunand, and Claudius Linossier a decade later, were considered the masters of this technique.
Seizo Sugawara taught him lacquerwork
Born in Johoji, Japan and trained as a lacquerer, Seizo Sugawara came to Paris to curate the lacquerware displayed in the Japanese exhibition at the 1900 Exposition Universelle. He decided to remain in Paris and hoped to make a living teaching the skills of his profession. Around 1908, Eileen Gray became Sugawara’s first prominent student, and she introduced her instructor to Dunand. In 1912, the two men came to an agreement: Sugawara would teach Dunand the secrets of lacquering metal, and Dunand would give Sugawara classes in dinanderie.
Sugawara gave Dunand 13 lessons over two months and the latter’s almost immediate expertise with the medium was absolutely remarkable. In short order, Dunand became one of the first western artists to master urushi, which is the Japanese word for both the sap used to make the lacquer and the finished object itself. Dunand continued to experiment and opened a lacquer studio in his workshop shortly after World War I. Today Dunand’s lacquer works remain among his most desirable pieces.
Eggshell became a signature material
Dunand was the first to introduce the use of crushed eggshell as a decorative element, and it soon became a signature specialty of his workshop. The process entailed delicately transferring individual pieces of broken eggshell onto lacquer into bold, geometric, inlaid motifs. While the background lacquer was often black for the most striking visual effect, additional layers of clear lacquer helped protect the designs. His objects, whether vases or tabletops, combining coquille d’oeuf and lacquer became so popular, Dunand maintained a chicken coop in the courtyard of his workshop to help meet the demand.
He was aligned with the artists of his day
In the 1920s, Jean Dunand was exhibited at the legendary Galerie Georges Petit, known for its championing of French Impressionism and later artists, including Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso. ‘The decoration of Dunand’s vases often has a geometric look to it that is somewhere between Futurism and Cubism,’ says Riou. ‘You can tell he was looking at the art of his time and breaking away from the freed lines of the beginning of the century to create something much more modern and graphic.’
Dunand frequently collaborated with other Art Deco makers, such as Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann, Armand-Albert Rateau, and Pierre Legrain, and decorated their pieces with his metal or lacquerwork. In June 2019, Christie’s New York sold a circa 1937 cabinet designed by Dunand and master furniture designer Eugène Printz. Selling for $5.5 million against an estimate of $300,000-500,000, the work established world auction records for both Dunand and Printz. The absence of any detailing on the piece’s structure is counterpointed by the paneled façade’s geometric patterning, the metal leaves angled, suggesting the folds of a screen.
1925 was as important of a year for Art Deco as it was for Dunand
From April to October 1925, the International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts took place in Paris. One of the best-known exhibits was a proposal for the French Embassy interior, for which Dunand designed a smoking room entirely adorned with lacquered panels. Dunand was also appointed Vice President of the ‘Metal’ section for the fair and was commissioned to create four monumental vases to decorate the courtyard of the Pavillon des Métiers d'Art. Two of these vases later entered the collection of Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé.
He was a key contributor to the SS Normandie
Launched in 1932 and entering service in 1935, the SS Normandie was a luxurious transatlantic ocean liner that represented the very best in French Art Deco design. Its exuberant construction, which saw unique commissions from René Lalique and Jean Dupas, among other leading artists and designers, was justified as the 1930s patriotic parallel to the 1925 International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts. Dunand was commissioned to design the ship’s first-class smoking room, which included 18 panels in gold and colour lacquer depicting La Conquête du cheval, meaning, the conquest of the horse.
Like his materialistic choices, his themes, too, varied
As illustrated by his designs for the SS Normandie, the conquest of the horse was a recurring subject in Dunand’s œuvre, and one that was largely derived from its frequent depictions in Asian art. Dunand was interested in conveying movement and layers of perspective through the display of multiple horses, though other animals, as well as stylised flora, appeared in his designs. While many times his motifs and imagery were more abstract and geometric, he did occasionally feature elegant female forms and even specific portraits, most notably of dancer Josephine Baker.