A TRULY MODERN CHAIR
In 1895, Ferdinand-Raphaël Bischoffsheim, owner of one of the largest banks in Europe, commissioned architect Ernest Sanson (1836-1918), creator of the famous Palais Rose, to build a mansion in the 16th arrondissement of Paris. Located at the corner of the Place des Etats-Unis and the rue de l'Amiral D'Estaing, the building was originally intended to house an art collection of the stature of those in the Carmondo, Jacquemart-André, or Rothschild families. Assembled with the help of the famous dealers Duveen, Seligman and Goupil, the collection notably included works by Fra Bartolomeo, Montagna, Martini, Rembrandt, Le Lorrain, Rubens, Goya, Van Dyck, Constable, Delacroix and even Burnes-Jones and Gustave Moreau. In 1925 the mansion passed to Marie-Laure Bischoffsheim, the banker's granddaughter, who had recently married viscount Charles de Noailles.
When she inherited these masterpieces, Marie-Laure probably did not have in mind that her grandfather's collections would be complemented by other masterpieces, this time from the twentieth century. Nor did she plan that the rooms created by her grandfather should in due course go down in history as the scene for some of the most memorable events in the story of the Parisian avant-garde: from the Bal des Matières which would bring together all the artists, intellectuals, and society figures of Paris, to the screening of Luis Bunuel's L'Age d'Or, which caused such a furor within the couple's lofty milieu. Balthus, Bérard, Chagall, de Chirico, Dalí, Ernst, Giacometti, Gris, Klee, Masson, Mirò, Mondrian, and Picasso were to be regular visitors at the salons at the Place des Etats-Unis and each would embrace the opportunity to see one of their canvasses in the company of the great Rembrandts and Goyas.
Before the mansion became a Mecca for the Parisian intelligentsia, Charles and Marie-Laure de Noailles had decided to decorate a few rooms in a contemporary style where they could escape the forceful presence of the inherited collection. The couple had commissioned modernist architect Robert Mallet-Stevens to construct a villa at Clos Saint Bernard, at Hyères; they turned to Jean-Michel Frank - widely talked about at the time for the radical nature of his decors - to redesign a salon, smoking room, antechamber and the summerhouse in the small garden. Our decorator had no place for the grandiloquent and pompous decorations of the mansion. In this site infused with history, Frank wiped the slate clean and imposed his aesthetic of emptiness and reduction. Here as elsewhere, not awed by the magnificence of the building, this 'dictator of taste' delivered his implacable vision of modernity. His style was wilfully monastic, ascetic, as Mauriac would define it.
At the Place des Etats-Unis, Frank stripped the walls of their ostentatious mouldings, heavy marble panels and pompous crimson velvet curtains. The paintings and the family furniture were, with few exceptions, put into storage. To definitively break all ties with the mansion's architecture, he created plain wall panels covered in straw or parchment. The effect was of a large, empty, muted box into which Frank then installed the furnishings. No element hinted at the fabulous family collections, or even the high social status of the clients. In these 'abandoned' rooms there now reigned a sense of the fleeting, of emptiness, a feeling of absence. In the summerhouse in the garden, Frank did not even install panelling, preferring to leave the off-white effect of the plaster of the walls. Just two large terracotta screens added a touch of warmth to the atmosphere of the room and sheltered the dining furniture. Two lights by Henri Laurens fixed to the back wall were not enough to light the room, so Frank installed car headlights, concealed behind the two terracotta screens. Seemingly isolated in the centre, on a grey granite floor, were the large table with its thick slate top, the sofa, and the pair of here offered wrought-iron and leather armchairs.
Frank approached the design of the furniture with the same spirit that he had brought to the settings. He deconstructed their form and reduced it to its simplest expression. The seat frame of the chairs no more than a metal skeleton to which plain foal skin is attached simply with leather thongs. Rather than minimalism as such, Frank sought to return to the most basic notion of seating. With these pieces, whose primitivist simplicity is so engaging, Frank invented his own expression of the archaic - at once imaginative and playful - that was to be seen again some years later in the plaster lamps of Alberto Giacometti. This is the aesthetic that the de Noailles sought when they called on Frank. They found in him a decorator whose ultimate objective was to avoid adding any statement. It was surely Pierre Drieu La Rochelle, Jean-Michel Frank's first client, who best managed to define the creator's vision through the contrast of a chair in a historical style, a supposedly modern seat, and another truly modern design that reveals so clearly the touch of the master: 'On the one hand: the fake reinterpretation of the historical; a gesture that has no life. A Louis XV chair in which the line strives to be perfect, replicating the touch of an artist who died two centuries ago. But the copyist, while he may try to follow his model to the letter, fails to catch the spirit of the idea and is incapable of achieving the objective of his servile task, making only ineffectual tracings that cannot replicate the elusive delicacy. A modern chair: here someone is scared of seeming old; someone has not allowed their hand any freedom, a certain stiffness of line showing the inhibiting effect of the concern to react against the pressure of tradition. And here a truly modern chair: the line is now just a line drawn with a ruler; one is resigned to no longer striving for effect. Exhausted by several centuries of creation, the line falls asleep in an atmosphere of awakening primitivism; it rediscovers its innocence. Everything is abolished, even intentions.'
cf. P.-E. Martin-Vivier, Jean-Michel Frank The Strange and Subtle Luxury of the Parisian Haute-Monde in the Art Deco Period, New York, 2008, pp. 124, 125, 204, 301.
L.D. Sanchez, Jean-Michel Frank, Paris, 1997, p. 116, pp. 220-221 for illustrations of this model.
This chair is accompanied by a certificate from the Comité Jean-Michel Frank.