Saturday, February 15, 2014

A World of Art Deco

The suburb of Boulogne-Billancourt lies just beyond the western edge of the city of Paris, two Metro stops after Porte de St. Cloud on the #9 line. Reportedly one of the wealthiest communes of Paris, it is also known as the birthplace of three major French industries:  the cinema (think Abel Gance), the automobile (Renault cars), and aviation. The Voisin brothers created the first commercial aircraft factory in the world here, in 1905.

Today, as you come up from the Metro and walk towards City Hall, you soon begin to notice some interesting architecture, like this enormous post office, designed by Charles Giroud and completed in 1939.  It reminds me of a giant transatlantic ocean liner!

 Or City Hall itself, built in 1934 by Tony Garnier. The curvy building in the background is the Police Department.

I love its swoopy lines!

As your eyes feast on all these striking public buildings from the 1930s, it is no great surprise that amidst them stands the Espace Landowski, (named for the Polish-French sculptor Paul Landowski, who lived in Boulogne-Billancourt) which houses Le Musée des Années 30. Here, the fine arts, the decorative arts, furnishings and industrial arts of the 1920s and 1930s are on full court display.

 Inside, on the ground floor, the sculpture hall is dominated by this striking piece by twins Jean and Joël Martel (1896 to 1966). Born in Nantes, they worked together in the same atelier and died within six months of each other. This piece, called "Trinité", stands at least ten feet tall. It took me a few minutes to "read" it: the woman, with long hair, holding up her baby in her arms, with the head of the father (or is it God?) anchoring the top and back of the work. It was presented at the first exhibition of the Union des Arts Modernes, in 1930.

Stepping out of the elevator on the upstairs level, you find yourself walking right into the world of Art Deco -- furniture, rugs, paintings, sculpture, pottery, lamps. It really took your breath away.

As well as furnishings and decorative arts, there are also a few architectural models to admire, like this one that features three private homes at 4, 6, and 8 rue Denfert Rochereau in Boulogne-Billancourt, designed by (at left) Robert Mallet Stevens, (in centre) Le Corbusier, and (at right) Louis-Raymond Fischer. I love how they each brought their own particular style to each section, and yet were able to harmonize them into one beautiful modern whole.

Meanwhile, all around are breathtaking examples of design and style from the 1930s, and the 1920s, like these beautiful stained glass windows...

and this stunning sideboard, built from Macassar ebony, by Jacques-Emile Ruhlman in 1923.

The ivory inlay was done by Maurice  Picaud.
The perfect Art Deco design!

This charming secretary desk, designed by Jules Leleu, dates to 1938 and is also made from Macassar ebony, clearly a popular material at the time.

Along with furniture, many really beautiful paintings give a flavor of the times, like this one by Henri Martin from 1932, a study for his La vie au Luxembourg, which forms a series of panels in the stairwell of the Mairie du 5e arrondissement in Paris.

Here, Jean -Gabriel Domergue's La femme au miroir, from 1930, features the model, Simone Gandera-Deval, wearing a dramatic and pretty revealing evening dress. In spite of the plunging back line and the fact that she seems to be holding up the front, she manages quite a demure demeanor in her facial expression!

I also loved this 1932 portrait by Jaro Hilbert of his wife, the pianist Sharkho Joffé. Compared to the previous painting, her demeanor and wardrobe give an impression of a woman not to be trifled with!

And then there is this row of dining room chairs, from the Boulogne-Billancourt home of the famous 20th century art dealer, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler. The seat design is by cubist painter, Juan Gris, and the needlepoint work was executed by Kahnweiler's wife, Lucie. I think I'd be afraid to sit on them, no wonder they are in this museum!

One whole wall on this floor is devoted to industrial design from the 1920s and 1930s, wonderful early toasters, telephones and pressure cookers.

But what really caught my eye was this Alfonso Bialetti espresso pot from 1933, unchanged in size and design to the very one I have in my kitchen today!

Another section features silverware designed by Christofle, the most important silverware manufacturer during this period. Beautiful gems, like this little coffee pot...

...and this sundial clock, so pretty!

On the day I visited Le Musée des Années 30, there was also a big exhibition, celebrating the history of aviation in Boulogne-Billancourt. So I went up to the top floor to check it out.

Here, posters and models traced the earliest forms of aviation transportation from dirigibles... the first bi-planes... promotional posters advertising pioneer aircraft, like this Caudron Renault...

...even a newspaper reporting that you could fly from France to Japan in a mere three days. Imagine!

Meanwhile, Paris itself is not short of some striking Art Deco landmarks, not least of which is the Rex Theatre, which commands an imposing presence on the Grands Boulevards, not far from our flat.

The main auditorium features a starry ceiling, and, with 2800 seats, it is the largest cinema in Europe. Designed by Auguste Bluysen for the film producer, Jacques Haïk, Le Rex opened its doors in December, 1932. Since then, it has been host to endless film premières and special events, live concerts and film festivals. 

With a group of women, I had booked to take a behind-the-scenes tour of Le Rex, but missed the meeting spot and the group left without me. The madame at the guichet very kindly let me go on my own at the next time slot. It's a self-guiding tour, and I have to admit it was a bit creepy being completely alone. It's like a Universal Studios tour, everything is timed, doors open, doors close, elevators go up or down, or maybe they don't actually move and instead, it's the walls that are moving! 

At any rate, game girl that I am, I followed the arrows and disembodied voice instructions, and found myself passing through darkened rooms that lit up suddenly with images of earlier days...

 ...tables where the film was spliced, synced, repaired...
...old-fashioned projector booths with those giant machines that today are being supplanted by sleek digital boxes.

Here, I was suddenly not alone any more -- Jessica from Who Framed Roger Rabbit unexpectedly appeared on the wall and accompanied me through the various dubbing and special effects rooms.

She left abruptly, though, when in the final room, a menacing Clint Eastwood appeared, glared up at a window...

...and saw me looking down, laughing at him! Uh-oh, maybe time to get out of here...

...and step outside into the real world again, leaving behind the world of make-believe and the elegant era of Art Deco.

À bientôt!


  1. Janet,

    FABULOUS post! It will the first thing I'll visit when I get to Paris. Will you go back with me?


  2. Looks fantastic, Loved the ktchens, windows and needelpoint Chairs, and that's before the cinema.
    When are you in paris AM?

  3. Looks amazing so want that art deco window!!!!

  4. oooh, scary in the Rex! In that architectural model of the 3 houses, the roof looked slanty left to-right; I trust the floors were level....