October 2009 | At the 1925 Exposition internationale des Arts décoratifs et Industriels modernes in Paris, the unquestioned star of the event was the furniture designer and ensemblier Émile Jacques Ruhlmann (1879–1933). Critics hailed his showcase pavilion—which he called the Hôtel du Collectionneur—as a masterwork, and as the design historian Alastair Duncan wrote decades later, “Had France of the 1920s been a monarchy, Ruhlmann would certainly have held the position of ébéniste [cabinetmaker] du roi.”1
As it was then, so it is today. Ruhlmann is unquestionably regarded as the greatest designer of his time; his furnishings frequently garner more than $1 million at auction and routinely fetch six-figure sums; and in 2001 he was the subject of the acclaimed traveling exhibition Ruhlmann: Genius of Art Deco that came to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. While coevals such as the design team of Marie Louis Suë (1875–1968) and André Mare (1885–1932) have also captured the interest of contemporary scholars and connoisseurs, such is Ruhlmann’s fame that he has cast a long shadow over designers who not only pioneered the style in which he worked, but also, ironically, almost certainly had a decisive influence on his own oeuvre—most notably Maurice Dufrêne (1876–1955) and Paul Follot (1877–1941).
Numerous misconceptions emanated from the grand Paris design show of 1925. First, the exposition was only halfheartedly “internationale.” Though the Soviet Union, Sweden, and Poland produced noteworthy exhibits, the British and Italian pavilions were widely mocked as bland, the Netherlands blocked participation by its most innovative designers (the adherents of De Stijl), the United States chose not to participate, and Germany, France’s chief rival for preeminence in the world of design, was, for political reasons, not invited until too late. The true raison d’être for the exposition, it was more or less tacitly understood, was to cast a spotlight on new French design.2
Then there is the problem of the term art deco, which was plucked from the official name of the exhibition. Scholars and collectors complain that art deco—which was coined and popularized in the late 1960s and early 1970s—is so inclusive a term as to be useless.3 “Art Deco is used to describe everything from the work of Ruhlmann and Dufrène et al., to American streamlined industrial design,” says Jared Goss, associate curator in the Department of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and one of the organizers of the Ruhlmann show there. “And what do those things have to do with each other?” The Philadelphia antiques dealer Gary Calderwood believes that art deco should only refer to French design, and takes particular exception to the phrase art deco style. As he explains, three distinct approaches to architecture and the decorative arts were at play concurrently in France in the early twentieth century: that of the “purists,” such as Ruhlmann, Dufrène, Follot, and Suë and Mare, who saw their work as a refinement grounded in classical French design; the spare, sleek furnishings and buildings of modernists such as Le Corbusier, Robert Mallet-Stevens, Pierre Chareau, and René Herbst; and, last, iconoclasts such as the Irish emigrée Eileen Gray, with her taste for Asian lacquer as well as the tubular steel construction beloved of high modernists, and Eugène Printz, who was comfortable with both stern geometries and ornamental flourishes. “Rather than ‘style,’ I try to teach my clients to refer to the art deco ‘period’,” Calderwood says.