On Feb. 28, 1928, a short announcement appeared in The New York Times whose first sentence read: “More than three thousand invitations have been accepted by prominent New Yorkers to attend a private viewing of the exposition of modern French decorative art at Lord & Taylors, which will be held at 9 o’clock this evening.” Americans, like the haute-bourgeoisie of Paris, were curious about the new combinations and constructions of materials that promised to make homes and furniture as much a part of the 20th century as “motor cars and airplanes.” My Jewish grandmother in the Chicago area would have delighted at the offerings. For her, old houses and their furnishings represented death, illness, suffering, exclusion, and anti-Semitism. Modern spaces and objects, on the other hand, were an uncluttered, clean slate. I thought of this as I walked through the Jewish Museum’s current exhibit on the French designer and architect Pierre Chareau. Like many of his Jewish clients, she would have loved the streamlined forms of his burled walnut cabinet or alabaster vases—the right height for calla lilies and birds of paradise.
Little is known about Chareau’s early years beyond some simple facts. He was born in 1883 in Bordeaux, where his father was a wine merchant whose business failed. His mother came from an assimilated Sephardic family. Chareau was raised Catholic but, like most acculturated French Jews living in the period of the Dreyfus scandal, his social circle was Jewish. He met his wife Louise (Dollie) Dyte when he was 16 and she was 19. Dollie, also from a Sephardic family, was born in England; they married when Chareau was 21. In 1941, Anaïs Nin, who was their neighbor in Louveciennes, where they kept a country house, records Dollie’s brittle summation of her husband: “And he is helpless in life.” You can see this in the nuanced, hazy photograph at the entrance to the belated but superb exhibit: a portrait of a sensitive, thoughtful, unhandsome man, with self-doubt lingering across his eyes.
Although Chareau didn’t pass the entrance exam for École des Beaux-Arts, he worked for 15 years as a draftsman at a British furniture firm with offices in France, designing period pieces and cabinets for luxury ships, hotels, and department stores. In 1914, he went into the French military and in 1919, after discharge at age 36, he started his own firm as an ensemblier, who put together every aspect of interior design, from carpet to dramatic fan-shaped or vaulted ceilings. Something of an impresario, his optimistic business card was stamped with a whimsically cubistic bowl of grapes flying over Parisian roofs and treetops.
Chareau anchored the living spaces he designed with his furniture pieces, such as his hexagonal armchair or high-backed upholstered chauffeuse. His first customers were Annie Bernheim Dalsace, a student of Dollie’s and the daughter of Edmond Bernheim who had made a small fortune in real estate, and her husband, Jean Dalsace, a physician and intellectual, a Marxist, lay-analyst, proponent of women’s reproductive rights, and eventually a member of the Resistance. The young couple became Chareau’s most important clients and the two couples, four assimilated Jews, were the dearest of friends.
The ghosts of those four friends, or something like them—the older Chareaus and the younger Dalsaces, smoking, reading the paper, preparing a meal, getting ready for bed—are represented in the first wide corridor of the exhibit, ingeniously designed for the museum by the architectural firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro. Projected videos of silhouetted and silent actors in Chareau-like interiors are made to look like memories cast upon a series of floor-to-ceiling scrims. Then, further, Chareau’s actual furniture appears on shallow platforms, in deep shadow so the sleek contours can be traced against the walls. In another room, virtual-reality goggles installed beside four groupings of Chareau furniture pieces provide visitors with a vision of the objects in their original living spaces as they’re reconstructed from archival photographs. The technology allows you to see the furniture in sharp, three-dimensional clarity in the environment it was designed for, with all of the detail (down to the plants in the garden) that surrounded it 85 years ago; then, removing the glasses, to go back to seeing the real painted metal rattan chair, once ultramodern and now antique. The effect of these design pyrotechnics is stunning because they highlight the way objects we live with have lives of their own. Inadvertently they may be witnesses or survivors to our history, but they go on to have their own fates, often separate from ours. They pass hands and survive in one space or another. In their own rhythms, they show the marks of time.
Chareau’s work demonstrates a lot of solid geometry, his nesting telephone tables, for instance, cut into surrounding space like the painted tabletops in cubist still lifes. But his interests actually veered more in the direction of Leger’s surrealist film Ballet Mécanique with its ball bearings, throbbing geometry, and cranking, whirring factory parts; he had the mind of an inventor and was especially enthusiastic about moving parts. Pie-shaped segments of his wrought-iron propeller table can be pulled out and spread around to make a traylike surface supporting a stack of books. (When the larger table area isn’t needed, the propeller pieces are tucked away to draw the furniture closer to a sofa.) Unlike some of his contemporaries, Chareau wasn’t punctilious about measurement or proportionality. Although he designed sets for movies like the melodrama L’Inhumaine by Marcel L’Herbier, he wasn’t enamored with luxury. His basic objects are simple and sturdy, the way hotel furniture is built to sustain wear. The backless curule stool with rounded seat, or the tulip bed, a daybed with a curved frame, are in scale with one another and can be used together or placed in different configurations with different Chareau pieces in other rooms or situations. He often experimented with materials, combining textures, even adding wrought-iron with the help of his friend and architectural partner, ironsmith Louis Dalbet. Perhaps his most original and beautiful contribution as a designer comes from the smoky yellow illumination cast by his light fixtures with alabaster shades, everything fixed in place with patinated metal like jewelry settings. Even today, his cone-shaped lamp—known as La Religieuse because the triangle pieces resemble a nun’s cornette—seems both futuristic and shamanistic.
Like many of his colleagues, Chareau bought modern art for himself and his customers and a portion of his collection—pieces by Modigliani, Mondrian, Picasso, Leger, Lipchutz, Chana Orloff, Max Ernst, and, later on, Robert Motherwell—has been reunited for the exhibition. Parisian art of the 1910s and ’20s fit especially well within the grid lines of Chareau rooms. He had a connoisseur’s eye: The Picasso he owned, Glass and Bottle of Bass, for instance, is a monument to what can be done on a tabletop with oil, gouache, graphite, sawdust, and newspaper. The museum vitrines are filled with documents of what the catalog calls “a life interrupted,” (that is, a life lived in the bracketed space between Dreyfus and Vichy). So you see souvenirs from his shops, drawings, watercolors, pochoir (or stencil-based) prints, stills from film interiors, and photographs of the very few buildings he created, which include the Maison de Verre and the house he designed for Motherwell after the war in East Hampton (sadly, demolished in 1985). Both are considered to have been visionary and both incorporate elements from luxury trains, cruise ships, as well as factories.
The Glass House, Chareau’s signature work, was commissioned by Annie and Jean Dalsace in 1927 and completed in 1932. The history of the building says a lot about obstacles and obstinacy. When Annie’s parents purchased an 18th-century Parisian house as a gift for their daughter and son-in-law, they assumed the old building, which almost filled a cobblestone courtyard, would be torn down and new construction, a modern building, would go up. But the upper-story tenant refused to move, and Chareau invented a house with steel posts and beams inserted into the cavity of the lower three floors without disturbing the upper apartment. In this way, a modern house was literally built inside an older structure that carried along the story of its past—very much a story about imagination and the gift of friendship.
In order to execute all of his ideas, Chareau brought in the Dutch architect Bernard Bijvoet and the metal craftsman Louis Dalbet as architectural partners. To counteract the darkness of the courtyard, he envisioned a front and back façade built with hundreds of Nevada glass bricks that work as a translucent membrane, allowing natural daylight to pour into the interior. At night, when outdoor floodlights switch on, the glowing glass structure looks like a hurricane lamp. Because Chareau knew his clients so well, the house he built perfectly complemented their lives and the way their enthusiasms overlapped with his own. The plan allotted downstairs space for Jean Dalsace’s medical offices. Upstairs, there’s a flowing and gracious grand salon with a double-height ceiling, a mezzanine, and family space for the young couple and two children. The open area is fitted with sliding perforated-metal partitions and punched screens, so it’s possible for the space to keep changing. Even with all its moving parts, the house still showcases Chareau furniture pieces. (The Glass House dominates the final section of the exhibit, with a sense of the grandeur of this endeavor conveyed through photos, electronic renderings, and videos showing young actors moving through the house, demonstrating how to open up a storage closet or bring down a retractable staircase.)
Chareau’s story, unfortunately, doesn’t end there. During the Depression of the 1930s, he and Dollie began selling off their art collection to make ends meet. In 1940, they fled Paris to the south of France, and from there Chareau went to Morocco and New York. Dollie stayed behind, again selling their belongings to raise much-needed cash. She joined him in New York, where they had a small apartment on the East Side.
Chareau died in East Hampton in 1950. Jean and Annie Dalsace returned to their house after liberation and revived it as a meeting place for their predominantly Jewish artistic and intellectual friends (at least those who survived and chose to return to France). Secret meetings were held there in the 1950s to promote peace between the French and the Vietnamese and later to further peace in Algeria. Their family retained ownership of the house until 2005, and the current owner, Robert M. Rubin, is dedicated to preserving and maintaining it while “bringing it back to life.” He’s written an excellent catalog essay that raises the question: “How can one be an occupant of a historic house without being an occupier?”
Indeed, though Chareau’s furniture and the Glass House were part of the galvanizing force of 20th-century artistic imagination, a sadness hangs over Chareau’s legacy. Many of the furniture pieces that belonged to his clients were stored in hiding during the war or confiscated, ending up in the inventory of Nazi-looted goods. Some of the documentation of spoilage is on view in the exhibit. It’s unclear how much of the property was returned to its Jewish owners or their families. Chareau himself loaned his magnificent Modigliani limestone Caryatid, once situated in his garden, to the 1939 World’s Fair. When he came to New York as a refugee he had to prove ownership, negotiating it back from the Museum of Modern Art before reselling it to them directly. During the war, the Glass House was emptied and went dark. The structure was too impractical for the Nazis to appropriate.
To read more of Frances Brent’s art reviews for Tablet magazine, click here.