Culture

Department stores, showcases of Art Deco in France

More than a year ago, La Samaritaine department stores’ reopened. Closed since 2005, the historic Parisian department store was reborn after lengthy work carried out by the Historic Monuments Directorate to restore the Art Nouveau and Art Deco buildings that make up an exceptional architectural ensemble. At the beginning of the 20th century and during the Roaring Twenties, a bourgeois clientele came to the department stores to find the latest trends in fashion, then progressively in furnishings. This article looks at the places and events that contributed to the spread of Art Deco, of which the department stores were a part.

View of the extraordinary glass roof of the Pont Neuf building of La Samaritaine, entirely restored for the reopening of the shop. Photograph © Stéphane Aboudaram, We Are Contents
Restoration of the 115 m2 fresco under the great glass roof, the peacocks can parade again! jND.

Paris, 1910. Art Nouveau, which had been triumphant since the end of the 19th century, was in its final hours. It was succeeded by Art Deco, short for “Decorative Arts”, which brought a less bombastic aesthetic language. The arabesques and ornamentation inspired by the forms of the living succeeded a much more sober architectural and design style, with geometric lines that imposed a return to classical rigour. However, the decorator still enjoys a certain amount of freedom, and designs furniture based on luxurious and exotic materials. The form changed and became more sober, but the purpose remained decorative

To promote and disseminate the quality of French craftsmanship elevated to the rank of art (tapestry, cabinet making, gold and silverware, ceramics, glassware, ironwork, etc.), and to claim the status of artist for the decorator, a small group of architects and artists founded the Société des Artistes Décorateurs in 1901. From then on, decorative artists had the same copyright as painters and sculptors.

In 1904, they created the Salon des Artistes Décorateurs (SAD), which was to play an important role in the expression and diffusion of Art Deco in France. Indeed, the SAD was one of the first annual professional events to present furniture and sets staged by French decorators. The show quickly became the reference in the field of furniture. Places were at a premium to exhibit work at the show: a merciless jury deliberated.

Interior of a room presented at the SAD in 1927.
Reception desk presented at the 1928 Salon des Artistes Décorateurs. Designed by the decorator Jacques-Émile Ruhlmann, one of the best known at the time
Booklet for the 1929 Salon des Artistes Décorateurs

In addition to the Salon des Artistes Décorateurs, the Parisian department stores became a veritable showcase for French craftsmanship in the field of furniture and contributed to the development of Art Deco. At the beginning of the 20th century, several great patrons had gigantic shops built in the Art Nouveau, then Art Deco style, which became temples of modern consumption. Their stroke of genius: inventing experiential marketing before its time. We owe them, for example, the first fitting rooms, illustrated catalogs, or the reading room so that husbands could occupy themselves while their wives went shopping.

La Samaritaine department stores’ in 1935, press photograph by Agence Meurisse, source: https://gallica.bnf.fr/.
Interior of the department stores’ Le Bon Marché, around 1920. The shelves are organised around numerous glass windows that distribute light to the ground floor. Archives of Le Bon Marché Rive Gauche.

The formula worked and gradually the owners of these department stores came up with another brilliant idea: to associate works of art and luxurious furniture with commerce to create a refined atmosphere. As early as 1880, the department stores’ Le Bon Marché offered its customers pieces of furniture (curtains and seats) that it had made and displayed in the furniture gallery located in the annex of the department stores’. In 1923, Le Bon Marché entrusted the French cabinetmaker and decorator Paul Follot with the management of “Pomone”, the department store’s art workshop. Le Bon Marché offered its clientele all the creations of the applied arts and was largely inspired by the great Art Deco decorators of the time, such as Jacques-Emile Ruhlmann, Jules Leleu, Louis Süe, Maurice Dufrène, etc. The department stores became a place for the dissemination of Art Deco, in line with the modern expectations of the new consumer.

Dining room designed and decorated by Paul Follot and published by Pomone.
Dining room table in blackened pear wood, designed by Paul Follot for Ateliers Pomone.
Armchairs in blackened pearwood with basket back and detached armrests with flat cuffs, designed by Paul Follot for Ateliers Pomone.

Like Le Bon Marché, Les Galeries Lafayette Hausmann also opened their own applied arts workshops in 1922 under the name “La Maîtrise”. The interior architect and chief decorator Maurice Dufrène took over the artistic direction. Among the collaborators of La Maîtrise were the decorators Jean and Jacques Adnet. Jean Adnet was an active member of the Société des Artistes Décorateurs and became a renowned specialist in the art of display.

Copy of the 1922 leaflet of the department stores’ Aux Galeries Lafayette dedicated to its applied arts workshops called La Maîtrise and directed by Maurice Dufrène. The illustration is by Jack Roberts.
Copy of the 1922 leaflet of the department stores’ Aux Galeries Lafayette dedicated to the creations of the applied arts workshops La Maîtrise.
Art deco cabinet by Maurice Dufrène, circa 1928. Cabinet with 2 doors made of violet and violet wood veneer, exotic hardwood marquetry, silvered metal inlay. Carved and fluted legs with blackened details.

René Guilleré, founder of the Société des Artistes Décorateurs, was a precursor in the installation of art studios in department stores. In 1912, he was the first to convince the Printemps department stores to produce their own furniture and art objects. Thus was born La Primavera, the art workshop of the department stores’ founded by Jules Jaluzot and Augustine Figeac. The influence of the department stores on fashion and furnishings was such that the art studios of Printemps, Galeries Lafayette and Bon Marché, as well as those of the Louvre shops, were each awarded a pavilion in the heart of the French section of the 1925 International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts.

The Printemps department stores’ pavilion, Primavera, built for the Exposition internationale des arts décoratifs et industriels modernes, Paris, 1925.
Interior of the Printemps department stores’ pavilion, Primavera, built for the Exposition internationale des arts décoratifs et industriels modernes, Paris, 1925.
Card “The crowd in front of the “POMONE” pavilion, Atelier d’Art Moderne du Bon Marché”, Exposition internationale des arts décoratifs et industriels modernes, Paris, 1925.
Paul Follot walking through the Pomone pavilion at the Exposition internationale des arts décoratifs et industriels modernes, Paris, 1925. Archimarti photograph – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0
Dining room in the Pomone Pavilion at the Exposition internationale des arts décoratifs et industriels modernes, Paris, 1925. The decoration is by Paul Follot. Archimarti photograph – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0
Map of the “Aux Galeries Lafayette” department stores’ pavilion, Exposition internationale des arts décoratifs et industriels modernes, Paris, 1925.

The International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts marked the peak of the Art Deco style. The event had an international impact and played an undeniable role in the worldwide dissemination of French Art Deco. French architects and artists became in great demand in the following decade to work on many ambitious projects. In 1935, the liner Le Normandie left Le Havre for New York. On board, the “must” of French Art Deco know-how. The interior design was supervised by the architects and decorators Richard Bouwens de Boijen, Roger Henri-Expert, Pierre Patout and Henri Pacon, who brought together the best French craftsmen of the time.

François Boutard