The French Union of Modern Artists (UAM), 1929-1958: a wind of modernity in the history of design

The French Union of Modern Artists, commonly known as the UAM, was a movement initiated in 1929 by avant-garde architects and interior designers of the time. This movement has remained anchored in the history of architecture and design because it allowed a whole generation of creators to emerge and instil new theoretical and practical ideas.

Often artistic movements/currents emerge as a reaction to previous practices, and this is the case with the UAM, and we will explain why. Popular in the 1930s, the influence of the UAM gradually diminished in the post-war years, with the death of its first president and eminent figure of French architecture of the 1920s and 1930s: Robert Mallet-Stevens (1886-1945).

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Photograph of Robert Mallet-Stevens as a young architect.

The Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes was held in Paris from April to October 1925. It was an event that marked its time, with thousands of visitors flocking every day to discover the architecture of the different international pavilions and that of the French regions, as well as the latest trends in furniture. The event saw the consecration of the Art Deco architectural style, launched before the First World War in reaction to the curved lines and heavy ornamentation, directly inspired by the organic forms (trees, flowers, insects, animals) of the Art Nouveau style

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Pierre Chareau’s library-desk presented in the Pavilion of a French Embassy on the occasion of the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris, 1925, and reconstituted in the Musée des Arts Décoratifs. Despite the use of precious materials, it is far from the curved and ornate style of Art Nouveau.
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The Collector’s Pavilion, garden façade. Designed by the architect Pierre Patout, the elegant Pavillon du Collectionneur was a great success at the International Exhibition (1925). Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Fonds Editions Albert Lévy. Les Arts Décoratifs / Editions Albert Lévy.
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Boudoir of the Collector’s Pavilion, Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes de Paris, 1925, Groupe Ruhlmann. The French decorator Jacques-Emile Ruhlmann was responsible for the entire interior decoration. He designed the furniture and arranged precious objects in the various rooms. MAD Library, Maciet Album. Les Arts Décoratifs.

The Art Deco style contrasts with its predecessor, Art Nouveau, and censures fantasy. It returned to a certain classical rigour, sought symmetry in spaces, used cut stone sparingly, and gave importance to decoration, but always with sobriety.

Faced with the success of Art Deco, the international avant-garde found it difficult to exist. It was represented by the Russian pavilion designed by Constantin Melnikov, the Pavillon de l’Esprit nouveau by the very audacious Le Corbusier, and finally the Pavillon du tourisme by Robert Mallet-Stevens with its emblematic campanile that pushed Art Deco towards even more geometry

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The Pavillon du Tourisme by Robert Mallet-Stevens, 1925. A new inspiration with a very rational execution.

If the event marked the triumph of the Art Deco architectural style, starring the decorator Jacques-Emile Ruhlmann (1879-1933), the architectural avant-garde was already showing its face. France, because it was a country attached to cabinet-making and high-end materials, was not yet receptive to the modernism preached by the Bauhaus School, the Dutch De Stijl movement, or the constructivism of Eastern Europe

The schism between the proponents of Art Deco, members of the Society of Decorative Artists, and the proponents of avant-garde architecture finally came in 1929. Faced with the success of the architect-decorators Charlotte Perriand (1903-1999), René Herbst (1891-1982) and Georges Bourgeois, known as Djo-Bourgeois (1898-1937), who presented a model flat dedicated to industrial creation at the 1928 Salon des Artistes Décorateurs, the Société des Artistes Décorateurs, frightened, refused to exhibit this avant-garde style again, as it was too far-reaching for their tastes… This event led to the birth of The French Union of Modern Artists.

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At the 1929 Salon d’Automne, the architects and designers Le Corbusier, Pierre Jeanneret, and Charlotte Perriand presented the interior fittings of a house. The break with Art Deco was clear. The furniture, mainly designed by Perriand, incorporates metal work, the seat bases are made of tubular steel, nickel-plated or chromium-plated, continuing the work of Marcel Breuer at the Bauhaus (Wassily chair). In the background, the famous LC4 chaise longue © F.L.C. / Adagp, Paris, 2019 © Jean Collas / AChP.

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Another view of the Interior Equipment of a Home stand designed by Le Corbusier, Pierre Jeanneret, and Charlotte Perriand at the Paris AutumnSalon, 1929.

Who are they and what do they want? The founding members were Robert Mallet-Stevens, Charlotte Perriand, René Herbst (1891-1982), Francis Jourdain, Sonia Delaunay, Jean Prouvé, Eileen Gray, Jacques Le Chevallier, Jean Fouquet, Gérard Sandoz, Jean Puiforcat and Hélène Henry. What they had in common was a desire to break down the barriers between disciplines, to fight against classicism and tradition, and above all to develop the living environment with modernity and rationalism

They also give the movement a social dimension. They wanted the objects resulting from the collaboration between artists and craftsmen to be of high quality, mass-produced, and affordable, in order to put an end to the elitism of Art Deco, which was reserved for the wealthy

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Smoking room made by René Herbst, for the 1928 Salon des Artistes Décorateurs. Co-founder in 1929 of theUnion of Modern ArtistsRené Herbst is a prominent representative of modern art
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Eileen Gray, Dressing table, 1926. Towards a functional research of furniture.

Robert Mallet-Stevens is the central figure of the movement. Close to the avant-garde movements, the architect had already applied rational concepts in the 1920s, including in furniture, favouring function and structure over form, rejecting ornamentation in favour of new materials such as metal and steel

But Mallet-Stevens’s great masterpiece, the one that synthesizes the aspirations of the UAM to follow the paths of modern architecture, is the realization of the Villa Cavrois (1929-1932) and its furniture, a few years after the Villa Noailles (1923-1925), one of the first French constructions of the modern style

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The Villa Noailles today in Hyères. Built from 1923 to 1925 by Robert Mallet-Stevens on behalf of the Viscount de Noailles, the villa was already borrowing from the precepts of the rationalist movement: a functional building, roofs and terraces highlighted, the interior circulation of light. As for the decoration, it is pure.

The UAM organised its inaugural exhibition from 11 June to 14 July 1930 at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris. In 1934, in response to its detractors, the UAM published a manifesto entitled: Pour l’art moderne, cadre de la vie contemporaine (For modern art, a framework for contemporary life ) and reaffirmed its founding principles. The movement was criticised for the “aridity of its forms” and the poverty of the materials used.

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Poster for thefirst exhibition of The French Union of Modern Artists at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, 1930

In 1937, the UAM erected its pavilion for the International Exhibition of Arts and Techniques in Modern Life. But after the Second World War, with the death of its “historic” president, Robert Mallet-Stevens, the UAM lost its influence. The multiple projects linked to the reconstruction of the country hindered collective action, and the battle against “the old” was over

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Overall view of The French Union of Modern Artists pavilion at the 1937 International Exhibition
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Multi-purpose support furniture, design by René Herbst. Varnished pearwood and mahogany, metal, leather interior. Furniture presented at the 1937 International Exhibition of Arts and Techniques in Modern Life, UAM pavilion.
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Bookshop table, in folded steel sheet, design by René Hermant, presented in the bookshop of the UAM pavilion at the 1937 International Exhibition.

René Herbst, the new president of the UAM, tried to reactivate the movement towards the end of the 1940s with the exhibition Formes utiles. Objets de notre temps in the Marsan Pavilion (1949-1950). Until its final dissolution in 1958, the UAM presented a selection of industrial objects each year at the SAM (Salon des Arts Ménagers). From then on, the most promising design talents met within theAssociation des créateurs de modèles de série (ACMS).

While the UAM collective brought the innovative ideas of the Bauhaus to the forefront in the 1920s, 30s and 40s, at the height of its activism, championing modern architecture and rational furniture, it can be criticised for not having been able to democratise its creations through mass production. Pieces from these periods have remained expensive and are now the delight of collectors.

François Boutard