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).
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.