The eye of the collector by Jean-luc Ferrand


Thursday 21 April 2016, by Barbara Cogollos

All the versions of this article: [English] [français]

Pair of armchairs designed by the famous French designer, André Arbus (1903-1969). As an example of Arbus’s maturity, these armchairs illustrate the harmony he tried to recreate between classical forms and more modern ones. Their proportions together with their shape is a distinctive sign of Arbus, who always conceived furniture as something logical and proportionate to human size. Modeled after classical objects, this pair of armchair still looks modern: it is because Arbus wanted them to look humble and modest, very far away from more sophisticated and exaggerate designs. Reduced to a silhouette, a detail, they highlight the sensibility and delicacy of one of the major house designers of contemporary France.

André Arbus was born in Toulouse in 1903 in a family of traditional cabinetmakers. Thanks to them, he got familiar with the secrets of the profession and learnt about styles, fabrics and above all, proportions.

After having refused to embrace a military career, Arbus decided to study at the Toulouse École des Beaux-Arts, where he met some of his future business partners such as the painter Marc Saint-Saëns, his best friend.

After having graduated from school, Arbus succeeded to his father as a cabinetmaker. But in front of his lack of success and his inability to recreate modern furniture, he understood that copying the ancient was useless and vain. As a result, he came to admire both the pioneer work of the students from Nancy École des Beaux-Arts and the flamboyant aesthetics of Art Nouveau, especially its floral lines, its special use of colors and its characteristic bends. Soon after, he moved to Paris and came closer to Compagnie des Arts Français.

In 1925, Arbus took part in the International Exposition of Modern Industrial and Decorative Arts, where he presented a dressing table that he designed with his friend Saint-Saëns.

Since the beginning of his career as a Parisian interior designer, Arbus has always felt close to the Compagnie des Arts Français, created by Süe and Mare in 1919. As a response to Art Nouveau, the Compagnie des Arts Français tried to design robust, logical and warm pieces of furniture. Influenced by the classical forms he mastered like no one, Arbus slowly began to define his own stylistic vocabulary. With his aesthetic “wake up call”, he materialized a comeback to the purest French decorative tradition.

Arbus is a man of assemblage: he took over classical forms and styles, especially from the century of Louis XVI, and reduced them to a general silhouette, a singular detail he could work with. Although Arbus was considered to be rather close to the Compagnie des Arts Français, he remained strictly opposed to its cold and poor functionalism: in that sense, he was more into the Art Déco wave.

When decorators tended to use glass and metal, Arbus decided to stick to wood, the creative fabric per se according to him. Once, he said to one of his students: “Think about the job you chose to do. It is what makes you the equal of God. He created mankind after Him. You will create furniture after you. But unlike Him, who only had clay, you will have the entire forest”. Arbus particularly liked brass ornaments, gilded bronze and ivory. He was close to the ideology of the Union des Artistes Modernes and fiercely against Adolf Loos’s or Le Corbusier’s ideas: to him, ornament was inherently a part of the general aesthetic of a piece of furniture.

Arbus took Da Vinci’s sentence (“Man is the measure of all things”) as a personal motto. As a consequence, he conceived houses as a place to rest, a special environment where everything was supposed to make space more beautiful and human. What Arbus was looking for above all, was harmony: a happy medium between human size and gigantism in order to create a logical and practical setting at a modest scale. To him, housing aimed at bringing peace and happiness. As a consequence, he refused everything too sophisticated or pompous: perfection could exist in a very simple furniture set, it could be found be one single detail.

Arbus was also very much attached to craftsmanship. On his own, he would for example travel around France to look for the perfect ceramist, the most talented tapestry-maker or the best enamellist. To trust and call craftsmen was Arbus’s way to resist against the supremacy of machines, industry and serial production. Because he was more sensible to one-of-a-kind pieces of furniture than to serial production, he did not agree with Guillame Janneau’s point of view, the administrator of the Mobilier National, who encouraged the decorators to widen their production through serial edition. His answer was very scathing: “Please, Mister Janneau, until anything better comes, let the decorator work for the elite he chooses or, at least, dreams of”.

In 1937, Arbus presented two very different ensembles at the International Exposition dedicated to Art and Technology in Modern Life: one interior for middle-class people and another one in which he freely listened to his own tastes: big spaces and high-end fabrics (turtle shell, golden leaf, lacquer).

After WWII, Arbus designed several ceremonial pieces of furniture, later offered by Charles to Gaulle to the Regent of Belgium. In 1947, Michelle Auriol, the President’s wife, started to support his work by ordering many ensembles for the Mobilier National, several ministries and the Élysée Palace, where he decorated the Royal bedroom and the ceremonial Grand Apartments. He also decorated many luxury liners such as Le Bretagne, Le Vietnam or Le France together with Elizabeth II’s jewelry-box. In 1958, he was called to decorate the office of the French ambassador in Washington DC, the exact same year the International Exposition of Brussels honored him with the Grand Prix.

Around the 1950’s, Arbus learnt sculpture and presented several of his work to the Tuileries Salons and the Salons d’Automne. In 1965, he entered the Académie des Beaux-Arts. He died four years later, in 1969.

For his work, he received the Légion d’Honneur, the Ordre du Mérite and was declared Officer of Arts and Literature. Today, Arbus is still being considered as one of the most successful and prolific French home designers. As an example, Christie’s presented a similar pair of the armchairs we own: it was sold 20.000 dollars (18000 euros approx.) in 2015.

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