Dec / Jan 2011
Archival Revival

Writer: Sara White Wilson / Photographer: Andrea Ferrari

Nearly 90 years after Hermès first collaborated with interior designer Jean-Michel Frank on a line of furniture, the French luxury-goods house is reissuing his finest original designs.


The Piscine Lutetia probably still reminds Parisians of a certain age of childhood swimming lessons and the sharp smell of chlorine. These days, though, the cavernous, mosaic-tiled building that once introduced generations of capital-dwellers to the wonders of water sports is now devoted to pleasures of a far more luxurious kind. Located on Rue de Sèvres, just steps from Le Bon Marché and Saint-Germain-des-Prés, the Piscine now serves as the House of Hermès’ only boutique on the Rive Gauche. 

The subtle transformation is the work of RDAI, the architectural studio founded by Rena Dumas of the Hermès family almost 30 years ago and which is responsible for the interior architecture of Hermès boutiques worldwide. Certain original Art Deco interior features remain alongside proprietary touches such as the oh-so-supple Hermès leather lining the hand railings, but the grandiose nature of the space is broken up by three nine-metre high pavilions made of ash laths, which serve as mini retail ‘universes’.

The brand celebrated its opening late last year with the debut of a more comprehensive homeware line. In addition to launching furnishing fabrics, wallpapers and a collection of luscious raw silk carpets, furniture craftsmanship was brought to the fore with collections by Antonio Citterio, Enzo Mari, RDAI’s Denis Montel with Eric Benqué and a spectacular, re-edited collection of furniture by cult 20th century designer and decorator, Jean-Michel Frank who collaborated with Hermès during the interwar years.

In an exclusive interview with Bespoke, held at the Hermès workshops just outside of Paris, Maison Hermès general director Hélène Dubrule described the exciting venture. “The idea was to offer a global universe… a complete art-de-vivre according to Hermès so that our clients can choose beautiful objects for their interiors that meet the excellence of quality that is our craftsmanship and credo. And the style,” she continues, “unique to Hermès that is modernism and tradition, functionality and comfort, core values that have informed Hermès since 1837.”

The compelling designs of Jean-Michel Frank distil these quintessential values of Hermès, making the re-editions of his work a logical choice. The collection reproduces originals crafted between 1925 and 1935, holding as close as possible to the quality of the materials and the techniques that were used at the time and provides the opportunity to revisit Frank’s style, at once meditative, geometric and wildly simple.

“Re-editing Jean-Michel Frank for us was a way to come back to the source of our know-how in furniture, a great experience for our workshop,” elaborates Dubrule. “It was a statement in terms of style because we really think there is a perfect fit between the style of Jean-Michel Frank and facets of Hermès’ style because of the pureness of the lines, the timelessness, the simplicity. You know, simplicity is the most difficult thing to achieve when you are looking for excellence and quality. It actually magnifies the quality of the materials and the perfection of the finishing and savoir-faire.”

Frank’s captivating, pure forms possessed what has been termed a “poor luxury” appeal. The label was coined in his honour by novelist and future Nobel Laureate, François Mauriac, who further described the designer’s style as an "aesthetic of renouncement”, a reference to Frank’s penchant for working with materials that were, at the time, considered too humble for consideration. The way Frank reworked materials like plaster, stone, terracotta, mica, graphite, straw, shearling, parchment, rosewood, oak, sycamore and lemon wood, jute and goatskin, lent them new appreciation.

Later in his career, Frank went on to juxtapose humble materials with more classically sophisticated ones such as ivory, ebony or mahogany, earning him great acclaim and moving Frank up the social scale. 

In the early days, as his talent was still emerging, Frank’s friends included figures such as Léon Pierre Quint and René Crevel (later an important figure in the Surrealist movement), writer Pierre Drieu la Rochelle and poet Louis Aragon. At his peak, when he operated out of a boutique at 140 Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, Frank could count amongst his friends and collaborators names such as Salvador Dali, Alberto Giacometti and renowned illustrator Christian Bérard. 

His patrons too were aesthetes; Charles and Marie-Laure de Noailles, Cole Porter, writer Paul Eluard, couturiers Marcel Rochas, Elsa Schiaparelli and Madeliene Vionnet, the Rockefellers and other prominent and wealthy Americans in both New York and Chicago. Frank’s rise was as rapid as his life was short – Jewish and German, the autodidact was forced to flee Paris at the outset of World War II and committed suicide at the age of 41 by jumping from a New York City high-rise – but his legacy has been more lasting.

In death, his work has become highly prized. Yves Saint Laurent and his companion Pierre Bergé were avid collectors of his furniture, while a slew of later French designers, amongst them figures such as André Putman, acknowledge the debt they owe Frank for their own style.

It isn’t difficult to understand why. Frank’s pure lines and understated palette were as radical at the time as they remain today. He probably scared off more clients than he found with his rigorous minimalism. Photographs of his interiors reveal a succession of sparsely furnished rooms with white walls, with perhaps a cubic glass vase discovered in some electrician’s workshop, perched on some surface for decoration. Sparse and raw, Frank’s aesthetic radiated an unmistakable peace and tranquillity and it’s possible his approach to design was a reaction to the pain in his own life; he lost two brothers in World War I and his father to suicide shortly after, all before he’d turned 20.

During his decade-long collaboration with Hermès, Frank worked closely with Jean-René Guerrand, a fourth generation descendant of the company’s founding family. Though the partnership again revolved around a material not considered luxurious at the time - leather - Guerrand’s mastery of material and Frank’s mastery of technique resulted in extremely sophisticated objects that often created a sensation, like the white leather wall panels and screens he used in one of his interior projects.

His most emblematic designs, many of which are immediately recognisable as the inspiration for furniture still made today, can be found in his Confortable series – a line of perfect cubist chairs and low thickset sofas.

The collection comprises this series and a number of other memorable pieces. These include a round coffee table finished with a sun-pattern straw marquetry veneer, as well as a majestic four-panel screen in the same rare technique. An extremely sophisticated three-drawer dressing table features a mirror that can be folded down to transform the table into a desk. It is covered in parchment, a form of leather that is not tanned but limed, a rarely used technique that lends the leather transparency. Finally, there’s a series of upside down U-shaped coffee tables, and a dining table and set of nesting tables resting on X-shaped supports, which display Frank’s signature exploitation of rectilinear lines.

The re-editions add lustre to Maison Hermès’ growing home furnishing division, build upon its dedication to the art of living and complement existing collections of porcelain, faïence, crystal, silver, textiles and decorative objects, its core offerings of saddles, silk scarves and, of course, the world’s most coveted handbags. The collection occupies one-third of the 1,400 square-metre Rive Gauche boutique and the Frank re-editions, each of which is signed “J.M. Frank par Hermès”, are accompanied by a certificate of authenticity.

“The furniture issued after [Frank’s] death was not authorized by his family,” explains Dubrule, addressing why this certificate is so important. “It was difficult for us to find some pieces. We had some in our archives but for others, we had to consult collectors and study the pieces in order to be faithful to the originals. We asked the Frank family, the Jean-Michel Frank Committee and experts who really know his work, as there are many fakes, especially in the U.S. And throughout the process we showed them our prototypes in order to validate their accuracy because we promised the family we would be faithful to the originals, their level of quality and the techniques used to produce them.”

There was a time in which to be familiar with Jean-Michel Frank was a clear indication that one was a connoisseur. No longer. The decision by Maison Hermès to revisit the fruits of their collaboration with one of France’s most influential, if long-overlooked designers, has brought his work to a new audience.

His elemental sobriety and understatement and mastery of strict proportion and form has not only indelibly shaped the French design canon but has also turned Jean-Michel Frank into a decorative arts legend.

Seventy years after he passed away, as fresh light is shed on his designs and brilliant but tragically short career, it is truly amazing to consider how fresh Frank’s pieces appear, how contemporary and how self-contained. Is this what makes a design a classic? Perhaps. It is certainly what makes Jean Michel Frank’s furniture so timeless.


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