Making it Grand

By staff November 1, 2004

I've always been a big fan of French designer Jacques Emile Ruhlmann, the Father of Art Deco, so when the Metropolitan Museum had an exhibit of his work I made a special trip to New York just to see it. It was well worth the effort. But as I wandered the crowded halls-it was a very big hit with the public-marveling at his spectacular furniture, his sketches and drawings of palatial rooms, his boldly patterned amoeba-like wallpaper and carpets, something started to nag at me. It all felt familiar in a way I couldn't put my finger on. Then, as I stared at photos of his legendary Pavilion du Collectioneur, it finally hit me-why, I might as well be staring at pictures of a penthouse on Longboat Key.

What Addison Mizner is to current Florida architecture, Ruhlmann is to current Florida decorating. Not that current Florida decorating is all that Art Deco, because with the exception of South Beach and certain parts of Fort Lauderdale, it's not. But current Florida decorating certainly embraces the Ruhlmann approach. "Make it grand, make it beautiful," he used to say; and this attitude, coupled with the following quote from the master, might well serve as the mission statement of any smart Florida decorator. "[My] ensembles do not address themselves to the middle class; they are made for the elite. The rich client wants to possess only furniture that it is impossible for the less rich to acquire." (And I must say that with that attitude he is not only the perfect decorator; he's also the perfect advertiser for SARASOTA magazine, where we specialize in things that it's impossible for the staff to acquire.)

If Ruhlmann is just a fuzzy name in your brain, let me fill you in. He was one of those French geniuses, rather like Coco Chanel or Henri Matisse, who came along in the 1920s and changed the way the world looked. Before World War I everything was a tired rehash of the previous century. Suddenly, as the '20s began, all that vanished; it was as if the world had deconstructed itself and came up with something entirely new. Ruhlmann's clients included Colette, the Rothschilds and the King of Siam. And it was for another member of royalty, the Maharajah of Indokore, that Ruhlman designed the famous Elephant Armchair, that great overscaled leather piece whose descendants can be found in Pottery Barns the world over.

But Ruhlmann's masterpiece is the central icon of Art Deco-the legendary Pavilion du Collectioneur at the Exposition des Arts Decoratifs in Paris in 1925. It was a sort of moderne version of the Petit Trianon, set up as an imaginary home for an imaginary-and very rich-art collector. Its most extraordinary feature was its "State Bedroom," a space of operatic proportion and mood, with a huge shell-shaped bed draped in satin, the walls hung with overpowering patterned wallpaper in a sort of gigantic bordello print, and an immense chandelier that made the ceiling seem even higher than it really was-and it must have been at least 30 feet high. Somehow it all worked, although I defy anyone to get a good night's sleep in the place.

What Ruhlmann did with this room was set the tone for a new kind of decorating which, after many twists and turns, now flourishes all over Florida. It has several key elements. First and foremost, it is meant to dazzle. When you walk in, you notice it. It is lush and extravagant (one critic compared Ruhlmann's rooms to Victor Hugo's writing). It was a stage set on which to live one's fantasy life, be it that of a French art collector in the 1920s or that of an active Florida retiree with about $30 million in his or her portfolio.

Second, it wallows in luxury. Ruhlmann was the high priest of luxury; it was his own personal passion, and he designed best for people who really appreciated it. Nothing simple, nothing mass-produced for him. "It was a great mistake to aim at the middle class when indicating a direction or launching a taste," he wrote. "In no other age were new designs intended for that market. They were always determined by the elite." What the elite of the '20s wanted is what filled up most of the exhibit, and I spent the entire afternoon closely examining what were referred to as the "meubles."

The most important meuble was the famous meuble au char sideboard, often considered by art historians as "the perfect object," meaning it has perfect balance between the decoration, lines and geometric volume. At first it seemed a little too simple to be perfect; but the more you look, the more you see what they're talking about. It's a dining room sideboard made primarily of dark Hungarian oak, prized for its fine grain. It has six legs, four in front and two in back; and the "char" refers to the ivory marquetry in front, depicting a naked woman driving a chariot. The fun part comes from discovering all the little details: the little balls at the top of the narrow fluted legs, the subtle recessing and beveling. There are four meubles au char in the world, the most famous being at the Louvre; but its descendants can be found at Robb and Stucky, if not so much in the details, then in the way the big contemporary pieces shine in silver and gold and occupy space in a very three-dimensional way.

Ruhlmann had another thing in common with Florida decorators-he was an indefatigable publicity hound. He was always looking for ways to get his name in the papers and his rooms featured in the shelter magazines of the time. If there had been showhouses back in those days he would have schemed to get in every one. He loved it when other decorators copied him. To have his influence shown was the greatest satisfaction.

Well, he would certainly be satisfied with what's going on today. His theory of luxury and display can be seen everywhere. It's even filtered down to the middle class, where, if the customers can't have the real thing, they can at least have the knockoff from Savon. Unfortunately, he died early, in 1937, and his company was disbanded. He's buried in a tomb in Paris that out-Ruhlmanns Ruhlmann: two plinths sheathed in marble, with a statue representing Grief set in the middle. You have to hand it to a decorator who makes sure that even his tomb lives up to his aesthetic.

Ruhlmann: Genius of Art Deco is now on view at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts through Dec. 12.

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