Ocean liners, skyscrapers, flappers in smart dresses, the allure of Hollywood, cigarette-holders, martinis, Hemingway and Fitzgerald in Paris: Any mention of “the twenties” arouses an intense longing, in many people, for a time when stylishness itself sometimes seemed a form of grace. It was Art Deco that gave this enchanting illusion its savor. And of all the decorative styles of the twentieth century, it remains by far the most popular. Unfortunately, the survey of the style organized by the Victoria and Albert in London won’t be coming to New York. (It will be shown next fall at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.) But the greatest French practitioner of Art Deco, Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann (1879–1933), is now the subject of a sumptuous exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Organized by J. Stewart Johnson and Jared Gross from the Met and Rosalind Pepall from the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Ruhlmann: Genius of Art Deco includes about 225 works by an unapologetic, unashamed, and unabashed elitist. Ruhlmann was a modern designer who made no compromises with modernity. Like many of his contemporaries, he developed a sleek style free of the clotted ornamentation of Art Nouveau. He had a neoclassical French eye, a certain feeling for the rational and geometric that he adapted to the machine age. And yet he did not make furniture (or anything else) that could be mass-produced, and he believed in spending whatever was necessary to achieve his ends. As a result, his art is the crème de la crème of Art Deco. In its craftsmanship and use of rich materials, it can sustain comparisons to the work of the great cabinetmakers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Ruhlmann dreamed not just of isolated pieces of furniture but of an environment that would envelop the senses. Every object in a room—and every room in a house—should be born of the same sensibility, he thought, coming together in ideal form to create an atmosphere of sublime comfort and imaginative play. Not surprisingly, he designed lighting, carpets, wallpaper, and ceramics as well as furniture. For the famous Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Moderne of 1925, which gave Art Deco its name, Ruhlmann and his collaborators constructed a Pavillon du Collectionneur, the fanciful villa of “a collector,” in which to showcase their designs. In his drawings of rooms, which often have a theatrical air, Ruhlmann became a kind of director, giving each piece of furniture a part to play. The pieces themselves are uncanny; they seem almost alive. Their lines often have a slight swell or curve, for example, as if the wood were breathing in and out, very gently.
“The lines in his furniture often have a slight swell or curve, as if the wood were breathing.”
Ruhlmann made a scalloped bed from which Botticelli’s Venus would happily arise. A lady’s desk opens to reveal a modest blush of reddish tints. The tapered legs of a cabinet seem light-footed. The veneers and marquetry are expressively, never just expensively, rich: The ivory-and-ebony tassels on a piece of trompe l’oeil cloth appear to move as you do. Ruhlmann’s best-known work is the celebrated “Chariot” sideboard. It has an octagonal medallion within which a highly stylized woman drives a chariot in the clouds.
Some modernists would argue that the Chariot is just a rich man’s plaything. And they’d have a point. Ruhlmann is not part of the utopian movement in modern design that embraced the machine age and the mass audience, aspiring to recast the world in wholly contemporary terms. He was a conservative modernist who sought to revitalize elements of fancy and craft from the ancien régime. And yet he was also a utopian in his way, one who sought to use wealth to create a modern Eden. Ruhlmann would have understood the new Gatsbys as well as the old aristocrats. He would doubtless have agreed with Gerald Murphy’s favorite bon mot: “Living well is the best revenge.”