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Art Deco – Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann

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At the Christie’s auction at the Rockefeller Plaza in New York this month, one of the significant art pieces of interest was a lacquered wooden desk made by the renowned French furniture designer Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann. The desk is a rare beauty with all the Ruhlmann elements. Check out these details in the catalogue – ‘fan-shaped top fitted with inset leather writing surface and six radiating correspondence compartments, fitted with nickel-plated brass adjustable lamp, calendar, pen holder, and limestone inkwells, supported on a pair of pedestals, each with tambour shutter enclosing drawers and frontal doors enclosing open recess, united by a nickel-plated brass floor stretcher with heated footrest, one pedestal applied with hinged hand-woven nickel-plated brass wastepaper basket’. Ruhlmann never cringed from adding that extra something to his high-priced creations, coveted by the wealthy.In search of a bygone era, where elegance and refinement harmoniously permeated each moment of life.

Émile Jacques Ruhlmann was the epitome of the glamorous Art Deco era, creating furniture master pieces with painstaking detail, using rarest woods like Macassar ebony, Brazilian rosewood, the exotic Amboyna burl, combined with ivory fittings. At the start, he did show influences of the Arts & Crafts Movement, the classical design elements, and the so called Art Nouveau era, but by 1920 he made a shift. His trademark furniture was individually crafted with simple elegant forms, and yet remained very functional.

Interestingly, Ruhlmann had no training in this craft, and neither did he work with his hands. Instead, he outsourced his creations to cabinet shops until 1923, and thereafter employed a large team of master cabinetmakers, finishers, upholsterers and draftsman, who had to comply with his impeccable standards. He pushed his team beyond mediocrity, often trashing that which did not measure up and starting all over again. With his elevated sense of design and expertise in combining materials, Ruhlmann’s creations remain incomparable. Naturally, only the very rich could afford Ruhlmann’s exorbitantly priced pieces….

The French Société des Artistes Décorateurs was trying to encourage high standards of design and production in France, and in1915 got the government to sponsor ‘The International Exhibition of Modern Industrial and Decorative Arts’. Delayed by a decade due to the First World War, the first ‘Exposition internationale des arts décoratifs et industriels modernes’ World’s fair was held in 1925 in Paris, located between the esplanade of Les Invalides and the entrances of the Grand Palais and Petit Palais. The condition for the participating designers and artists was that their work had to be avant-garde, modern in design and not based on or derived from historical styles. In the duration of the exhibition that lasted from April to October, nearly six million visitors thronged the venue. The term ‘Art Deco’ was derived from the name of this exhibition, and came to represent modern style characterized by a streamlined classicism, geometric and symmetric compositions, and a sleek machine-age look. The event marked the artistic trends of Les Années Folles, also known as the Roaring Twenties.

Ruhlmann made waves at this exposition, and each of his carefully crafted masterpieces are collectors’ items that keep appearing at auctions and are yet coveted for their sheer elegance and functionality.

In 1929, Ruhlmann heard about a young Indian prince Yeshwant Rao Holkar of Indore who was in Europe. Holkar was educated in England, and was a great admirer of western Modernism. Ruhlmann created his ‘Studio-Chambre du prince héritier d’un vice roi des Indes à la Cité Universitaire’ with Holkar in mind. Among other things was a majestic masterpiece, a great desk and a mechanized chaise lounge on skis. One such desk from this collection was acquired by André Tardieu in 1929. This ‘Tardieu’ desk was auctioned at Christie’s in March 2011 for $ 3,272,857.

He pretty much lived by his ethos – “To create something that lasts, the first thing is to want to create something that lasts forever”. When he found out about his terminal illness in 1933, he made a will that asked for the dissolution of the Company after completing pending orders. He did not perceive anyone bringing the same mastery and finesse to his label. He continues to be celebrated in museums and art galleries and auction houses

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