With the recent birthdays of Jean- Michel Frank, Robert- Mallet- Stevens and Jean Prouvé , it seems an appropriate time to celebrate the design and architecture of French modernism. Paris in the twenties was red, hot. After the deprivations of WWI, people were excited to enjoy life, especially culture and design. The organic sculptural forms of Art Nouveau had given way to the excitement of a new industrial age, in which the gleaming chrome automobile reigned supreme. Art Nouveau suddenly felt old-fashioned. People felt hopeful about the future and this translated to refurbishing and renovating homes in the new, racy Art Deco style. The studio of le Corbusier is considered by many to be the birthplace of French modernism. It is in this studio that iconic architects and designers who revolutionized French design, such as Jean Prouvé and Charlotte Perriand, got their start. While the studio of le Corbusier tends to hog the limelight, there were so many other important contributors to this period such as Robert Mallet-Stevens, Pierre Chareau, Eileen Gray, and Jean-Michel Frank.
There was a new way of dressing, painting, and living, and Paris was leading the way. Part of what made this period so fertile was the collaboration and cross-pollination between designers. Clothing designer Sonia Delaunay was inspired by the work of architect Robert Mallet-Stevens who in turn was inspired by her angular patterns, which are echoed in the Art Deco detailing on his buildings. In this new modern era designers weren’t just designing for the wealthy; they were trying to design goods that could be inexpensively manufactured and made available for the middle class as well.
By the late twenties the decorative elements of Art Deco were gradually disappearing as architecture and design became more utilitarian in Modernism. Chrome and leather furniture fabricated from bicycle parts and white plaster villas hovering on tiny columns became the hallmarks of this era.
With the devastation of WWII, the design industry came to a screeching halt. But it came back stronger than ever in the nineteen fifties when the desperate need for post war housing created a new design boom funded by the French government. These massive projects provided the same modern architects (those who had managed to survive the war) with their first real opportunity to work on large scale projects and transform their theories into concrete realities. Le Corbusier, Perriand and Prouve moved away from the machine-age inspiration of the twenties and were inspired by the sculptural qualities of concrete, plastics, and aluminum. But their goal, making great design and better living accessible to everyone remained the same.
While le Corbusier’s large scale housing projects such as l’Unité d’Habitation in Marseille were incredibly successful (many are still inhabited today), they gave birth to the style of housing in which low income families and immigrants are isolated in clusters of concrete towers outside cities. Paris’ notorious “banlieues”, is one example of this type of urban planning, now universally condemned by urban advocates and planners. However the furniture which came out of the Le Corbusier studio (in collaboration with Charlotte Perriand and Jean Prouvé) such as the LC2 series, looks just as modern today as when it was originally designed nearly 100 years ago and remains highly sought after.
We are lucky to have the only building designed by Le Corbusier in North America, right here in Cambridge. The Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts in Cambridge is typically open to the public in non- pandemic times. The sculptural qualities of this building can be enjoyed without even entering the building. This curved concrete building hovering over slender columns is incredibly dramatic.