French architect and designer, Robert Mallet-Stevens was one the most influential figures in the development of Art Deco.
Fading into fame
Robert Mallet-Stevens, one of Deco’s greatest proponents, came in contact with architecture from the very day of his birth, on March 24, 1886, in the refined Maison Lafitte, a Parisian seventeenth century home designed by architect François Mansart, better known for popularizing (and naming) the “Mansard Roof” where he received his formal training at the École Speciale d’Architecture; it was there as well that, through the Salons d’Automnes of 1912–14, he’d first come into contact with the works of his architect peers. After the war, he began making a name for himself as a fashionable – and even mildly avant-garde – designer, developing a modernist, yet of unique taste, style, suitable for equally avant-garde customers: in the decade between 1914 and 1924, his works ranged from a studio for painter Tamara de Lempicka, an (unfinished, as of 1921) hillside villa for legendary couturier Paul Poiret, the house of Villa Noailles for the Vimcontes de Noailles, Charles and Marie-Laure (descendants of the infamously debauched Marquis de Sade), built as a collaborative exercise between the couple and a team of designers, including, aside from Mallet-Stevens himself, Theo van Doesburg and Eileen Gray.
In 1925, Mallet-Stevens paused his currently ongoing projects to participate in the Paris fair of 1925, the International Exhibit of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts. His presence in the event came in the form of a towering Tourist Pavilion, located at the entryway transition: a tall and narrow tower, built to display the capabilities of reinforced concrete, a statement meant to herld the coming of Art Deco in the architectural landscape.
Past this point, informations over his life become more scarce and neboulous, possibily out of the author’s own volition: it is known that his designs were published as a portfolio, titled “Une Citè Moderne”, around 1922; the projects included covered shops, factories, fire stations, apartments, private homes and villas, and detailed interiors.
His interests extended to arts and cinema: he designed the sets for Marcel L’Herbier‘s silent film “L’Inhumaine“, considered a masterpiece to this day; and renowed surrealist photographer and filmmaker Man Ray realized a film inspired by his Villa Noailles project, entitled “The Mysteries of the Château de Dé”.
In his career, he was always accompanied by a chosen team of artisans and craftspeople who worked with him: interior designers, sculptors, master glaziers, lighting specialists, and ironsmiths.
He died on February 10, 1945, Paris. Mallet-Stevens ordered that his archives be destroyed upon his death. His wishes were honored and his memory fell into obscurity.
What were his major works?
One of his first – and most notabòle – commissions was for the Villa Noailles (1923-1928) in Hyères, which was used by Man Ray as the set for his film Les Mystères du Château du Dé. Then, Mallet-Stevens collaborated with the painter Fernand Léger and others on Marcel L’ Herbier’s film “L’Inhumaine”, an experimental and, at the time, highly controversial movie. This two houses are representative of Mallet-Stevens’ sophisticated synthesis of Cubist painting, Art Deco details, and other artistic modes of the time. Also, Mallet-Stevens relized Villa Cavrois (1929-1932) in Croix which is a large modernist mansion built for Paul Cavrois, an industrialist from Roubaix active in the textile industry. He collaborated with other artists and musicians to do the Tourism Pavilion and the French embassy he designed at the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes (1925) in Paris.
Mallet-Stevens production extended to specialized furniture as well, designed to complement his various houses; for example, the metal chair built for Mobilier inspired by the Thonet Chair. This piece seems to be drawn in a black outline around the wooden seat all the way to the legs, which are tilted backward and slanted forward, opening its stance to a slightly splayed appearance. His wooden chairs were strongly reminiscent of De Stijl like his Udara chair, using open squares which support two comfortable cushions.