French Architect and Designer, Robert Mallet-Stevens was one of the founders of the Union des Artistes modernes (UAM), a movement firmly opposed to the floreal Art Nouveau.
Content and container
Robert Mallet-Stevens was born in Paris on March 24, 1886. He was the son of Maurice Mallet, an expert in paintings and art dealer, and Juliette Stevens, nephew of the Belgian portraitist Alfred Stevens. His burgeois position channeled his affinities and interests towards the keen and the precise, molding his mind in rationality and criterion. From 1904 to 1909, he began studying architecture at the École Spéciale d’Architecture academy; later, during World War I, he undertook aviation, working as a pilot, beginning afterwards his career as an architect in the 1920s. His style was a “purified” procession of construction techniques and materials (cement and reinforced concrete), freeing the volumes and opening possibilities of self-supporting structures. Buildings, factory, shops, villas, public structures: he felt an evident need, only growing more aware of it with the passing of time, to harmonize the content and the container.
Influenced by the architecture of Josef Hoffman and the Viennese Secession, his works played a key role in the development of Art Deco, the sleek and geometric current of the early XX century. Acting as founder of the Union des Artistes modernes (UAM) in 1929, together with Le Corbusier, Francis Jourdain, René Herbst and others, he and his peers in the organization were characterized by a strong opposition to the Art Nouveau and its perceived ephemeral, quasi-artisanal craft, while strongly supporting industrialization, modernism and the democratization of art. Despite his importance in creating what became modern architectural forma mentis, his work gradually fell into oblivion after his death in 1945, in large part due to his request to destroy all his archives after his passing.
Body of work
Among his projects figure at the forefront:
Villa Cavrois (1929-1932), located near Lille and credited as one of Stevens’ best creations; designed for Paul Cavrois, a French textile industrialist who ownes modern weaving and dyeing factories, both for cotton and wool. The elegant building was completed in 1932 and bought by the state later the same year; Mallet-Stevens was thus free to manage the entire work, down to the least details. As such, he also designed the adjacent park and the furniture for the interiors. The villa was inaugurated on 5 July 1932, coinciding with the wedding of Geneviève Cavrois, Paul Cavrois’ daughter. The design of the building had to follow this guideline:
Air, light, work, sports, hygiene, comfort and efficiency.
The interior,designed specifically to suit the house, employed only sustainable yet luxurious materials such as marble, exotic woods and polished aluminum; the latest manifacturing techniques were applied, as evidenced even in the details, such as the light switches realized with polished metal plates and recycling bins, a novelty at the time.
Villa Noailles (1923–1928), an early modernist house built for art patrons Charles and Marie-Laure de Noailles, as per their request of a summer villa on the hills atop the city of Hyères, on the Côte d’Azur. The residence promoted a new art de vivre, a celebration of body and nature, quickly becoming an icon of modern architecture and representing the blossoming love for the arts of the Noailles couple. The project was designed by Robert Mallet-Stevens in December 1923, ending up as one of the first modern buildings built in France. The villa is composed by overlapping cubes covered with a thick gray plaster, notably deprived of any decorative elements of sorts; thanks to this strict, bare approach to spacial and materic management, this building imposes its unicity on the landscape. The furniture sets were either bought or designed specially for the villa, by Mallet-Stevens himself, in order to fill its fifty rooms and sorrounding large garden. With its homogeneous distribution of light and functionality, the villa acts as an emblematic demonstration of the rationalist movement’s precepts.
Villa Paul Poiret (1921–1923); located in Mézy-sur-Seine (Yvelines), about forty kilometers from Paris, the villa was commissioned by the revolutionary parisian fashion designer and “cotourier” Paul Poiret, between 1921 and 1923. A Cubism-inspired house, the building was completed in 1925, only to be soon sold to other people who changed the original design to the contemporary Art Deco style, converting windows into portholes and rounding-off terrace corners. In 1984, it was classified as an historical monument and Mallet-Stevens defined its avant-garde work as follows:
Joint surfaces, sharp edges, sharp curves, polished materials, right angles, clarity, order: it is my logical and geometric house.
From the terrace, with a clear sky, you can see the loops of the Seine, the column of Place Vendôme, the rooftops of Notre Dame.
In the 1950s, Robert Mallet Stevens designed these stackable dining chairs, produced in France and made of metal. As one of the founders of the Union des Artistes modernes (UAM), a movement in opposition to the Art Nouveau decorativism, Steven’s work can be recognized by its proposal of a purity of lines, functional forms and strong tones, that merged into the modern international movement. With this, Mallet-Stevens, his name and his work remained essentially tied to bourgeois domestic architecture.