Sunday, 15 November 2009

The 'Ateliers d'Art': Primavera, La Maitrise, Pomone, Studium, Athelia, or the Importance of Parisian Stores Design Workshops/Studios

When I began collecting documents on oriental carpets twenty years ago I discovered the yearly catalogues that were published by the major Parisian department stores every September. It happens that the same booklets also contained pages devoted to modern furniture and rugs. Certain objects would have had special mentions, such as creation (created by) Primavera or Studium. Today I have over a hundred of them and the scale of the quantity of objects designed by these special departments appears to be huge, revealing the role played by the big stores in popularizing the Art Deco style which was fundamental, a role that has not as yet been thoroughly researched.

To understand the strength of these commercial organisations you have to remember that they were very active regarding their own marketing. Firstly, each Parisian store had a floor devoted to the promotion of their own creations so that anyone could see them without being obliged to either enter an expensive gallery or even to purchase the articles. Secondly, the catalogues were issued in their millions throughout these years, and were available within the stores, but were also distributed as mail order catalogues throughout France, the Empire and many other countries. As every product had its own reference number, each individual piece could be ordered more or less from anywhere in the world. These stores had a high presence in Paris itself, and took part in all the major yearly decorative exhibitions such as the Salon des Artistes Decoraterurs in spring and the Salon d'Automne, but were also present at international shows for the decorative arts (Venturus, John Wanamaker in New York in 1927 and Macy's exhibition again in New York in 1929). Probably one of their most important and prestigious achievements was their participation, using their own pavilions, at the 1925 Exhibition of Decorative Art in Paris.

Rare booklet cover published by Primavera for the 1925 Exhibition. The Carpet Index Library

With the high profile given to these companies and their products, it gave the opportunity for many foreign manufacturers to copy those same products throughout the 1920s. This commercial dynamism explains why today I can find 'unattributed or anonymous rugs' in the catalogues of certain American galleries that were in fact marketed and designed by the French store workshops. Finally, there was during this period, many French and British magazines that reported regularly on their products (see August 2009 posts). All this explains why the French Art Deco products succeeded whereas in other countries modernist furniture remained limited and much less popular.

But what exactly were these workshops, and when did they begin? After the failure of the French Modern style (Art Nouveau), the German and Viennese experiences, and the resistance of the established manufacturers in making radical changes in their design work, the major distributors understood that perhaps they had a commercial opportunity in trying to sell a range of modern products that were produced in a much more limited quantity.

The first and leading store was the Grands Magasins du Printemps which created the Atelier Primavera in September 1912 with two designers. Directed by Rene Guillere, who was also President of the SAD, guidelines were established. The store would employ a staff of young designers in order to create artistic and modern objects and furniture that would be sold under a workshop store collective brand name. The choice of using anonymous models is also a reason why they have not attracted the attention of art historians. Primavera referenced all the traditional arts and crafts of France and offered new models in all objects for the home. Primavera really qualified as a workshop because besides their design work they also had their own manufacturing unit for the construction of both furniture and ceramics. The name 'Primavera' is a reference to the Italian Renaissance art period and illustrates the objectives of these stores, i.e., to produce a general renewal of the home decoration market. It is only after the First World War that other Parisian stores followed the Printemps initiative. To promote their products however, the latter had to focus on the name of the managing decorator and generally had no manufacturing plants. Nevertheless, these design studios were very productive. In 1925 for example, Primavera had created over 13 000 unique products since its beginning and could count about fifteen full time collaborators, half of whom were women.

All the major stores created a studio, even if some lasted only a few years. We can really say that fierce competition existed between then and that forced the addition of new articles every year. The result was an overflow of products, resulting in a large variety of styles being offered to customers, a situation that had no comparison with any other country.

Listed below you will find for the first time, the largest and most comprehensive listing concerning the Parisian workshops.

Store name: Le Printemps
Workshop or studio name: Primavera
Managing designer: Rene Guillere
Creation date: 1912

Store name: Les Galeries Lafayette
Workshop or studio name: La Maitrise
Managing designer: Maurice Dufrene
Creation date: 1921

Store name: Le Bon Marche
Workshop or studio name: Pomone
Managing designer: Paul Follot
Creation date: 1922

Store name: Le Louvre
Workshop or studio name: Studium
Managing designer: Etienne Kohlman
Creation date: 1923

Store name: Galeries Barbes
Workshop or studio name: Lutetia
Managing designer: Andre Evrard
Creation date: 1927

Store name: Au Bucheron
Workshop or studio name: Le Sylve
Managing designer: Michel Dufet
Creation date: 1928

Store name: Les Trois Quartiers
Workshop or studio name: Athelia
Managing designer: Robert Block
Creation date: 1929

Store name: Le Palais de la Nouveaute
Workshop or studio name: Les Beaux Metiers
Managing designer: Andre Arbus
Creation date: 1930s

Store name: La Samaritaine de Luxe
Workshop or studio name: L'Atelier d'Art
Managing designer: Jean Blasset
Creation date: 1930s

To understand the importance of these actors on the market and retail stage, we have to remember that they provided work for both manufacturers and craftsmen, and that besides their full time collaborators they could also ask for assistance from other artists as well. If you add to this number the galleries and studios of other designers, you can well imagine that Paris at this particular moment in time was the world centre for the decorative arts, due mostly to the quantity and quality of the artists that were available. This powerful centralised organisation of French Art Deco contributors has nothing to do with today's world economic model, but it is certainly one of the main reasons that the movement is still present in our memories.

From this list of nine names only the first four were really successful. After the Second World War only Primavera and La Maitrise remained and were able to adapt their activities to suit the changes in the market. Today Primavera bears little resemblance to the original company and the achievements that that company produced in the past.

Why is it important to debate the issue of these workshops in a blog regarding twentieth century rug design? For the simple reasonj that during the 1920s these workshops produced some of the most creative, innovative and well designed rugs, a number of which we will present in future articles. Today, because of the work of that design period, no one could conceive of a modern decorative scheme without a carpet.

To be fair, not all of the companies offered rugs in their catalogues, but for the leaders in the field the sales impact was representative. For example, in a 1928 issue of the British magazine The Studio, an article devoted to La Maitrise reported that in 1927 more than two thirds of the total of carpets sold, apart from oriental products, were modern carpets. In the 1930s their influence in rug design was reduced because of the trend for simpler geometrical compositions woven in North Africa, namely Algeria and Morocco. The 1929 Crash and the creation of the UAM (Union des Artistes Modernes), a new organisation of designers which promoted a much more radical and non-decorative approach to design, changed the market trend. As a consequence, the more traditional and expensive French creations had difficulty in competing in the market place.

In a future post we will comment on the rug design activities of the major workshops.

News and Auctions
1)November 11 2009, Bonhams London: lot 133, Marion Dorn and a Morris & Co carpet for the Holland Park residence.
2)November 12 2009, Camard Paris: Bearskin by Moorer Eelko.
3)November 15 2009, Koller Geneva: Paul Klee and Andy Warhol (new re-edition 2008).
4)November 17-20 2009, Christie's Paris: second Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Berge sale: some oriental carpets (Khotan, Agra, Kazak) and three European rugs: a round one by Paule Leleu; an original and rare rug by Yvonne Fourgeaud, possibly produced by A La Place Clichy; a very nice piece from C F AS Voysey, featuring the Lisburn design.

Article written by Jean Manuel de Noronha

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