Thursday, 26 November 2009

Jacques-Emile Ruhlmann's Carpets: Biographical Notes and Basic Concepts in Rug Design. Part 1 of 3

I had not planned to write about Ruhlmann's carpets in 2009, but the publication of an important book of over 500 pages on this major personality of the Art Deco period has provoked a reaction from this rug documentalist. In Ruhlmann by Florence Camard, published by Monelle Hayot, ISBN 978-2-903824-66-2 (sold for about 130 euros), the author has portrayed Ruhlmann's life and productions on a chronological basis. Carpets are illustrated intermittently, but like many biographies of designers, there is no specific chapter on carpet and rug design, nor are there any extra notes devoted to the subject at the end of the book. For other interior products that were produced by the Ruhlmann company such as general textiles and wallpapers, the situation is similar. As would be expected with a biography of Ruhlmann, furniture takes a privileged position in the book. Unfortunately, the absence of any index reduces the usefulness of this massive publication for research and documentary purposes, but perhaps the book should be seen as a good introduction to the work of Ruhlmann, rather than as a detailed reference guide.

An exhaustive reference catalogue still remains to be written of the Ruhlmann archives available in the French National Library, BNF Departement des Estampes Paris, and the museums: Musee des Arts Decoratifs Cabinets des Dessins, Paris, Musee des Anees Trente, Boulogne-Billancourt and the Institute of Architecture, Paris still remains to be written. Meanwhile I will provide some complimentary information in three articles starting with this one.

Ruhlmann's Boudoir from the Hotel d'un Collectionneur for the 1925 Paris International Exhibition, plate no.2, Interieurs en Couleurs, Leon Deshairs, Albert Levy ed., 1925. The Carpet Index

To present Jacques-Emile Ruhlmann (1879-November 1933) as a major cabinet-maker, the Art Deco Riesener, is of course correct, but technically he never actually produced any furniture himself. Another point is that by concentrating on the furniture output from Ruhlmanns' company, it can prevent us from appreciating his talent as an Architecte Decorateur (Architect Designer), a term he used to describe himself and one that is really an appropriate one to describe his work methods.

In the three posts dedicated to Ruhlmann I will consider the carpets produced by his company, even if there was no actual weaving workshop for textiles or rugs connected to the company. Like many other designers' studios, the company sold carpets from other independent artists such as Ivan da Silva Bruhns, Leon Voguet and Emile Gaudissard, some of whom were registered with a reference number. However, the majority of the carpets sold by the company were in fact conceived by the Ruhlmann design staff and studio.

Biographical Notes
1879 Birth in Paris.
1900 First drawings produced during military service.
1901 Works in his Father's company that dealt with house-painting, wallpaper and the manufacture of mirrors.
1907 Marriage. After his Father's death, starts to manage the family firm.
1911 First participation in the SAD, Salon des Artistes Decorateurs.
1912 First office established at 27 rue de Lisbonne.
1919 New association with a partner and founding of the Etablissement Ruhlmann & Laurent that allows him to concentrate on his decoration business.
1923 First workshop at the rue d'Ouessant. Purchase by the MET of furniture.
1925 International recognition during the Exhibition for the Pavillon du Collectionneur.
1927 Second workshop.
1932 The company is affected by the economic situation.
1933 Death of Ruhlmann. Laurent continues the painting business. Alfred Porteneuve, Ruhlmann's nephew, in charge of the closure of the decoration department.

Ruhlmann never officially studied art or design. He began by drawing intensively after 1900, and learned progressively from the partners of the Faubourg Saint Antoine who started producing his furniture before 1923. He established his own very high standards in order to try to perpetuate the excellence in cabinet-making that had been achieved in the Golden century. Before the 1920s his decoration business did not show a profit and was indeed visibly unprofitable, it was the other more commercial activities that sponsored the artistic projects. Ruhlmann was talented enough to have accumulated many occupations including that of: sketcher, designer, cabinet maker, architect and manager. As a visionary he always wanted the best and accepted that he had to pay the price for that stand, even if it meant losing money. Therefore he could be very demanding towards both collaborators and suppliers and insisted on controlling all of the details.

Ruhlmann could of course produce furniture in his own right, but he excelled in finding the right proportions between the furniture and the space that it was intended for. To achieve the objective of an elegant and seemingly effortless balance, he was ready to question all aspects of composition, colour and shape. He refused to apply systematic rules and looked for innovative solutions, even if they were not necessarily immediately noticeable at first sight. Each project was unique.

This was also true for his carpets. For him the rug was a total experience, including all aspects of the carpet from fringe, to selvedge, to pile, all were considered equal parts of the same object and the decorator had to play with each element in order to achieve the decorative aim. This is also true when considering the inner composition of the floor covering. Ruhlmann clearly refused to follow the traditional oriental models of composition and preferred rugs with all over designs and with thin or even nonexistent borders. He had a special attachment for round concentric rugs that were very complicated to compose and weave. He was very attentive to the nature of the material used for the pile and had a preference for very silky wool (mohair or merinos?), that once felt cannot be forgotten. These requirements were also true for the dye. Black for example, which seems a fairly basic standard colour to use, worked spectacularly well on a Ruhlmann carpet. The obsession with all the details makes these carpets unique and impossible to reproduce correctly through common photos.

News and Auctions
1)November 26 2009, Christie's, Paris, lot 30, a round carpet by Ruhlmann. Even if the first items of the sale belonged to Lord Rothermere's Parisian apartment, who also purchased carpets, this lot is from another origin. The carpet is composed of 15 concentric circles with different geometrical motifs, including curvilinear and broken lines. I imagine that it was inspired by Berber rectangular weavings that commonly used successive horizontal bands of geometrical motifs, but they never made a circular version. The rug has a diameter of only 250cm (98 3/8in). The knotting is coarse, about 4 to 6 Turkish knots per square cm, and they use about 6 to 7 threads of wool for the weaving of the pile, the large Ruhlmann carpets can have a lower density of knotting. The lot probably comes from Braquenie in Aubusson. I am convinced that once the pattern was transposed for the weaving it was a nightmare to weave. The weaver could not have afforded many mistakes because the concentric lines had to remain proportionate and very regular, otherwise the mistakes would be immediately perceived as it was so small in scale. It was first presented in 1925 and not 1930 as mentioned, in the showroom rue de Lisbonne, and I imagine this design had been chosen to give the firm impression of the high standards of the studio to visitors. Living in Paris I have actually seen and touched the rug, the sensation of which is of a unique combination of softness and thickness. The two brick colours are gorgeous. The carpet has been cleaned and it presents two sides like a silk carpet, due to the quality of the wool and the general good state of the piece. The estimated price of 40 to 60 000 euros might well be a little high for the present period. Do not hesitate to have a look:

Article written by Jean Manuel de Noronha

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