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A fine Eastern Pende Panya-Gombe African mask. Coll.: David Norden

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art deco

From the beginning, art deco design was about cool, clean lines, a proto-minimalist aesthetic that was the antithesis of the 19th century's penchant for big, ornate and brightly coloured furniture. But if it wasn't for the dusty villages and tribal traditions of France's African colonies, argues Benoist Drut, the fine details that defined art deco may never have been.


Finding art deco in France's colonial past

By Paul Sullivan
Published: May 28 2005 03:00 at FT

Drut's show "Primitive and Modern: African Art and Its Influence on 20th Century French Furniture and Decorative Art", at his Maison Gerard boutique in New York, argues that Africa's influence on French designers can be traced to a furniture auction. Jacques Doucet - "the Karl Lagerfeld of his age" - caused a stir among Paris's fashionable set when, in 1912, he sold all the 18th century furniture in his house. "It was a scandal," says Drut. Doucet decided to redecorate his home with an African motif and, in the process, make it thoroughly modern.

After this, the Parisian sensibility was primed for anything that seemed even remotely African - from black chanteuse Josephine Baker, who was born in St. Louis but still took Paris by storm, to carmaker Andre Citr÷en, who sponsored a tour of Africa in 1924 and showed the footage in French cinemas. Designers such as Pierre Legrain, who furnished Doucet's residence, Jean Michel Frank and Emile Jacques Ruhlmann sensed the interest and began to incorporate the shapes and patterns of tribal dress, furniture and goods into what became art deco.

"They could all of a sudden discover Africa in the movie theatre," says Drut. "Designers weren't making trips to Africa. It was part of their daily lives."

At first, the influence of tribal artefacts on art deco may seem like a stretch, but in the course of the show it becomes clear how a practical implement such as a birthing chair or a ceremonial gown could insinuate itself into the high French aesthetic.

A set of three tables, designed by Frank between 1930 and 1935 looks like a precursor to today's bunching tables. But the devil is in the detail: a layer of parchment over the top and around the legs gives the set a fine weathered look. Juxtaposed with a Nigerian prestige stool that preceded it by a few decades and a 19th-century tripod stool from Cameroon, the similarities in finish and texture are clear.

More striking is the block pattern on a round coffee table (c.1930) by Eugene Printz, which Drut shows next to a patterned cloth used for a celebratory dress. Arguably the finest piece in the show, a palmwood table with pocketed wood on both sides and brass-plated feet has a veneered pattern of squares on top that echoes a Shoowa dress.

A 19th-century birthing chair from the Ivory Coast inspired Legrain to create a similar chair for Doucet's wife, while a large mirror by Frank appears to have a smooth dark finish from a distance but a closer look reveals a veneer of thin pieces of straw - bringing a bit of the Serenghetti to Montmartre.

Such elegance does not come cheap. Frank's three tables are listed at $150,000, his mirror at $24,000, while Printz's coffee table costs $75,000. Even art deco pieces whose provenance cannot be verified fetch dear prices. A two-door armoire, made of cerused oak and wenge wood with brass accents, is listed at $28,000.

The show also features 80 pieces of African art from the collection of Richard Meyer, which are placed around the gallery, as they would have been in a Parisian apartment at the time. After a move from New York to Bali, Meyer is selling his collection, says Drut, and it may be the deal of the show.

The birthing chair is priced at $4,500, while the prestige stool is $2,800. The Shoowa dress fabric is listed at $850. Other prized items include a sacred monkey mask ($25,000) from the Dogon tribe in Mali and the "Man of Many Birds" feather costume from Liberia ($15,000), which would be a conversation starter in any home.

"African art and history have always been a part of French culture," says Drut. "There have always been a lot of exchanges - whether they were consensual or not."

Maison Gerard Ltd, 53 East 10th St, New York, NY,

tel: +1 212 674 7611, Show runs to June 4

It is just a pity the African art on show is much more recent than the furniture.

Let me know if you have good art deco, since some of my clients are also art deco dealers.

David Norden

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