Cooper Hewitt says...

Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann was born on August 8, 1879 to Alsatian parents who owned a painting and contracting firm in Paris. Through his father’s business, he made contact with the young architects and designers who would provide his first glimpses into the world of furniture.

Upon his father’s death in 1907, Ruhlmann took over the business. He designed his first furniture in 1910, providing furnishings for the apartment he shared with his new wife. His early designs were influenced by the Art Nouveau style that was popular in turn-of-the- century France. Later, he was influenced by the architects and designers who created innovative furniture in Vienna around the time of the First World War.

By 1920 his design aesthetic had moved away from the heavy pieces he created earlier in the century. At this time he focused on creating luxury furnishings for the most elite members of society, saying quite succinctly in a magazine interview: “A clientele of artists, intellectuals and connoisseurs of modest means is very congenial, but they are not in a position to pay for all the research, the experimentation, the testing that is needed to develop a new design. Only the very rich can pay for what is new and they alone can make it fashionable. Fashions don’t start among the common people. Along with satisfying a desire for change, fashion’s real purpose is to display wealth.” He further stated: “Whether you want it or not, a style is just a craze. And fashion does not come up from humble backgrounds.”

Ruhlmann, the pre-eminent French luxury designer of the 1920s, was a master designer who understood the value of using rare materials to create distinct, one-of-a- kind pieces. The hallmarks of these early works were their almost imperceptible curves and elegantly subtle uses of ivory or other exotic materials such as ebony and rare woods.

Ruhlmann created pared-down slightly curved rectangular furniture forms reminiscent of the smooth lines and smooth surfaces of the early neo-classical furniture produced in Paris in the 1770s. Like his predecessors, he favored rich, exotic woods, often with delicate inlays of contrasting materials. He showed his modernism in eschewing much patterning that wasn’t inherent in the materials, and using some materials in new ways. For instance, shagreen (sharkskin, often stained) was used for covering small objects or areas in the 18th century, but could be found covering entire cabinet pieces in the 1920s. He developed lines, often with names, such as “Colette” so that a model, such as a commode, could be duplicated for additional orders, not only from his showrooms but also from the many exhibitions in which his work was featured.

For the 1925 Paris Exposition International Des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes,
Ruhlmann was commissioned to design a pavilion called Salon d’un Collectioneur, or the Salon of a Collector, for which he designed all the furniture, using strongly figured, striped Macassar ebony or rosewood. In the middle hung a large Baccarat chandelier, and on the wall a painting by Jean Dupas, which he would have selected.

His work was heavily featured in the many periodicals that showcased interior design which were published in the late 1910s and 1920s. While he also designed luxury accoutrements for boudoirs and bathrooms, many of which used the popular color orange, Ruhlmann’s primary impact was as a bridge between the traditional and the modern in the luxury design world, as he kept the tradition of skilled handwork alive with original designs that could be used in classic and modern interiors alike. Exposure to his work through direct acquisitions made by the Metropolitan Museum, international publications, and many internationally attended exhibitions, helped ease the way in the United States towards a more modern taste. Soon after the Metropolitan’s early acquisitions, starting in 1923, American variants that included modern materials, many made by the Company of Master Craftsmen in New York, started to appear.

When Ruhlmann learned that he was terminally ill in 1933, he determined to protect the name that he had built over a twenty-year period. In his will, he stated that the company was to complete the orders that were currently in-house, and then he ordered the dissolution of the company.

Ruhlmann’s command over design and mastery of material combinations yielded pieces of furniture that are historically incomparable. His formal elegance made much of the work of his contemporaries appear bizarre in form, and garish with respect to materials and color. When examining Ruhlmann’s furniture it is important to take notice of the subtle use of grain. Ruhlmann was careful not to allow the figure of the wood to vie for attention with the form of the furniture. His two favorite woods; Macassar ebony and amboyna burl both create soft but striking background patterns, without focusing attention on the wood itself. This allowed the veneers to support the design details instead of competing with them.