Frankly Classic

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Posted January 15, 2013. Filed in Jean-Michel Frank, Understated Luxury

In my first two posts on the designer Jean-Michel Frank I covered one of his earliest commissions by the Vicomte and Vicomtesse de Noailles for their Paris townhouse in 1926. A decade later U.S. politician and philanthropist Nelson Rockefeller would hire Frank for the decoration of his newly expanded New York apartment on Fifth Avenue. Rockefeller’s directive was “to do something in the style of Louis XV, with its excitement and beauty, but done in a modern way.” Since the 1920’s Frank was the most publicized and imitated interior designer in the world, but his work was yet to be seen in the states. Rockefeller’s profound admiration for Frank led him to seek him out and bring le style Frank to U. S. shores.

Photography by Richard Champion.

Nelson “Wally” Rockefeller was interested in curves and color, not the monochromatic angular steel and glass “machines for living” espoused by the Modernists of the day. Frank’s approach to Modernism was sensual, with an affinity for texture and the hand-made.

The living room’s boiseries were punctuated by fluid, curving, matching door and window frames, simplified versions of the Louis XV-style on which they were based.

Photography by Horst

The spare elegance  which Frank intended for the de Noailles Paris salon, with its neutral palette and cubist forms, would give way to color and curvilinear forms in the Rockefeller project. Curvaceous creamy sofas based on Louis XV examples were reduced to their essential outlines, free of carving or superfluous decoration. Chairs in the foreground faintly echo the Louis-XVI examples they were based on. Flanking either side of the fireplace are pairs of gilt bergeres adapted from Louis XIII models. A traditional Aubusson was updated by Christian Bérard with stylized flowers on a mauve ground. Matisse’s exuberant mural La Poésie (a copy of the 1938 original) is set within another stylized Louis-XV boiserie frame. Matisse’s oil Collioure hangs above the sofa. To the right of the mural hangs his Italian Women, 1915.

The living room was conceived in the manor of a graceful Louis-XV-style salon without the formality, anchored at either end by fireplaces with mural surrounds. Rockefeller had a great taste for Matisse, one inherited from his mother, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller. Matisse created one of the room’s two murals in Nice. The other mural was executed by Leger in New York. In the 1970’s Rockefeller donated the murals to the Museum of Modern Art, replacing the originals with copies.

Photography by Horst.

Leger’s Woman with a Book mural surrounds a fireplace in the living room. A Frank-designed gilt bronze table and lamp sits between leather and cane bergères based on Louis-XV models. In front of the fireplace sits a green snakeskin table by Frank.

As not only a designer, but a true artist, Frank most certainly must have been exhilarated by the new direction his work was taking. By staying true to his affair with simplicity of form, texture, and precious, if not exotic, materials, Frank’s vision for the Rockefeller’s was complete. It is known to have been a great success, not just in the U.S. but worldwide. Rockefeller aptly remarked that there was “a warmth to it that was exciting. It had elements of the past styled in a contemporary way, combining richness and quality with the simplicity of the modern. To me it was ideal.”

Archival photograph


2 Responses to Frankly Classic

  1. January 16, 2013 at 3:23 pm

    Cris… I am learning so much as I read your blog posts…thank you for your time…talent and beautifully written words…


  2. Cristopher
    January 17, 2013 at 9:13 am

    Thank you, Victoria – it’s a labor of love and I’m grateful you are enjoying my posts! I plan to round out the subject of Jean-Michel Frank in the next two posts and move on to other idioms. For selfish reasons I hope to transfer a lot of data from print media to my blog to keep me better organized and free up space in my office. No better time to do it than now, in the beginning, when few even know my blog exists. That said, many of the coming posts will feature more photos than text. Thank you following me along me on my journey!