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F.-L. Schmied: Master of the Art Deco Book

By Leonard Fox, Assisted by Adrianne Cochran

As all connoisseurs of the twenties know, the Art Deco period wrought a total revision in design. This design renaissance was financed mostly by the teeming profits of the Industrial Revolution. Paradoxically, the wealth spawned from the assembly line spurred the last great handcraft era.


The designer elites of this era applied their brilliance to myriad art forms. Paul Poiret shocked haute couture with his sleek creations inspired by the East. Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann captivated the crème de Ia crème with elegant furniture fashioned from ebony and ivory. The opalescent glass fantasies of René Lalique and the filigreed iron works of Raymond Subes achieved immense popularity. Discriminating collectors of today continue to seek these masterpieces.


One art form that had a dynamic transformation during the twenties, the illustrated book, is little known in the United States, although it has a venerable tradition in Europe.


The first type of illustrated book to be coveted by the European cognoscenti was the illuminated manuscript. Primarily crafted by monks to elucidate religious texts, each medieval manuscript required months to years of painstaking preparation.


With the advent of movable type, invented by Johann Gutenberg in the fifteenth century, crude woodcuts began to be mass produced, and illustration techniques gradually improved. In 1796 a consistent color process, lithography, was introduced by Alois Senefeld. Thomas Bewick popularized the use of wood engravings in the early nineteenth century. The wood engraving process, which cut blocks on the end grain with a graver tool instead of a knife, allowed a more finely detailed illustration than the traditional woodcut.


By the turn of the twentieth century the avant-garde became fascinated with superb craftsmanship and meticulous design. Inspired by illuminated manuscripts and exquisite Japanese prints, artists desired to create beautiful books where illustrations and text flowed together. To achieve this end, they created typography that matched the tone of each particular work. Also, they incorporated the decorative elements into the text with unusual spatial relationships that altered or eliminated traditional boundaries of book illustration. The stunning books that ensued were produced on hand presses and filled with pochoir illustrations––a stencil process for making colored prints or adding color to a printed key illustration––or intricate engravings on wood.     

Schmied was born in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1873. After his formal training at the Guillaume Le Bé School, he studied with Barthélemy Menn, a Swiss painter. Menn's exotic circle of friends included Henri Rousseau, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot and Eugène Delacroix. The period left an indelible mark on Schmied, manifesting itself in his invigorating use of color. Schmied's technical abilities were then honed by study with the brilliant engraver, Alfred Martin.


In 1911, Schmied received his first big break when his work was brought to the attention of one of the period's most elite book clubs, Les Sociétés du Livre Contemporain. Unlike American book clubs of today, these French societies comprised only the haut monde, and their function was to sponsor the production of lavish limited editions by outstanding artists and authors. The club commissioned Schmied to collaborate as typographer and engraver with artist Paul Jouve on an illustrated version of Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book.

Like its medieval predecessors, The Jungle Book took years of preparation; the project had to be tabled at the outbreak of World War I. Schmied enlisted in the French Foreign Legion. While at the Battle of the Somme, he was wounded and suffered the loss of an eye. The veteran returned to Paris and worked on completing The Jungle Book.[1]


In 1919 The Jungle Book was finally published and won the approbation of the French book world. As a result, Schmied's reputation was assured, and enticing commissions followed in a steady stream. Always the perfectionist, F.-L. Schmied never compromised his high technical standards in his search for each book's quintessential marriage of text and illustrations.


One of Schmied's more arduous undertakings was Salonique, la Macédoine, L'Athos [2] published in 1922. As printer and engraver, Schmied was responsible for converting the paintings of Jean Goulden into 45 plates. To recreate the pointillist-inspired style of Goulden, Schmied meticulously executed the illustrations with large areas composed entirely of dots and slashes.

Many artists contributed to the elevation of the book arts during the twenties, but the undisputed master was François­ Louis Schmied. A renaissance man, Schmied combined the skills of illustrator, typographer and printer. He possessed an amazing capacity for observation and invention, and his artistry brought new grace and beauty to the illustrated book.

Daphne Cover_NoBkgrnd.png

Detail of the geometric design from the cover of Daphné.

George Barbier, who first achieved fame for his fashion illustrations, collaborated with Schmied on two of his best works, Les Chansons de Bilitis [3] and Personnages de Comédie [4]. Both published in 1922, the books embodied Barbier's elegant Art Deco style. Barbier employed the simplicity and symmetry of classical Grecian art in conjunction with his own fluid line.

The maquette, or original layout, of Les Chansons de Bilitis was exhibited in the first joint show of Jean Dunand, P. Jouve, J. Goulden, and F.-L. Schmied in 1921. A visual feast, this subtly erotic book captures a world of serenely beautiful creatures who exist for romantic trysts and dangerous liaisons. Barbier used a distinctive palette consisting primarily of burnt sienna, teal blue, jet black, and luminous gold to convey this exotic world, which was faithfully printed in color by Schmied. 


F.-L. Schmied displayed his original talent in book illustration with the publication of Salammbô [5] in 1923. This seminal work set the tone for his future books with its hard-edged geometric rendering, reminiscent of Egyptian friezes, but with an added cubist dimension.


Schmied emerged as the leading Art Deco book designer when his graphic tour de force, Daphné,[6] was published in 1924. To draw the reader into the Byzantine milieu of the book's stoic hero, Emperor Flavius Claudius Julianus, Schmied employed a bold typeface highlighted with Iarge, commanding initial letters. Contrapuntal to the typography, his vignettes, borders and tailpieces of an austere and geometrically abstract nature embellished the text. Schmied's use of rich somber colors and rigorous design in his full-page illustrations harmonized perfectly with the rest. The masterpiece that resulted can be compared with a Mozart sonata: take away the smallest element and the whole is irreparably diminished.


Daphné, together with Le Cantique des Cantiques,[7] which was published the following year, is considered by serious book collectors to be the apogee of Schmied's career, perhaps of the twentieth century book. Le Cantique des Cantiques, an especially difficult book to locate today, is distinguished by the tremulous beauty of its illustrations.  




Detail from the cover of Histoire de la Princesse Boudoir.

Schmied embarked on his smallest publishing endeavor, Histoire de Ia Princesse Boudoir,[8] in 1926 with J. Dunand and Jean-Charles Mardrusas collaborators. Dr. Mardrus, who worked with Schmied on many other projects, translated the text from The Thousand and One Nights. The work, which yielded a precious twenty copies, was designed and illustrated by F.-L. Schmied and hand-colored by J. Dunand at his own atelier.


Schmied faced an enormous technical challenge in his production of Le Paradis Musulman.[9] A majority of the illustrations display an impressive range of textures and subtle color gradations. Ward Ritchie, who was one of America's foremost book designers, noted in his biography of Schmied that the composition for the title page required 45 engraved blocks.


Le Paradis Musulman, which was published in 1930, is also a wonderful example of Schmied's later style. To convey the mood of this hedonistic paradise, Schmied incorporated into his distinctive geometric compositions a more highly chromatic palette, a certain opulence of design, and even a hint of whimsy in his overall approach. He depicted an eccentric and vivid universe filled with lighthearted natives and shimmering planetary bodies spinning through time.


The Depression era started the chain of events that led to Schmied's financial ruin, and eventually to his own tragic demise. Luxury items, like Schmied's books, were among the first commodities that lost their value in the depressed market. Schmied bravely tried to buy back his own books to maintain their monetary worth. He was caught, however, in an economic process beyond one man's control, and by the mid-thirties Schmied had lost his atelier and his celebrated yacht, La Peau Brune.


Schmied's friends in the French government gave him a minor commission at a desert outpost called Tahanaout in Morocco, 1,250 miles from his beloved Paris. Part of Schmied's duties was to help alleviate the misery of the people under his authority. In January 1941, as a result of his selfless ministrations to his public during an epidemic, François-Louis Schmied, master of the Art Deco book, died of the plague.

About the Author:

Leonard Fox is the owner of Leonard Fox Ltd., and has been a distinguished purveyor of fine arts and rare books for over 35 years. He has remained one of the premier specialists in 20th century illustrated books, including works by Surrealist, Art Deco, Art Nouveau, and Modern and Contemporary artists.


All Photos: Art Nouveau and Art Deco Bookbinding by Alastair Duncan

This article was originally published in the Winter 1985, Volume 5, Number 4, edition of the Art Deco Society of New York News.


[1] The Jungle Book. By Rudyard Kipling. Illustrated by Paul Jouve. Engraved on wood and printed in color by Flashier. 1919. 125 copies on arches vellin.

[2] Salonique, la Macédoine, L'Athos. Illustrated by Jean Goulden. Preface by Gustave Schlumberger. Engravedon wood and printed in colo rby F.-L. Schmied. 1922. 177 copies on japon.

[3] Les Chansons de Bilitis. By Pierre Louÿs. Illustrated by George Barbier. Engraved o nwood and printed in color by F.-L. Schmied. 1922. 125 copies on arches vellin.

[4] Personnages de Comédie. By Albert Flament, Illustrated by George Barbier .Engraved on wood and printed in color by F.-L.Schmied. 1922. 150 copies on arches vellin.

[5] Salammbô. By Gustave Flaubert.  Illustrated, engraved on wood and printed in color b yF.-L.Schmied. 1923. 1,000 copies.

[6] Daphne. By Alfred de Vigny. Illustrated, engraved on wood and printed in color by F.-L. Schmied. 1924. 140 copies on arches vellin.

[7] Le Cantique des Cantiques. Translated by Ernes tRenan. Illustrated, engraved on wood and printed in color by F.-L. Schmied. 1925. 110 copies on arches vellin.

[8] Histoire de la Princesse Boudoir. Translated by Dr. J.C. Mordrus. Illustrated by F.-L.Schmied. Hand-colored by J. Dunand. 1926. 20 copies.

[9] Le Paradis Musulman. Translated by Dr. J.C. Mordrus. Illustrated, engraved on wood and printed in color by F-L. Schmied.

Article originally published in the Art Deco New York journal, Vol. 4, Issue 1, Winter 2019. View a digital version of the full journal here.

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