Modern Architecture and Design
In the early twentieth century, Pierre Chareau (1883–1950) was one of the most sought-after designers in France. His talent at integrating architecture and interior design into a harmonious entity attracted an elite clientele with a taste for the modern. He is known for creating furniture that blended industrial materials—such as wrought iron and glass—with exotic, luxurious woods such as Macassar ebony and amaranth. Chareau has long been esteemed by architects and designers but little known to the general public.
Chareau began his career in 1899 with the Paris branch of the British furniture manufacturer Waring and Gillow. After his discharge from the military in 1919, he established his own practice. His first independent commission was a study/bedroom for friends Dr. Jean Dalsace and his wife, the former Annie Bernheim, for whom he would later design the Maison de Verre (Glass House), his best-known work. Chareau’s wife, Louise “Dollie” Dyte, had once been Annie’s tutor. The project, which was exhibited at the 1919 Salon d’Automne, included an office for Dalsace containing an austere, angular desk with an extendable center piece, an early example of the moveable furniture that would become one of Chareau’s signatures.
Chareau’s participation in exhibitions and salons throughout the first half of the 1920s continued to draw attention to his work. As a member of the Société des Artistes Décorateurs (Society of Decorative Artists), he designed a study/library for a model French embassy in the group’s pavilion at the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes (International Exposition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts). The elegant circular space incorporated a number of elements that would become synonymous with Chareau—a sliding fan-like partition to enclose the desk, concealed overhead lighting, furniture with moveable parts, and the use of precious materials, in this case veneers of beech and palmwood.
Chareau also collaborated with French filmmakers on set designs. Marcel L’Herbier’s L’Inhumaine (1924) and Le Vertige (1926) are among the films in which his furniture appeared.
Pierre Chareau and Bernard Bijvoet, Maison de Verre, 1928-1932. The residence, designed for the Dalsace family, is sheathed in translucent textured glass brick. Photo: © Mark Lyon
A suite of furniture exhibited by Pierre Chareau in 1922. Chareau’s signature pieces could be combined in endless variations and adapted to rooms of different dimensions and characteristics.
The late 1920s brought two important architectural commissions, both collaborations with the Dutch architect Bernard Bijvoet. In 1928, they designed a reinforced concrete clubhouse for the Hôtel Le Beauvallon golf course near Saint-Tropez. Chareau also created distinctive metal and wood furnishings for the interior.
Their second project was the Maison de Verre, the Modernist masterpiece at 31rue Saint-Guillaume in Paris, for the Dalsaces. The façade is a curtain of translucent textured glass brick that illuminates the interior while preserving the privacy of the occupants. The ground floor housed the client's medical offices, left largely unchanged by the current owner. A floating staircase, separated by by a curved glass wall and a metal screen, leads to the upper two levels
Telephone table (MB152) and La Petite Religieuse table lamp, ca. 1924, designed by Pierre Chareau. Table, walnut and patinated wrought iron; lamp, walnut, patinated wrought iron, and alabaster. Private collection.
Pochoir print by Pierre Chareau of Jean and Annie Dalsace’s apartment interior, Boulevard Saint-Germain, Paris, ca. 1923. Chareau would later design his best-known work, the Maison de Verre, or Glass House, for the Dalsaces.
La Religieuse floor lamp, ca. 1923, designed by Pierre Chareau. The alabaster lampshade resembled the white cornette. Photo: Ken Collins, provided by Gallery Vallois America, LLC.
By 1932, Chareau’s commissions were starting to dwindle as France began to feel the impact of the Great Depression. Even more devastating was the German occupation of Paris in 1940. Chareau had been raised a Catholic, but his Jewish roots impelled him to flee France, first to Morocco and then New York, where he would remain until his death in 1950.
Chareau continued to design furniture during his years in New York, although few pieces were produced. He and Dollie managed by selling paintings from their extensive collection of modern art, which included works by Pablo Picasso, Jacques Lipschitz, and Amedeo Modigliani.
The house designed for Robert Motherwell by Pierre Chareau. Courtesy of Barney Rosset Estate. The East Hampton, Long Island home combined a surplus World War II Quonset hut with a window from an industrial greenhouse, concrete blocks, and plywood.
In the late 1940s, Chareau completed two architectural projects in the United States. One was a house and studio for artist Robert Motherwell in East Hampton, Long Island. Created from a surplus World War II Quonset hut, a prefabricated metal structure, it also incorporated a window from an industrial greenhouse, concrete blocks, and plywood. (6) In exchange for designing the house, Chareau was permitted to construct a small cottage for himself on the premises. Known as the Maison “Pièce Unique” or the Petite Maison de Repos (Little Rest House), it consisted of concrete and terra-cotta blocks. His other project was a home, called La Colline (The Hill), in Spring Valley, New York, for pianist Germaine Monteaux and writer Nancy Laughlin.
This article is an excerpt from an exhibition review of the Jewish Museum's Pierre Chareau: Modern Architecture and Design originally published for the On View column in the the Art Deco New York journal, Vol. 1, Issue 2, Winter 2016. View a digital version of the full journal here.