Les PalmiersAn iconic piece of Art Deco Design
It took six years to complete, and exhibits his mastery of the lacquer technique, with contrasting tones and textures enlivening the interweaving, geometric design
Jean Dunand designed Les Palmiers in the 1930s for his client Mademoiselle Colette Aboucaya, as her exotic, luxurious, and painstakingly crafted smoking room, for her apartments on the fashionable rue de Monceau in Paris. The room is an iconic piece of Art Deco design, entirely clad in wooden panels lacquered in silver and gold tones, and lustrous black metal. The panels feature geometric stripes and swirls, creating an abstract, cubist impression of a forest of palm trees. The separate panels overlap and vary in size, creating a sense of depth in the palm grove. The geometric patterns continue to the cornicing, reaching up overhead like a forest canopy. Three doors, coated in gold on the outside, open out onto what would have been Mademoiselle Aboucaya’s salons. The room would have been furnished with pieces in black lacquer by her decorator, Gérard Mille; silk upholstery by Hélène Henry; and a geometric carpet by Ivan Da Silva Bruhns.
The room is considered a French national treasure, and has known various owners throughout its history. It has now moved from Paris to Phillips Gallery in London, ahead of its auction on 30th June 2021, where it is reunited with an original daybed by Japanese designer Katzu Hamanaka in shagreen (lacquered sting ray skin) and plush black upholstery. The bed was designed specifically for the room at the time of its creation, but was then separated in different collections over the years. The upward curves of the daybed are said to represent the form of a gondola, as if the sitter were exploring a tropical island covered in palm trees, suggested by the panel design along the walls. The way that Les Palmiers is currently displayed in Phillips Gallery allows the outside of the structure to be experienced, where the raw wood of the lacquered walls and the joins holding the separate panels together can be seen. To the right of the entrance, newspapers representing the previous owners of the room, dated with the year of each purchase, are attached to the wall, ranging from 1936 to 2016.
Dunand was one of few European artists practising lacquer at the time, a traditional and time consuming Japanese craft (each panel in Les Palmiers was lacquered, dried and polished 20 times). He learned the technique under Japanese artist and craftsman Seizô Sugawara in 1912. In 1925, he designed a smoking room for the French Embassy pavilion for the landmark Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris. Coachbuilder Henri Binder was exhibiting his car designs there, to which Dunand also contributed lacquer interiors. The owner of Binder’s company, Mlle Aboucaya, was so impressed with Dunand’s designs that she commissioned him directly to create her own smoking room. It took six years to complete, and exhibits his mastery of the lacquer technique, with contrasting tones and textures enlivening the interweaving, geometric design, causing one’s eye to constantly roam its surface, discovering further layers, shapes and detail, as if peering through the enmeshed fronds and trunks of a tropical forest.
Les Palmiers is available to view at Phillips Gallery in London until 30 June 2021.
- words: Ollie Horne
- photos: Genevieve Lutkin