11 February 2011

Well Spent: 1940s French Armchairs

One of a pair of 1940s Louis XV-inspired armchairs, available at Sibyl Colefax & John Fowler Antiques.

Furniture made by designers of the 1940s ranks high on my list of desirables, especially those French talents who reinterpreted dix-huitième elegance for their own unsettled time. That backward glance can be traced to a desire to create a safe harbor in a world that had been shattered culturally, socially, and emotionally. As the quietly soignée Solange de Noailles, Duchesse d'Ayen, an editor at the Paris editions of Vogue and House & Garden, achingly observed in a wartime letter to a friend in New York City, "loves, lives, and belongings have lost every kind of value ... we suffer, and we shall suffer more." Despite her noble title, her perfectly fitted Balenciagas, and her family's romantic Château de Maintenon, the duchess (1898—1976) knew what she was talking about. Her husband, arrested and tortured by the Gestapo, spent three years being shuttled from one concentration camp to another, before perishing at Bergen-Belsen—one day before it was liberated by the Allies. Her only son, a 19-year-old infantry sergeant, was killed when he stepped on a German landmine. Mme d'Ayen herself spent months in solitary confinement in the famously brutal Fresnes prison.

Solange de Noailles, Duchesse d'Ayen, as seen in a signed 1931 photograph by fashion photographer Baron George von Hoyningen-Huene. It can be purchased from Staley-Wise Gallery.

Postwar France, the duchess noted a few years later, was finally free of its Nazi oppressors but it remained psychologically crippled, a land barely breathing. By returning to the glories of the distant past, she and many others thought, the spiritually wounded could find succor. Aesthetically, they had a point. In The Age of Comfort (Bloomsbury, 2009), cultural historian Joan E. DeJean, trustee professor of Romance languages at the University of Pennsylvania, winningly and wittily explores how the tastemakers of 18th-century France created not only palaces and hôtels particuliers of imperishable beauty but also chairs and sofas whose unprecedentedly ergonomic silhouettes and innovative upholstery techniques invited the human body to relax. In short, to be comforted. Which partly explains why so many French designers working in the 1940s and 1950s enthusiastically embraced handcarved cabriole legs and goosedown stuffing. And why their revivalist creations, however retardataire in concept, arguably represent something more than a mere fashion trend.

Sibyl Colefax & John Fowler Antiques in London has in stock a pair of open armchairs (Reference #AF16939) made in the 1940s, their painted-wood frames echoing the taste of the Louis XV period. They are priced at £4,800, approximately $7,700. The pale pink upholstery, trimmed with passementerie in a slightly darker shade of the same color, is highly appealing, don't you think?