To mark the 21st edition of the PAD (Paris Art + Design), from 22 to 26 March in the Tuileries Gardens, we take a plunge into the heart of the matter… Wood or the poetry of raw essences. Variations on an age-old material with a bright future ahead, whose presence on the decorative-arts and design market is… natural.
If furniture reflects the spirit of an era, then wood is well and truly a material that cannot be dissociated from the decorative arts. The emergence of a sedentary lifestyle in the Middle Ages contributed to the development of a type of furniture whose technical characteristics have evolved. Starting off with metal hinges and complex assemblies, progress was quick and gave rise to all the variations that we know today. In France, the 17th century saw the emergence of veneered furniture and cabinetwork. Ebony took the place of blackened pearwood while a new type of furniture item made its entrance: the cabinet. The Enlightenment brought an abundance of skill and ingeniousness in all furniture forms, usages and assemblies. Following the lead of the reigning sovereign’s tastes, furniture gradually took on the contributions of Boulle marquetry, porcelain plaques, imported lacquer, Martin varnish… Some furniture was even made sheet metal! Wood was no longer the focus, merely a means of expressing unparalleled refinement. One precision nonetheless: this principle only applied to Parisian decorative arts, conditioned by corporatism. In the French regions, namely in port towns, furniture could appear in solid mahogany. Meanwhile, the 19th century placed greater priority on the quality of wood: mahogany from Saint-Domingue, from Cuba… But very quickly, mechanisation hollowed a gap between artistic craftsmanship and industry. A union between the arts and industry was not a vain utopia however. Michael Thonet thus perfected a bentwood technique drawing inspiration from Biedermeier forms, and achieved a synthesis that rationalised production and export: 1m3 could hold 36 chairs made up of six unassembled pieces. Craftsmanship quickly regained its value with the Art Nouveau style that spread internationally and took diverse forms. France renewed its great tradition of woodwork. Wood, often from fruit trees, was used in either solid or laminated form.
Vital impetus and energy
Gallerist Jacques Lacoste, recognised for his work on Jean Royère, Alexandre Noll, Serge Mouille and Max Ingrand, is stretching his field of action at the PAD by presenting an Art Nouveau ensemble. The key piece, a dining table produced by Hector Guimard in around 1902 for the Castel Henriette in Sèvres, is an elegant and skilful rendition of Art Nouveau style, far removed from the “noodle” image that might come to mind. The supple arborescence of the base injects energy into the composition of this piece. While vegetal inspiration does not come out in the decoration, it is revealed in the table’s intrinsic form whose veins underline subtle motifs at its edges and corners. Homage is paid to native wood in the piece, made from cherry wood and oak. Further off, the warmth of exotic woods comes to the fore in a large padouk stand by Gustave Serrurier-Bovy, executed in around 1901. Jacques Lacoste specifies: ”I’ve always admired Hector Guimard. The acquisition of this table is the guiding thread of our stand. This Art Nouveau presentation comes more from a love of the quality of these objects than from a desire to change direction. This rare piece was shown in the 1970s at the Galerie du Luxembourg. Very beautiful pieces are not subject to fashions, and I think that collectors can appreciate this. We are also presenting this Serrurier-Bovy, an abstract piece that I’m particularly fond of for its vital impetus and its energy, not so distant from Jean Royère’s Liane.”
Wood offers a diversity of colours and veins, which are difficult to find in synthetic materials. While over the 20th century, technical experimentation has developed to make the most of artificial materials, wood remains a safe bet, encapsulating the noblesse associated with a natural and “living” material. Masters of Art Deco, such as Eugène Printz, often received training in cabinetmaking, which made them part of an honourable lineage. Jean-Jacques Dutko, who specialises in this creator, here offers a sumptuous palm-wood desk, its drawers lined with sycamore (c. 1929). Stylistic rigour is here set off by a circular-arc base in gilded brass. This material perfectly highlights the contrast between the light and dark of the wood’s fibres which themselves create a stunning effect. At another stand, we can find another sublime work in veneered wood: a coffee table in studded rosewood and solid mahogany by André Sornay, designed in around 1937. Here, the approach is a little different as the wooden panels have been studded – a technique patented by the creator in 1932. The method specific to the cabinetmaker from Lyon is both practical and aesthetic, with the line of studs playing a decorative role. This architectured item presented by the Alain Marcelpoil gallery is perfectly functional. Craftsmanship exists in symbiosis with industry, and the table’s two tabletops are fashioned in Saint-Gobain sanded glass.
Parallel to French Art Deco, another style to develop was Scandinavian design, characterised by a democratic approach. Alvar Aalto, a leading figure of this movement, invented his famous chair frame at the start of the 1930s, and gave wood new forms: the loops of laminated beechwood serving as the chair’s base extended into an armrest. Thanks to the Artek firm, his models were sold internationally. A few years later, Charles & Ray Eames perfected their moulded plywood seats. These productions created new milestones in the history of design. While these recent techniques have allowed forms to become democratised, production in wood, as luxurious as ever, continues nonetheless. Brazil is a wealth of knowhow in this domain. Gallerist Alexandre Frédéric, a defender of “modern and living” design, is presenting, as a first-time participant in the PAD, a set of nine pieces including three spectacular benches, nearly three metres long. Collectors can choose between Jorge Zalszupin’s Onda model in curved jacaranda (on offer at around €23,000), Sergio Rodriguez’s Mucki in solid jacaranda (€19,000), or else a model by Joaquim Tenreiro. The pure, sophisticated lines of these benches are shown off to dramatic effect. Grace and rationality are the catchwords of this Brazilian modernism.
This same trend is represented at the Le Beau gallery, with Zalszupin’s coffee table. The Petalas model, born at the start of the 1960s, drew inspiration from origami, with curved wooden petals forming an octagon. Here, veins in jacaranda wood create a radiating motif. Following an entirely different style, the gallery also presents a buffet by Paolo Buffa, from around 1943. The piece is composed of two parts: the lower console has two drawers, each fronted with a decorative strip; the dresser above consists of two shelves with curved edging. This wave motif recurs on the upper ledge and the lower crosspiece. Solid oak is prettily set off by canework at the back of the item. Between neoclassicism and modernist rigour, this piece demonstrates great sophistication, with the woodwork honed to perfection.
While the post-war period stands out for the use of poorer materials, the 1973 petrol crisis triggered ecological awareness backed up by aesthetics which traced their roots back to the purity and beauty of raw essences. The Salon del Mobile in Milan following this crisis was indicative of this trend. Society at the time was after safe bets; tastes turned away from the fizzy pop colours typical of modular furniture.
It’s hard to talk about wood without mentioning the work of Alexandre Noll, who began handling wood with a method developed by himself in the 1930s. By sculpting and polishing wood, he became a virtuoso in the matter. This art which tends towards abstraction took on a spiritual aspect which continues to enchant wood lovers. The same organic functionalism is visible in the work of Hans Itel, inspired by Rudolf Steiner and anthroposophic design. Gallerist Franck Laigneau presents an astonishing 50 centimetre-tall candleholder whose sculptural beauty flirts with mystical intensity. This is a path that continues to be followed today, leading to new forms, as in the case of Wendell Castle, whose designer objects can be taken for artworks. The Carpenters Workshop Gallery is incidentally currently holding an exhibition on the artist, “Planting Seeds”, in its Parisian space, on until 6 May.
Although gallerist Yves Gastou is not featuring wood in particular at this edition of the PAD, he has regularly focused on creators working with this material in original ways. At the last Biennale des Antiquaires, gouge-worked pieces by sculptor Jean Touret stood alongside Dominique Zimbacca’s “small architectures”. At the Tuileries stand, we can appreciate Philippe Hiquily’s iconic skittles, whose fossilised-wood plate matches organic materials and mineral poetry.
Wood is therefore a pretext for all types of experimentation. Burned by Maarten Baas in his series Smoke, used raw by Andrea Branzi and his Animali Domestici, kept minimalist as in Konstantin Grcic’s Hieronymus Wood armchair (evocative of the purity of Carl Andre’s works)… In every form, wood surpasses its condition as a material and is the object of complex speculation. Today, ranks of creators keen to explore new practices are rising in every country. The power of nature, the virtuosity of forms… To say the least, wood continually reinvents itself, endowing this age-old material with a bright future.
PAD, Art + Design. From Wednesday 22 to Sunday 26 March, Tuileries Gardens, 234 Rue de Rivoli, Paris 75001. www.pad-fairs.com