The work of Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann (1879–1933) epitomizes the glamour of the French Art Deco style of the 1920s. Aesthetic refinement, sumptuous materials, and impeccable craftsmanship place his work on a par with the finest furniture and decorative arts of any era. The most renowned designer of his day, Ruhlmann could provide any element needed for an interior, from the furniture to the lighting, ceramics, carpets, and textiles. This retrospective examines all aspects of the legendary designer's career, augmenting the Metropolitan Museum's own significant holdings of Ruhlmann's works with major loans from public and private U.S. and international collections. The exhibition also provides a unique opportunity to see the best of Art Deco.
Born in Paris in 1879, Ruhlmann was the son of a decorating contractor. In 1907, he took over the family business, and soon expanded the enterprise to include furniture design and interior decoration. By 1913, he was producing works in the new, distinctively elegant, and unabashedly luxurious style that would come to be known as Art Deco. By the 1920s, Ruhlmann was the most prestigious and sought-after designer of his day, commanding a team of more than five hundred skilled workers and assistants.
Taking as his point of departure the great cabinet-making heritage of late-eighteenth-century France, Ruhlmann created works of classic simplicity, fashioned of the finest materials and according to the highest standards of craftsmanship. His designs, notable for their harmonious proportions, architectonic structure, and restrained use of ornament, are graceful and highly original translations of the Neoclassical tradition into a modern idiom. Like his ancien régime forebears, Ruhlmann excelled in the use of rare and exotic woods, ivory, lacquer, and precious metals; exquisite veneers; intricate inlay; and scrollwork.
The time and materials involved in Ruhlmann's creations made them prohibitively expensive for all but the wealthiest. One very large and elaborate Ruhlmann piece reportedly took up to one thousand hours of labor and cost the equivalent of a house. Nevertheless, Ruhlmann was successful, owing in large part to the patronage of the rich, entrepreneurial class of post–World War I Paris, who were eager to advertise their wealth, taste, and sophistication. The association that Ruhlmann offered with the aristocratic styles of the past—he was dubbed "the Riesener of the twentieth century," a reference to the celebrated royal cabinetmaker to Louis XVI—made his work all the more appealing to those who saw themselves as the "new royalty" of modern France. By the time of the famous 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes—the event that gave Art Deco its name—the taste for the luxury style that Ruhlmann epitomized had reached its peak. His pavilion at the Paris Exposition was the fair's most admired attraction.
The stock market crash of 1929 and ensuing worldwide Depression diminished the wealth and undermined the societal attitudes that had sustained Art Deco. Ironically, Ruhlmann's own death in 1933, at the age of fifty-four, coincided almost precisely with the decline of the style that he so spectacularly pioneered and promoted.
Despite the brevity of his career, Ruhlmann was extraordinarily prolific, envisioning—and then creating—entire suites of rooms and their contents. Featured in the exhibition are examples of furniture—considered his true forte—including an array of exquisite tables, chairs, writing desks, sideboards, and cabinets, all designed and executed according to his exacting specifications. One of the early masterworks on view is a desk of about 1918–19, made with amboyana burl veneer, with delicate ivory inlay and fittings, and a sharkskin work surface. The defining qualities of Ruhlmann's mature, "classic" style are exemplified in his famous 1919 "Chariot" sideboard, also featured in the exhibition. It is made of macassar ebony, with a stylized bold ivory inlay depiction of an Attic charioteer. The distinctive, tapering legs—a Ruhlmann hallmark—give the piece an impression of lightness and grace despite its substantial size. An elaborately decorated cabinet with ivory floral inlay, commissioned by the Metropolitan directly from Ruhlmann in 1926, is a variant of a work shown in the 1925 Exposition.
A special section of the exhibition is devoted to works associated with Ruhlmann's famous pavilion at the 1925 Paris Exposition, the Hôtel du Collectionneur, which was meant to evoke the imaginary villa of a rich and discerning collector. Furniture, carpets, and decorative objects created for the rooms are displayed along with archival photographs of the exterior and interiors. The exhibition also features a representative selection of the decorative objects Ruhlmann designed, including a magnificent crystal and silvered metal chandelier (ca. 1925); a monumentally scaled white Sèvres porcelain vase lamp (1927) created for the fabled luxury oceanliner, Ile de France; extravagantly patterned carpets; and vividly colored textiles and wallpaper. Original drawings on view—ranging from quick sketches to elaborately colored presentation drawings for clients to full-scale working drawings used by his craftsmen—allow viewers to understand the evolution of many of Ruhlmann's pieces from first thought to finished product.