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Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann Photo

Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann

French Furniture and Interior Designer

Born: August 28, 1879 - Paris, France
Died: November 15, 1933 - Paris, France
Movements and Styles:
Art Deco
"To create something that lasts, the first thing is to want to create something that lasts forever."
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Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann
"Fashions don't start among the common people. Along with satisfying a desire for change, fashion's real purpose is to display wealth."
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Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann
"If only the very richest can afford to pay the price of innovation, they are also the only ones with the power to sponsor it"
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Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann
"A clientele of artists, intellectuals and connoisseurs of modest means is very congenial, but they are not in a position to pay for all the research, the experimentation, the testing that is needed to develop a new design"
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Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann
"The rich client wants to possess only furniture that is impossible for the less rich to acquire. This furniture must therefore be costly, being difficult to execute and using precious materials that no knock-off can simulate"
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Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann

Summary of Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann

A century before today's big box stores like IKEA offered affordable, mass-market furnishings to the masses, and knock-offs of famous, classical designs became popular for the everyman, French designer Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann revolutionized our consideration of exquisitely crafted fine furniture as an art form in and of itself. His work, merging luxury with functionality, drew upon historical French designs updated with modernist flourishes that were being seen in popular aesthetical trends of the time such as in the Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau arenas. Never one to compromise, his pieces were known for their expensive price tags, exotic materials, long lasting value, and refusal to conform to criticism by those who considered his work elitist. This insistence on quality and integrity, as well as his participation in the blooming field of interior design, which emphasized living amongst beautiful objects, would position him as a leading contributor to the Art Deco movement.

Accomplishments

  • Unlike other designers, Ruhlmann defied being pigeonholed or directly connected to any particular movement. His lifelong immersion into fine furniture garnered him a wide swath of inspiration from the bygone eras of classic French monarchies to the progressive fads of his time. This was evident through consistent flourishes that would come to cement his reputation as a brilliantly individual artist such as his signature combinations of slender Louis XVI Neoclassical legs combined with Art Nouveau's floral motifs.
  • Ruhlmann was a key contributor to the world of interior design. As one of the first artists to showcase his work in exhibitions alongside other craftsman and designers, specifically curated to complement one another, his constructed pavilions allowed potential buyers to visualize an overall environment rather than just view a singular, staid object.
  • While the modern decorative arts scene in France exploded with Art Nouveau's recreation of nature designs, and the Arts and Crafts' use of shapes, symbols, and geometric designs, Ruhlmann used these techniques modestly. He much preferred to introduce exotic materials in which the natural patterns, grain, and inherent properties would inform the final visual appeal.

Biography of Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann

An Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann designed daybed, crafted for seamless integration into its surrounding interiors.

Émile-Jacques was born in 1879 in Paris to François and Valentine Ruhlmann, who had recently moved to the city from Alsace. He was the couples' second child, his sister Nathalie having been born the year before. The children grew up in a comfortable household as François ran a successful construction, painting, and wallpapering business called Société Ruhlmann, which is where his son's initial interest in design originated. Ruhlmann's interest in furniture in particular was further stoked by his visits to the shops of prestigious Parisian cabinetmakers such as Gevens, Stauffacher, and Laberthe.



Progression of Art

Bergère dite à "Oreille cassée" (1913)
1913

Bergère dite à "Oreille cassée"

This early example of Ruhlmann's work already forebodes signature hallmarks, which would inform his Art Deco pieces of the 1920s that made him famous. The chair features four golden ball feet and a high back with oreille cassée, or, "broken ears," made to envelop the sitter in privacy. A matching gold-colored cushion folds over the top. A pattern of floral-shaped swirls covers the exterior of the chair, outlined in bright, light green trim. It was debuted at the 1913 Salon d'Automne at the Grand Palais in Paris.

This piece is indicative of Ruhlmann's style before World War I, when he was more inspired by the Art Nouveau and Arts and Crafts movements. For example, the print on the material is much busier than this later, sleeker fabric works. However, his use of expensive materials is already apparent. This piece contains the characteristics of the style philosophy that Ruhlmann maintained throughout his life: to provide luxury combined with comfort.

Wood, gold, lacquer, fabric - Musée d'Orsay, Paris

Meuble au char (1921)
1921

Meuble au char

This monolithic console table looks heavy and sturdy yet seems to balance perfectly on four stiletto legs. Designed to be positioned against a wall, the console is beautiful yet understated and able to provide a backdrop to other stand out pieces of furniture in a room. The piece is intelligently functional: access to the console's cupboards is almost undetectable due to Ruhlmann's use of minimal keyholes.

The sleek design is enhanced by the expensive use of materials, namely Macassar ebony, an inlaid ivory chariot motif, and marble top. Macassar ebony was one of Ruhlmann's favorite materials due to its inherently striking and unique visual appeal. However, in this instance the designer used the nature of the wood subtly enough not to detract from the form of the cabinet.

This unique piece signifies the beginnings of Ruhlmann's experimentation with unusual materials and his move away from the styles other designers were producing in Paris at this time. He was starting to set himself apart from his Art Nouveau contemporaries with more simplified forms, which didn't imitate nature, but rather accentuated the intrinsic beauty of the materials themselves.

Macassar ebony, ivory, mahogany, marble - Musée d'Art Moderne, Paris

"Tibattant" desk (c.1923)
c.1923

"Tibattant" desk

This compact bureau combines Ruhlmann's signature ethos of marrying beauty and functionality in design. A fold-down front reveals the practical and organized interior, with shelves and compartments for the owner's paperwork and documents. This pragmatism is merged with opulence: the interior is lined in cherry-red leather and features delicate ivory handles hung elegantly with tactile silk tassels. The fold-down front also doubles up as a writing surface, before neatly closing to hide its function. A larger drawer underneath the fold-down front provides more storage space. Completing the piece are four slender tapered legs - another hallmark of Ruhlmann's work.

The desk's title alone demonstrates the influence of other cultures on Ruhlmann's increasingly luxurious designs. Translated as the "Tibetan" desk, it reflects the trend of foreign inspiration that was celebrated by the burgeoning Art Deco movement, in both its decorative trimmings and in its use of materials. For example, the tropical Macassar ebony wood, sourced from Cuba, was selected for its aesthetic effect as well as its practicality. This exploration of the exotic could be seen as a turning away from traditional French modes of design, and the popular Art Nouveau style, which sought inspiration from nature. As well as looking further afield in terms of materials, this bureau was a rethinking of classical design motifs seen in eighteenth-century furniture design, such as the delicate cabinets of the era of Louis XV. This combination of influences, which had never before been seen together, carved out Ruhlmann's distinctive reputation in the furniture market of France during the early 1920s.

Macassar ebony, ivory, leather, aluminum leaf, silver, silk, oak, lumber-core plywood, poplar, mahogany - The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Corner cabinet (c. 1923)
c. 1923

Corner cabinet

This example from Ruhlmann's collection of cabinet designs combines two straight sides with a slightly curved front, ideal for placing in the corner of the room. Given this positioning, it is quiet and unassuming, not intended to be a showstopper, or focal piece. The curved front opens to reveal a storage space with three removable shelves, providing both luxury and usability for the owner. The whole cabinet is completed with three slender legs; a signature Ruhlmann style derived from French cabinets produced during the reigns of Louis XV and Louis XVI.

This corner cabinet is a prime example of Ruhlmann's intentional choice of exotic materials. For instance, the kingwood veneer was chosen for its natural pattern, and strengthened by the mahogany underlayer. Ivory inlay was used to create the complex floral motif on the front. Ruhlmann further echoes this motif through subtle ivory touches throughout: the dots around the front of the cabinet, the squares along the top of the cabinet, and at the ends of the front two legs.

This cabinet also demonstrates a Ruhlmann specialty -his capability to adapt his pieces in accordance with a client's specific needs or tastes. The motif of the flowers in the vase proved so popular that it was also featured on the front of his "État" cabinet commissioned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1925.

Kingwood veneer on mahogany, ivory - Brooklyn Museum, New York

The Salon of the Hôtel du Collectionneur (1925)
1925

The Salon of the Hôtel du Collectionneur

Ruhlmann's Salon of the Hôtel du Collectionneur was exhibited at the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris in 1925. Ruhlmann's friend, the architect Pierre Patout, designed the pavilion itself, which included an entryroom, dining room, office, bedroom, bathroom, and this central salon. The salon featured an array of decorative art, including a prominent, large-scale painting by Jean Dupas, which hung above the fireplace. Interspersed into this staged environment were Ruhlmann's own designs, such as the grand piano crafted from Macassar ebony. Other collaborators represented throughout these interiors included the metalworkers Edgar Brandt and Claudius Linossier, the sculptors Joseph Besnard and Antoine Bourdelle, the silversmith Jean Puiforcat, and the ceramicist Jean Mayodon.

The Salon marked Ruhlmann's place as the leader of the Art Deco movement in France. It showcased his ability to both design and to curate, envisioning as a whole how his work would integrate with that of others in the home of a wealthy collector. It also gave potential buyers a glimpse into his longstanding principles of how form and function could be combined with elegance in one's home; a virtual advertisement for his talents that were seen by hundreds of thousands of visitors, some of which would become his most elite and illustrious clients. His collaborative working methods also created a space in which a client would be a connoisseur, collecting pieces from a variety of sources rather than just commissioning one producer.

The design historian Alastair Duncan described the critics' response to Ruhlmann's pavilion as, "unanimous in their choice of Ruhlmann's Hôtel du Collectionneur as the Exposition's most spectacular event."

Mixed media

Fuseaux Cabinet (c.1925)
c.1925

Fuseaux Cabinet

Like other cabinets made by Ruhlmann in the first half of the 1920s, this Fuseaux cabinet combines beauty and utility, offering a functional piece of furniture for a discerning clientele. Formally, the cabinet is very simple, allowing for the natural grain of the Macassar ebony to act as decoration. Simple geometric inlays of ivory and silvered bronze complement the wood. The cabinet includes three small drawers in the center, flanked by larger compartments with silk tassels for handles. Finally, the cabinet rests on four slender legs. It has been suggested that the design was for a man's dressing table, but Ruhlmann's records also describe it as a liquor and cigar cabinet.

This specific cabinet was sold by the Établissement Ruhlmann et Laurent to the Metropolitan Museum in 1925, as a direct result of the company's participation in the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris that year. The enthusiasm of globally renowned museums to immediately purchase and commission designs directly from Ruhlmann demonstrates his unique value: such museums rarely recognized talent during the creator's lifetime, preferring to collect posthumously.

Only seven productions of Ruhlmann's Fuseaux cabinets are known to exist, including this one,and one in the Musée des Beaux-Artes in Lyon, France, all created and sold between 1920-1949. Ruhlmann's meticulous records show that about 50 working hours were required just to produce one of the cabinet's legs. This level of attention to detail and craftsmanship was a hallmark of Ruhlmann's obsessive designs throughout his career.

Macassar ebony, ivory, silk, silvered bronze - The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Influences and Connections

Influences on Artist
Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann
Influenced by Artist
Artists
  • Koloman Moser
    Koloman Moser
  • Josef Hoffmann
    Josef Hoffmann
  • Adolf Loos
    Adolf Loos
  • No image available
    Jean Henri Riesener
  • No image available
    Adam Weisweiler
Friends & Personal Connections
  • No image available
    François Ruhlmann
  • No image available
    Pierre Laurent
  • No image available
    André Fréchet
Artists
  • No image available
    Alfred Porteneuve
  • No image available
    Pierre Patout
  • No image available
    Jean Dupas
  • No image available
    Edgar Brandt
  • No image available
    Claudius Linossier
Friends & Personal Connections
  • Rene Lalique
    Rene Lalique
  • No image available
    André Groult
Movements & Ideas
Open Influences
Close Influences

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Content compiled and written by Alexandra Banister

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Kimberly Cooper

"Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Alexandra Banister
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Kimberly Cooper
Available from:
First published on 17 Jan 2021. Updated and modified regularly
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