Biography of Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann
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.
Ruhlmann studied painting informally before completing three years of military service between 1897 and 1900. Upon his return at age 21, he joined his father's business as an apprentice and was soon taking on higher responsibilities, such as managing the firm's timber inventory and organizing business deals.
Early Training and Work
1907 was a pivotal year for Ruhlmann, shaped by two major life events: his marriage to Marguerite Seabrook and the death of his father. Having inherited the family business, he moved its headquarters to new premises, dividing it into two workshop locations: one focused on paint and wallpaper and the other on mirrors. He also designed all the furniture for he and his wife's newlywed apartment.
During these early years, the popular Art Nouveau and Arts and Crafts movements would heavily influence Ruhlmann's work. He was duly inspired by the Wiener Werkstätte (Viennese Workshop), which was established at the turn of the century by the graphic designer and painter Koloman Moser and the architect Josef Hoffmann. The Werkstätte brought together a cooperative of multidisciplinary creative talent including architects, graphic artists, and ceramicists. The group experimented with Modernist forms and contemporary movements in the visual arts such as Cubism.
Ruhlmann began to establish his reputation through his participation in exhibitions both in Paris and further afield. In 1910, he displayed a selection of wallpaper designs at the Salon d'Automne and the Salon des Artistes Décorateurs, and in 1913 exhibited his first furniture models, again at the Salon d'Automne. In many ways, Ruhlmann was the ideal exhibitor for these Salons, organized by the Société des Artistes Décorateurs. The Société aimed to encourage high standards of production, showcase innovative and luxurious pieces, and establish France as the global leader in manufacturing and design.
With the outbreak of World War I, all social and economic fortunes enjoyed by France were halted. The nationwide pause from normal life provided Ruhlmann, who did not serve in the military, a chance to refine and rethink his designs. 1914-1918 proved an intensely productive time, as the designer began to find new sources of inspiration in pre-war Viennese design, but also the classics of eighteenth-century French furniture. He understood that these new prototypes would not necessarily be available, or even appreciated, by the general public, but instead were to be found only in the homes of the very wealthy. Ruhlmann said, "Only the very rich can pay for what is new and they alone can make it fashionable." This gamble paid off as the newly wealthy class of post-war Paris would come to idolize his new pieces, boosting his reputation and popularity.
Ruhlmann's ambitions to expand his enterprise were fast coming. In 1919, he partnered with the designer Pierre Laurent to create the Établissement Ruhlmann et Laurent. This new company specialized in designing fine furniture and luxury interior goods, such as lighting and wallpaper. Laurent was designated the head of the operation at the interior design location and Ruhlmann was in charge of a separate furniture workshop. Success continued, and later that year the partners purchased an additional industrial building solely for cabinet design. With the assistance of André Fréchet, the director of the École Boulle, Ruhlmann et Laurent expanded their specialist workforce, all the while maintaining their high level of craftsmanship and exclusivity. To retain authenticity over their pieces, they instigated a new system: each sale was given a branded number and alphabetized as a registered edition. Once the sale was complete, the new owner was given a certificate of authenticity, signed by Ruhlmann himself.
By 1920, Ruhlmann had made clear his dislike for the movements that had once inspired him as a young designer, in particular the Arts and Crafts movement. Along with other luxury designers in Paris at the time, he felt the need for a rebirth after the Art Nouveau era, drawing inspiration from the rich French tradition of furniture making, while retaining a strong element of functionalism.
Ruhlmann sought new inspiration from this heritage, turning to the cabinetmakers of the late eighteenth-century. This included Jean Henri Riesener, a German cabinetmaker who worked prolifically in Paris and was a key exponent of the early Neoclassical Louis XVI style, and Adam Weisweiler, a French cabinetmaker of the same period. He also used the ideas of the early twentieth-century design theorists, including the functionalist Adolf Loos, who sought an architectural element to interior design.
Ruhlmann drew some criticism for eschewing the trends of his time as if he were out of sync with the evolution of design in his era, creating items that reeked of luxury rather than progression. He argued that the ancient regime had created its best masterpieces through high expense: his notable forebear Boulle had received 95,000 livres for a cabinet for the Grand Dauphin, and Riesener, 73,000 for Louis XV's desk. Jared Goss, the Associate Curator of the Department of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, notes that through such comparisons, Ruhlmann was not only aligning himself with the greatest furniture designers of the past but also "linked his patrons with royalty, a connection they were not likely to refute".
Ruhlmann's adapted thoughts on design were demonstrated in his participation in the 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris. Held from April until October, the Exposition operated a strict by-invitation-only policy for exhibitors and attracted more than six million international visitors. Other exhibitors included Ruhlmann's contemporaries Rene Lalique and André Groult, as well as pavilions showcasing the wares of large department stores, such as the Galeries Lafayette, Printemps, and Bon Marché.
Ruhlmann presented his own pavilion, titled the Hôtel du Collectionneur (House of the Collector). Unlike other pavilions at the Exposition, Ruhlmann curated a staged setting of interior vignettes featuring the work of other complementary artists and designers to accentuate his furniture. Hundreds of thousands of visitors came to see the Hôtel, and Ruhlmann shot to the heights of modern French decorative arts. It was here that the phrase "Art Deco" came into being, as a contraction of the Exposition's full title, replacing the existing movement's more generic title of "Style Moderne." Historian Alastair Duncan described after the seminal event, "Had France of the 1920s been a monarchy Ruhlmann would certainly have held the position of ébéniste du roi" (cabinetmaker of the king).
The 1925 Exposition brought Ruhlmann an increasing number of high-profile clients, including the Rothschild and Worms families, Eugène Schueller (the owner of the L'Oreal company), the fashion designer Jeanne Paquin, the playwright Paul Géraldy, and even royalty in the form of the Maharajah of Indore. He designed the Salon de Thé and the Games Room on the Île de France cruise liner; the first major liner built following the World War I. Commissioned for the Compagnie Générale Transatlantique, it showcased contemporary trends in French decorative arts in its full-length Art Deco styling, transporting wealthy Americans to Europe. International museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, purchased his pieces. Finally, in 1926, Ruhlmann received the highest commission of his career: the French state requested his redesign of several rooms for the Paris Chamber of Commerce. The same year, Ruhlmann was awarded the Legion of Honor, the highest French order of civil merit.
This success inevitably saw expansion to the Établissement Ruhlmann et Laurent enterprise. By 1927, the pair had multiple shops and employed over 60 craftsmen. Ruhlmann hired his nephew, Alfred Porteneuve, to coordinate the company's participation in international exhibitions, much as he had done as an apprentice in his father's firm at the start of the century.
However, as Ruhlmann's notoriety and accomplishments grew, he was never immune to criticism. From the early 1920s, opposition to his work had built in the form of functional modernists such as Le Corbusier, who spoke out strongly against his elitist attitude and unaffordable products. In the journal L'Esprit Nouveau and later in his books Towards a New Architecture and The Decorative Art of Today, Le Corbusier defined the "Louis Philippe and Louis XVI moderne" style seen at the 1925 Exposition as false and a "religion of beautiful materials in its final death agony." He believed the future of furniture was not exclusively for the rich, but that everyone deserved quality functional design, achieved through mass-production.
This antithesis to Ruhlmann's approach did not sway the designer, who repeatedly stood by his principles of elegance and its corresponding high investment. In the catalogue for the 1928 Lord and Taylor exhibition, Ruhlmann negated Le Corbusier, stating, "The movement to develop a contemporary style in interior decoration will only come fully into its own when people of moderate incomes become interested, but owing to the fact that costly experiments must first be made in furniture de luxe, before this Renaissance in decoration can be effected, it is necessary that this art be developed under the patronage of the wealthy, just as the art of the older epochs was developed under the patronage of the courts." Ruhlmann also made known his ability to embrace new trends. For example, metal mounts began to feature more in his designs post 1925 as a way of combatting the problems new centrally heated houses caused for wood veneers.
Following the stock market crash of 1929 and the subsequent global Great Depression, the decorative arts embraced more Modernist and functional styles, harnessing Le Corbusier's call for mass-produced items accessible to all. Ruhlmann stood fast to his style, despite the diminishing ability for his once-loyal customers to afford luxurious pieces. At the time, he confessed he was taking a financial loss with his work, stating, "Each piece of furniture that I deliver costs me on average 20 or 25% more than what I charge for it...the reason for me to resist, to persist in creating furniture that costs me money instead of being profitable, is that I still have faith in the future." This perseverance can be seen in his decision to continue to exhibit widely, participating in Expositions in Madrid, New York, Milan, Athens, and Barcelona, as well as the 1931 Exposition Coloniale Internationale in Paris.
In 1933, upon learning he was terminally ill, Ruhlmann designed his own funeral monument. He insisted the company would be closed after his death, and appointed his nephew Porteneuve to oversee the completion of any outstanding orders and then the liquidation. A purist and perfectionist until the end, Ruhlmann feared the company would suffer after his death without his leadership, vision, and design skills, so sought to protect the reputation he had built up over his lifetime. He did, however, authorize a few models to be reproduced posthumously by Porteneuve, as long as they were branded and registered as "modèle de Ruhlmann édité par Porteneuve."
The Legacy of Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann
Ruhlmann's strategy to preserve his legacy worked. He, and his furniture, were posthumously celebrated and remembered for having the finest reputation. His steadfastness throughout his life of maintaining upper levels of cost and quality in his work, although criticized, would come to cement this reputation. His refusal to bow down to those who would have him create cheaper versions of his designs in order to increase their accessibility to the public would solidify his remembrance as an elite artist and craftsman of the utmost integrity in his field. Alongside, this elegance, his work was also praised for its usability and comfort, marrying fabulous form with lasting function.
Ruhlmann is equally remembered for his ability to collaborate and engage with other designers of his time, something that was relatively new in presenting work to the public. By curating suites at exhibitions and events, he was able to showcase not only his furniture, but also the work of others, so that a potential buyer, or a viewer could imagine his pieces in their homes surrounded by other complementary items. This would become a common mode of display in the world of interior design that remains in fashion today. Designers and realtors are known to "stage" homes and showrooms in order to bring an environment or atmosphere to the discerning shopper rather than just a staid object in an empty space.
Ruhlmann's work also remains, as Alastair Duncan describes, "today considered to be the epitome of Art Deco style and its finest expression," providing a counterpoint for the more functional modernism seen, for example, with the Bauhaus School.
Ruhlmann's ability to design for a wide range of clients expanded the swath of Art Deco's exposure. For example, his designs for the Île de France cruise liner influenced a new generation of luxury ships, the likes of which hadn't been seen since before the World War I. In the 1930s, voyagers such as the SS Normandie and the Queen Mary were inspired by Ruhlmann's use of upscale materials.
The Art Deco movement itself suffered at the outbreak of World War II and the economic uncertainty of the late 1940s. However, its core values of opulence, craftsmanship, and interesting materials continued to see its popularity spread across the world, particularly through architecture in the United States, such as residential and hotel buildings in Miami and skyscrapers in New York. Although Ruhlmann did not exclusively invent the style, he was, as art historian Brian J. R. Blench describes, "perhaps its finest exponent."
In 1934, the year after his death, a retrospective exhibition was held at the Pavillon de Marsan, part of the Louvre Palace. Ruhlmann's work has since been included in every major Art Deco exhibition across the world, such as the recent Ruhlmann: Genius of Art Deco exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Content compiled and written by Alexandra Banister
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Kimberly Cooper
Content compiled and written by Alexandra Banister
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Kimberly Cooper
First published on 17 Jan 2021. Updated and modified regularly