Whimsy and Reason
“As a decorator I’m against decoration, in the sense that everything that is strictly “decorative” is what goes out of style the fastest. When you’ve got a well designed piece of furniture, the form and volume live on; but in most cases the stuff that’s added on is doomed to oblivion.” - Jean Royère
Perhaps best known for his iconic white L’Ours Polaire (Polar Bear) sofa, decorator and furniture designer Jean Royère (1902-1981) came late to his métier, achieving global prominence in the greatest period of transition in the decorative arts in the last century. The four decades from his first commission — a bedroom and boudoir ensemble in exotic woods for his uncle — in 1931, until his retirement in 1972, saw the worldwide shift towards modernism. Known as the Décorateur à Paris, Royère’s works are characterised by an elegant freedom of form and remain both timeless and singular today. It has been said that Royère’s work defies classification, straddling the divide between avant-garde and traditionalism, and thus outside of the modernist trajectory ascribed to twentieth-century design. Although greatly informed by the famous decorators of the 1930’s such as Jacques -Emile Ruhlmann (1879-1933), as well as modernists such as Le Corbusier (1887-1965) and Djo-Bourgeois (1898-1937), Royère jettisoned the academic in favour of his own personal path, countering the prevailing rigidity with whimsicality and humour.
Eschewing the mass production mindset of contemporary design, Royère dedicated himself to the creation of lively and spacious rooms for leisure and play, envisioning each of his plush sofas and freeform coffee tables as a singular contribution to the overall effect. It was his originality of style — luxurious organic shapes, and unconventional colour associations, which exude refinement without veering into preciousness — that brought him immediate international success. “I’d always had a thing about interior design,” he told an interviewer in 1963. “So much so that as a child I didn’t want toys: I asked to be allowed to decorate a room in the attic in our country house. So my first project dated from when I was twelve or thirteen, maybe even earlier.” Having opened a store in Paris in 1943 before the war had ended, Royère was one of the first to promote a new way of life through interior decoration, and his lively approach found an international audience early on in his career.
Encouraged by Louis Metman (1862–1943), chief curator at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, Royère resigned a lucrative position in the import-export trade to become a decorator. Apprenticing with Pierre Gouffé (1934-1936), a noted Faubourg Saint-Antoine furniture manufacturer, Royère assimilated the rudiments of the meticulous craftsmanship of cabinetmaking. “I’m a designer with no education in the field and no professional training,” Royère said. “Why? Quite simply because it wasn’t the career originally intended for me. I had the most classical of upbringings: the best public and private schools in Paris, then Cambridge University in England. It was only when I was 29, in 1931, after five years in banking and the export business business in Le Havre, that I decided to set up as a designer.” During his two year affiliation with Gouffé, Royère ran the workshop’s contemporary furniture studio, and in 1933 won a prestigious competition to design the cafe-restaurant, Le Carlton, on avenue des Champs-Élysées. His chromed metal interior was an instant hit, earning him an article in Art et Industrie magazine, and establishing him as an emerging figure on the interior design scene.
“If modern designers had come up with slogans like “With antiques around you’re just a house guest,” or “You can’t swear with antiques around,” or better still, and more simply, “Antiques look old,” don’t you think our charming ladies of the house would think twice before buying furniture they thought might “look old”? But the moderns haven’t come up with any catchy phrases, and they can’t get along among themselves, either” - Jean Royère, Revue de l’Ameublement, 1963
Sure of his talent, Gouffé encouraged the young designer to exhibit in 1934 at the prestigious Salon d’Automne (Autumn salon) and the Salon des Artistes Décorateurs (Artistic Decorators’ Salon). This was the beginning of an international career that was to last until the early 1970s. Royère’s poetic vocabulary distanced him from the conventions of his colleagues and their “dictums”, and having broken free from the functionalist trend, in 1939, at the Salon des artistes Décorateurs, he presented a boudoir so astonishing, it was a milestone in his career. Royère developed, in a somewhat zany palette of citrus tones, a new ornamental repertoire, the animal and vegetal realms amongst his inspirations. Of course, both were merely creative “pretexts”, and not a subject as such. Royère was interested in the idea, rather than the image of nature and never slid over into naturalism; instead adhering to a deliberately spare interpretation of forms. Whilst his background in cabinet making gave him a penchant for meticulous craftsmanship, as a largely self-taught designer, Royère remained a free agent, and never adhered to any particular formal style. Emancipated from convention, he came up with a language for his time — wholly unique — drawing inspiration form nature and reinterpreting it with avant-garde experimentations of line, proportion and colour, as something at once organic, abstract and vital: “I don’t think I ever subscribed to any particular school or theory, or succumbed to any preconceptions. I have no prejudices at all. For me, words like “functional,” “style,” and “contemporary” are meaningless.”
Royère left Gouffé in 1942 to open his own agency, located at 5 rue d’Argenson in Paris. Describing a “cramped feeling” of the typical bourgeois interior after the Second World War, Royère began building a global clientele, opening agencies and branches in Cairo (1946), Beirut (1947), and Tehran (1958), before expanding to Lima (1955) and São Paulo (1957), calling it a “great excuse for travelling”. This period saw him break free from the functionalist trend and develop some of his most famous designs: the Oeuf (Egg) and Eléphanteau (Baby Elephant) chairs, the Puddle and Sphere tables, and various iterations of the Persian and Vine lights.
Imbued with timeless beauty and spirited personality, Royère’s creations, with their shapely curves and ambitious proportions, demonstrate the vast repertoire of his imaginative realm. Though declaring himself against furniture — “To tell the truth, I’m pretty much opposed to furniture. I feel there should be as little of it as possible. This is a generally accepted principle now, almost a cliché: everything goes into walls, cupboards and wardrobes. And what’s left? A few moveable things: beds, tables, and seats” — Royère’s maverick creations achieve a nonchalance and sensuality which, in other hands, could easily lapse into kitsch.
Royère concentrated on shape, materials and volume, countering the prevailing rigidity, with whimsicality and colour; making pieces in fabric, metal and wood which carved space or filled the air with their undulating lines and interplay of curves and counter-curves: “It has to be right. That’s the only imperative for me.” His Tour Eiffel (Eiffel Tower) series of tables, stools and lamps — with their allusion to La Dame de Fer — feature the pared-down lines of his signature Croisillon pattern, graphic and fluid, in dark brass punctuated by painted balls. His sinuous Corbeille lamps manage to reconcile the austerity of modernism with the elegance of traditional chandeliers and sconces.
“The client has to feel relaxed and at ease when he’s at home, and not as if he’s a house guest. True, it’s not me who’s going to be living in the client’s home, but does that mean I have to make all sorts of inappropriate concessions? Certainly not. Our role as designers is to put the client on guard against lapses of taste, and our duty is to refuse anything that might be, let’s say, compromising” - Jean Royère, Revue de l’Ameublement, 1963
Though a master of metal and wood, the designer is also known for his buoyant upholstery, including the Ours Polaire (Polar Bear) sofa and armchair (sometimes given the name Boule (Ball)), now iconic examples of the Royère style. Rotund and enveloping these forms, visually intriguing and yet comfortable in the domestic sphere, bring to mind an enfolding refuge, an elephant cocoon. Both pieces exemplify their creators conviction that the comfortable everyday need not preclude aesthetic engineering. Part of the brilliance of Royère’s design is how he managed to make the minimalist Ours Polaire series look almost structureless, entirely covering their skeletons — created using sophisticated artisanal wood-bending techniques — in layers of synthetic foam, the finished items betraying the attention of the best upholsterers in the trade.
Modernists, like Jean Prouvé (1901-1984), stood out for a resolutely geometric minimalism. His constructional principles imposed form as part of a rationalising quest, whereas Royère’s stance was the exact opposite; he was one of the first designers in France to adopt the free, organic forms to be found in certain artists of the early twentieth century avant-garde, notably in the reliefs of Jean Arp and the mobiles of Alexander Calder. Immediately recognisable as Royère’s design, the Ours Polaire series represent a style that was his and nobody else’s: “Only the large circular feet underneath are visible,” notes Paris dealer Patrick Seguin, a leading Royère authority who collaborated with fellow dealer Jacques Lacoste on a 2013 monograph on the designer. “The Ours Polaire pieces are emblematic of Royère’s spirit of absolutely free creativity and reflect a true elegance without any kind of ostentation.”
“French people are obsessed with sound investments. The idea that a piece of furniture might lose some of its value panics them totally. An antique is a safe investment. And let’s be frank, there are a lot of old things that are just stunning – the best of them are in France, too – and this makes them even tougher as competition. But if this had been the attitude in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, all those works of art would never have happened” - Jean Royère, Revue de l’Ameublement, 1963
Always up to date with international trends, Royère travelled constantly, and from 1931 to 1972 he completed over a thousand projects around the globe, from the interior design of the Cité ouvrière d'Aplemont, a workers' housing development in northern France, to the decoration of homes for the Shah of Iran, King Farouk of Egypt and King Hussein of Jordan, who were captivated by his freedom of creation and his elegance. Royère rejected preconceived ideas, convection, and notions of good and bad taste, approaching his work in a spirit of unfettered freedom that left its mark on an entire era, and paved the way for new generation of designers: Pierre Paulin (1927-2009), Pierre Guariche (1926-1995), and Joseph Andre Motte (1925-2013), amongst others, all of whom would go on to make their mark in the 1950s. The Royère oeuvre is unique, somewhere on the cusp between decoration and design — much like his Italian contemporary Gio Ponti (1891-1979) — managing, harmoniously, to combine two forms often seen as being diametrically opposed.
Above all, Royère’s career was marked by the inexhaustible creativity that he brought to his furniture designs, a blend of reason and imagination, that serves as a source of inspiration and admiration to this day. In 1972, Royère retired from his profession and spent time between France and the United States. In 1980, he definitively left France for the States, where he lived until his death, on 14 May 1981. The Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris held a museum show of his work in 1999, and in 2008, was the subject of a major posthumous retrospective at Sonnabend Gallery in New York. One thing characteristic of Royère’s oeuvre — a unique blend of whimsy and reason — is that he never bowed to convention; as a result of which, his creations never lapsed into bourgeois “good taste”.