Emile-Jaques Rulhmann, Deco's Designer Extraordinaire
While Emile-Jaques Rulhmann had a relatively short life, he persists as a most important figure in the evolution of early 20th century furnishings, and especially the Art Deco movement. Although he had no formal training, his most notable talent was in translating neoclassical elements into modern sensibility and proportions, and his very successful works embodied a simple, cleansed style and organized, unified structure that suggested an architectural design. A perfectionist, he would not accept during the process of making a piece of furniture a design detail that could not be executed.Born in Paris, France in 1879 to Alsatian parents, Emile-Jaque Rulhmann had a head start in the business of decorating. His father owned an atelier which specialized in painting, gilding, mirrors and stained glass, and general decorating. After his father passed away in 1907, Emile began managing the family business himself. Propelled by the idea of creating furniture for his own apartment, the newly married Rulhmann began creating drawings and changed the workshop’s production to more modern and elaborate designs. When these designs were shown in 1910’s Salon d’Autumne, it began the launch of his career, garnering Rulhmann his first commissions.
By 1919 he began a collaboration with Pierre Laurent, and opened Établissement Rulhmann et Laurent, offering luxury design, wallpaper, furniture and lighting. He later opened a woodworking shop on his own, and although he never created furniture himself, the great precision and focus in his drawings as well as a step-by-step interest in the crafting process allowed him to express his designs quite successfully. At 1925’s Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industrials Modernes, Rulhmann’s pavilion, built for his friend, architect Pierre Patout, was the most visited. His firm by 1927 employed over sixty craftsmen-- cabinetmakers, finishers, upholsters, and draftsmen.
“Nicolle” card table, 1928
Restaurant panel, 1925
1920s gilded rosewood armchair
Rulhman had fondness for luxury materials, and their use in exceptional wood furniture became his trademark. Exotic woods such as rosewood, Macasar ebony, amboina burl, precious metals, gold and silver leaf, scrollwork, lacquer, ivory inlays and accentuated curves were all part of the repertoire for what he called “his precious pieces”. Indeed, the use of these materials rendered his designs prohibitively expensive to most, and he had an innate sense that the public at large would not understand or appreciate his aesthetic. However, a wealthy class had emerged in Paris post-World War II, and his patronage was greatly sought after by the newly leisured. His career skyrocketed, and during this era, he designed entire rooms as well as their contents. When questioned in a magazine interview in 1920, he stated his case for his high-end home goods: “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. Only the very rich can pay for what is new and they alone can make it fashionable. Fashions don’t start among the common people. Along with satisfying a desire for change, fashion’s real purpose is to display wealth.” He also sais: “Whether you want it or not, a style is just a craze. And fashion does not come up from humble backgrounds.” His passion for perfection did come, however, at a price, but not without a hint of self-awareness. He estimated that “each piece of furniture I deliver cost me on average 20 or 25 percent 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, and that I run another business with safe return, and whose profits fill up the holes that I am digging in the moon.”
Work desk, 1922
While early his designs were associated with the Art Noveau movement, they eventually and subtly metamorphosed into the geometric forms and stripped-down aesthetic of the Art Deco movement. During this period, his client list and requests continued to grow, and in and around 1927 he designed a hall and meeting room for the Paris Chamber of Commerce, a tea room for the liner Ile de France, furniture and interiors for the Elysee Palace, the National Assembly, and the mayor of Paris’ fifth arrondissement, as well as the interior of the Marignan cinema.
Lit Soleil (Sun Bed), 1930
Sadly, the worldwide economic crash of 1929 brought a halt to the luxurious lifestyles of Rulhmann’s patrons. When he became terminally ill, he dissolved his operation, completing only orders in progress. He died in Paris in November, 1933. Jacque-Emile Rulhmann’s work is shown at the Brooklyn Museum, and he was the subject of a 2004 retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The designer was able to carve a place for himself in the world of early 20th century design, and he has been characterized by the New York Times as “Art Deco’s greatest artist.”