Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Poiret, Mallet-Stevens & un château moderne

photo: Patrice Besse
Tous les matériaux avaient été portés à pied d’œuvre et la maison était sortie du sol comme une plante vivace par les soins du prestigieux architecte qu’est Mallet-Stevens. Elle était toute blanche, pure, majestueuse, et un peu provocante, comme un lys.

All the materials were brought to the work site and the house grew out of the ground like a living plant under the tender care of its prestigious architect, Mallet-Stevens. It was all white, pure, majestic and a little provocative, just like a lily.
Paul Poiret

The villa Poiret, situated to the west of Paris at Mézy-sur-Seine and built between 1922-23, is now up for sale. Its restoration has gotten a lot of attention in recent years because of the building's architectural importance, being the first construction by Mallet-Stevens, architect who had first devoted his career to furniture and film set design. It is fascinating that this one building stands to the memory of two such influential but different design personalities:  Rob Mallet-Stevens, the cool thinking functional modernist and Paul Poiret, a flamboyant touche-à-tout who made life a highly decorated, luxurious, and sensuous fête

photo: acversailles
before restoration

The residence has had a spotty history of glamour and neglect. Poiret, the extravagant genius of couture, marketing and decoration had first considered Louis Sue, Le Corbusier and Auguste Perret before settling on Mallet-Stevens for the design of his château moderne

illustration Feu d'artifice Georges Lepape for Poiret

One imagies it as the perfect foil for Poiret's elaborate designs.

photo: acversailles

Once the structural work was done, financial problems made the construction come to a halt in 1924 and by the end of 1926, Poiret was bankrupt. Mallet-Stevens took photographs of the building which were published in at the time.
He described it,

Surfaces unies, arêtes vives, courbes nettes, matières polies, angles droits,
clarté, ordre. 
C'est ma maison logique et géométrique de demain.

Smooth surfaces, sharp edges, clean lines, polished materials, angles,
clarity, order. 
This is my logical, geometrical house of tomorrow.

The standstill was deplored in contemporary architectural circles, but Mallet-Stevens was also at work on the sets of L’inhumaine and Le villa de Noailles at Hyères.

photo: Drouot
If Poiret’s creative outpourings knew no end even in the most dire conditions, as much could be said, unfortunately, for his expenditures. In 1930 things had gotten so bad for him that he had nowhere to turn. He moved his furniture into the basement of what he joked were the premières ruines modernes,  - no windows, no heat, no water - 

photo: acversailles

and lived in the small but slightly more complete caretaker's house.

photo: acversailles

Je me suis habitué à ne plus etre riche. Celui qui ne s'habitue pas c'est mon percepteur. Il y a des gens qui continuent à me réclamer de l'argent comme s'il etait normal que j'en eusse. Je suis surpris qu'on puisse etre aussi heureux sans cela. J'habite une jolie campagne de l'Ile de France et s'il pleut quelquefois dans ma chambre, ma fenetre s'ouvre toute grande sur une vue superbe et laisse entrer largement l'air, la lumière, les ardeurs du soliel et la fraicheur des nuits.

I have gotten used to not being rich. The one who can't get used to it is my taxman. There are people who continue to ask me for money as though I should still have it. I am surprised that we can be so happy without any. I live in the beautiful countryside of the Ile-de-France and if it rains sometimes in my room, my window opens out wide on a superb view and largely lets in air, light, the heat of the sun and the cool of the night.

It was here at Mézy that he wrote the first of several very entertaining, very touching books of memoirs, En habillant l'époque, from which I have taken the above quote. 

photo: acversailles

The unfinished building was left abandoned for several years before being bought in 1933 by the Romanian born actress, Elvira Popescu, who later had it completed - with a certain number of modifications - by Charles Boyer. Mallet-Stevens was unable to do the job because he had taken refuge with his Jewish wife in the southwest of France after the declaration of hostilities in 1939. Far from leaving his memoirs, before his death in 1945, Rob Mallet-Stevens ordered that all the documents of his agency be destroyed.

The villa Poiret as it is today
the work of Mallet-Stevens


  1. How interesting, thanks for the post. As an architect, I'm very familiar with Corbusier's houses, but not with this one by Mallet-Stevens.

  2. Yes, it very fascinating that the sensual client and the ascetic design should form a bond in the caretaker's apartment, which has the elegance of the villa in distilled scale and anticipates the domicile of the same sensibility. Possibly we think of the rikyu of the tea ceremony in this small residence, an awkward adaptation from a practical point of view but a highly privileged one at the same time. A gorgeous, learnèd, and stimulating posting.

  3. Muse: Mallet-Stevens was forgotten for some time and the fact that he had his archives destroyed didn't help. His work is respected again since the 80s and the 2005 exhibit on him at Beaubourg with a very good catalogue helped to bring him to the fore once again. It is interesting that both Poiret and Mallet-Stevens were influenced by Hoffmann.

  4. Laurent: I actually like the caretaker's house very much and it is probably closer to the unadulterated Mallet-Stevens' style. The Villa was touched up with the later Art Deco 'paquebot' elements - portholes and balustades.

    Yours is a very stimulating comment: the raiku of the tea ceremony (which I had to look up) may have been more suited to the temperament of Mallet-Stevens than Poiret, but you have something here; his writings prove him contempletive like perhaps never before. Both men deserve closer attention.

  5. Judging by the realtor's page it is a beautiful place - whether unadulterated Mallet-Stevens or not. I particularly like the double-height living room though only one small part is shown and that double row of trees in tubs is I hope filled with oranges. Beautiful!

  6. Blue: I didn't put more of those pictures in this post, because they were too bright and shiney for what I wanted to say, but one has to say that the villa is now in better condition than ever before!

  7. What an interesting post dahhling.. enjoyed the photos very much.

  8. Therese Bonney, the transplanted American photographer, knew mallet-Stevens and his circle and often photographed his work. In retrospect, architects like Robert Venturi and Denise Scott-Brown, to name only two, must have known his work. Thanks.

  9. Thanks you, Jane, for your always interesting additional pieces of the puzzle!

  10. Robert Mallet-Stevens a également construit une autre villa à Croix, pour Monsieur Cavrois, industriel du textile... http://www.nordnet.fr/mallet-stevens

  11. Merci de signaler cette importante demeure à Croix. Son ouverture au public est attendue avec impatience. En espérant que l’Etat a pu acquérir le mobilier d’origine qui était en vente l’année dernière.