Armand Albert Rateau
French 20th century
Armand-Albert Rateau was one of the most innovative and idiosyncratic French designers of the 1920s and 1930s, but he remains one of the least known, since he did not show work at any of the Paris Salons and thus forfeited the public exposure gained from annual exhibitions and press coverage. He worked for a small group of prominent and exceedingly wealthy private clients and latterly secured several prestigious French government commissions to decorate and refurnish Ministry offices and foreign embassies. His style is difficult to define; Alastair Duncan (1990) describes him as a "Neo-Classical Modernist" owing to his interest in Greek and Roman antiquity, to distinguish him from the "traditional-Modernists", Leleu and Ruhlmann, who drew inspiration from the ébénistes, or Court cabinet-makers of the 18th century. Olivier-Vial (1992) subtitles the monograph he wrote with the designer's son, François, (Un Baroque chez les Modernes, alluding to the richly patterned surfaces, fashioned from rare and expensive materials using laborious techniques, which characterized his entire production from mural decoration to the construction of individual pieces of furniture and accessories. In 1905 Rateau was appointed artistic director of the decorating company Alavoine & Cie. where he designed boutiques for the jewelry companies, Tiffany and Boucheron, and made some important contacts, notably with members of the English aristocracy and influential Americans, in particular the Vanderbilts and the Blumenthals. In 1914 he traveled to Italy, visiting Naples, Pompeii and Herculaneum. The bronze furniture in the Naples Museum and the sophisticated delicacy of the wall paintings in the excavated cities had a lasting influence. The range of stylistic and iconographic reference in his work extended from the ancient Mediterranean civilizations to Flamboyant Gothic and the 18th century of Watteau and Fragonard, and from Moorish Spain to Persia, Mughal India and Indonesia. Having served during World War I from 1915-1919, Rateau resigned from Alavoine to found his own company. In November 1919 he sailed for New York and encountered the Blumenthals, who became his first clients. He created his first pieces of bronze furniture inspired by antiquity for the patio area of the indoor swimming pool of their Manhattan house and decorated the walls of their ballroom with painted paneling in full-blown Rococo style, demonstrating his versatility. He was to continue to work on their French residences throughout his career. That early group of furniture included a pair of X-frame chairs in patinated bronze with open-work backs and seats composed of interlocking grids of flat fish and top tails and slung arms formed of skeins of cockle shells. The chair frame was cast with a surface pattern of fine netting and the arms terminated in snail scrolls. The removable seat cushions were covered in ocelot fur, an early instance of the Art Deco use of exotic animal pelts in furnishing. The description gives some idea of the minute detail and opulence of their construction, which, despite being executed in such a dense material, appears light, elegant and timeless. Identical copies of these chairs, and indeed of most of his bronze furniture designs, were to be made for many of Rateau's future clients: an exclusive limited edition issued for a privileged elite. Rateau's most important patron was the couturier, Jeanne Lanvin. He decorated the pavilion she had Bouwens de Boijen build, adjacent to her town house at 16 rue Barbet-de-Jouy near Les Invalides in Paris (1920-1922). As the artistic director of Lanvin Decoration, he went on to decorate her properties outside Paris and at Deauville and created interiors for her shops, Lanvin Sport and Lanvin Homme. He rented large workshops, which he bought in 1922, at Neuilly-Levallois in order to build and decorate furniture and plasterwork and to weave fabrics. The interior of the apartment is probably his best-known project since Lanvin's private suite of rooms on the first floor - boudoir, bedroom and bathroom - were dismantled in 1965 and have been recreated at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs with their complete furnishings intact. Mme. Lanvin's octagonal boudoir; panelled in pale gray, is lined with gilt-framed showcases intended to house her collections of fans, shoe buckles and scent bottles. The gilt capitals of the yellow Sienese marble half-columns flanking each showcase and the stucco panels above them have delicately stylized gilt reliefs of parakeets, pheasants and squirrels. An extensive repertory of fauna and floral motifs is a hallmark of Rateau's style. The recurring theme of the bedroom is the daisy or marguerite - the name of Lanvin's daughter. The walls and all the hangings are of hyacinth-blue shantung silk (bleu Lanvin) embroidered with daisies behind a low, white-painted, scalloped trellis with bunches of daisies in relief. The furniture ranges from low, wooden chairs and footstools with deep-buttoned upholstery, recalling the 1840s, to Rateau's unique bronze pieces. These include slender, standard lamps and a low table, each with bird supports, circular; glass-topped tables and an extraordinary dressing table whose black marble top rests on tassel-capitalled, tapering, fluted legs and whose circular mirror has bird supports and is fitted with light bulbs at the center of three daisies. The bathroom has walls and fitments of yellow marble, a geometric-patterned floor in black, white and yellow, and all the fittings and accessories are of patinated bronze in the form of plants, birds and butterflies. The stucco relief behind the oval bath shows a stag and doe in an idealized landscape. Rateau created an oval bathroom of similar opulence with complex, painted wall deco-rations inspired by Persian miniatures for the Duchess of Alba's Liria Palace in Madrid in 1921. Another important commission for Lanvin Decoration was the interior for the Theatre Daunou in Paris (1921-22), designed by the architect Auguste Bluysen, which has recently been restored. The elegant, shield-backed seats are upholstered, like the walls and drapes, in bleu Lanvin, and the proscenium arch is bordered with pierced, gilt panels teeming with birds and animals among fruiting vine and flowering forests. The last major collaboration with Lanvin was the Pavilion de L'Élégance at the Paris 1925 Exhibition, built by the architect, Fournez. Rateau designed sculptures of modish, modern women which were placed against exterior walls whose stucco surface was patterned like the plasterwork of the Alhambra. Inside, Rateau supplied furniture for the individual displays of couture clothes shown by Lanvin, Jenny, Worth and Callot Soeurs. Rateau also worked with Fournez to decorate a number of spaces within the Grand Palais in-cluding the tearoom, a covered garden, a dance hall and a ballroom. Denied the opportunities afforded to members of the Salon to exhibit work, Rateau arranged with the Seligman Gallery to recreate the bathroom of the Duchess of Alba, to great acclaim. Decorated panels - the flat surfaces of furniture such as bed heads, free-standing, hinged screens or sections of wall decoration - are characteristic of Rateau's style. He specialized in designs executed with the utmost subtlety in combinations of oil and water gilding. Rateau installed such panels in the bathroom of the Blumenthals' Chateau de Malbosc near Grasse (1925-1926) and set them, alternating with mirror-glass pilasters, into the walls of the music room he designed for Cole Porter in 1927. He had already demonstrated in the Blumenthals' New York ballroom his ability to produce charming pastiches of the Rococo style and he continued to produce such designs for more conservative clients, like the Marquis d'Andigné (1921) or the Comtesse de Beaurepaire (1924). He was equally interested in interiors of the late Gothic and Renaissance, in particular carved, linen-fold wood paneling, which he reinterpreted in a contemporary mode in the Blumenthals' bathroom at Malbosc, and on pieces of furniture such as paneled cupboards and stools, to which he gave skirts. In 1927 he was commissioned by Mrs. Wilson-Filmer, later Lady Baillie, to restore the late-medieval wood carving at Leeds Castle in Kent, which involved work on the external structure as well as the interior stairwell of the Gloriette.
In the latter part of his career Rateau became involved in designing several buildings in a grandiose, Neo-Classical style. By this time he was designing interior spaces on a similar scale, producing and furnishing a salon for the Pavilion of the Comité français des Expositions for the Paris Exhibition of 1937. This was the last in a series of official commissions which included designing furniture for the administrative offices of the Mobilier national in 1916, furnishing the French legation in Belgrade and the French Embassy in London (both in 1934) the Foreign Office in 1935 and the Ministry of Commerce in 1936. He died in 1938 before he could carry out work for the French legation to Ottawa. [STELLA BEDDOE]