March 24, 2013

Featured Designer: Louis Majorelle (and Our New “Les Orchidées” Vitrine)


"Les Orchidées" vitrine, early 20th century. Louis Majorelle (French, 1859–1926). Mahogany, glass, and brass.

Louis Majorelle made a splash at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1900 at a precise and brief moment in European art history. Art nouveau was making its way across the continent in various interpretations, from the Hector Guimard-designed Paris Métro entrances of 1900 to the amazing but very-slowly-constructed Sagrada Familia basilica by Antoni Gaudí in Barcelona, captivating posters by the Czech artist Alphonse Mucha, and the great architect Victor Horta’s home and studio in Belgium.

Majorelle didn’t make his name by reinventing the wheel, but by building on his father’s practice. He inherited his career, leaving studies at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris when his father, Auguste, a furniture maker and designer, passed away in 1879, and taking over his firm in Nancy.

Although Majorelle kept making furniture in the standard 18th and 19th-century modes, the little innovative touches he had begun to add resulted in a medium-busting effect. (After the 1900 exposition, critics enthusiastically called his style “Majorellisme.”)

Notable at the 1900 fair and throughout Majorelle’s career to follow were life-sized water lilies and orchids of gilt bronze and other materials. Majorelle often mounted these decorative elements as integrated functional features, as you see in this desk where the exaggerated, sinuous orchids act also as electric light fixtures.

Orchidee desk Louis Majorelle
Les Orchidées” desk, 1903. Louis Majorelle (French, 1859–1926) and Daum Frères (French, firm est. 1878) Image via

A new addition to one of the second-floor galleries in the Driehaus Museum is also adorned with Majorelle’s fairy tale-esque orchids. The mahogany display case (vitrine) is typical of the luxury furniture Majorelle created during his career, with framed glass, electric light fittings, and fabric backing for the display of a wealthy individual’s objets d’art. A vitrine of the same design is currently part of the collection of the Musée d’Orsay in Paris (click here for additional information).

Les Orchidees Vitrine, Louis Majorelle. Art Nouveau. The Richard H. Driehaus Museum.

Les Orchidees Vitrine Louis Majorelle The Richard H. Driehaus Museum Art Nouveau

Much of the history of Majorelle and his firm will always, sadly, be obscured by fire. In 1916 his Nancy factory burned and his work, not to mention his correspondence, client lists, sketches, and the rest, were reduced to ash. Lost too were the earliest years of the firm Majorelle’s father had founded; it is believed that Auguste’s files were contained in the factory as well. In 1917 a German bombing destroyed his shop as well, and Majorelle spent the rest of World War I sharing workspace in Paris before returning to Nancy again to rebuild.

His home, the 1898 Villa Majorelle, was designed in art nouveau style—what else?—by the young Paris architect Henri Sauvage. The Villa Majorelle still stands, retains some original decorative woodwork and metalwork by Majorelle, and is open to the public in Nancy.

Villa Majorelle
Villa Majorelle, interior view. Photo by Alexandre Prévot.

Majorelle represents a period that might have been “no more than a cul-de-sac in Europe’s pursuit of a 20th-century aesthetic,” writes Alastair Duncan—but a remarkable one nonetheless. The addition to the historic mansion’s Sitting Room is yet another way to go back in time at the Driehaus Museum, so come by and see our new “Les Orchidées” vitrine anytime during regular hours.

Louis Majorelle: Master of Art Nouveau by Alastair Duncan (Thames and Hudson, 1991)

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