The return of Mallet-Stevens

Robert Mallet-Stevens. L’œuvre complète, Catalogo della mostra, Éditions du Centre Pompidou, Paris 2005 (pp. 252, s.i.p.)
Robert Mallet-Stevens Architecte, A cura di Jean-Pierre Lyonnet Éditions 15 square de Vergennes, Paris 2005 (pp. 234, € 65,00)
Robert Mallet-Stevens 1886-1945, Cristiana Volpi, Electa, Milano 2005 (pp. 384, € 110,00)

The crescendo of interest around the architect Robert Mallet-Stevens (1886-1945) has in recent years peaked with a Paris exhibition at the Centre Pompidou (April-August 2005), accompanied by the catalogue Robert Mallet-Stevens. L’œuvre complete. Two monographs on the work of the French architect also appeared at the same time: a book edited by Jean-Pierre Lyonnet, Robert Mallet-Stevens Architecte, and one by Cristiana Volpi, Robert Mallet-Stevens 1886-1945, published by Electa.

The Paris exhibition catalogue contains contributions by several authors – art and architectural historians as well as architects – who address the various aspects of Mallet-Stevens’s professional and cultural life. Olivier Cinqualbre traces an overall vision of the architect’s œuvre complete, while Volpi focuses on his training and early works, a concise foretaste of part of her copious monograph. Cécile Briolle and Jacques Repiquet, who also restored Villa De Noailles in Hyères (1923-28), concentrate on Mallet-Stevens’s esprit des formes. Jean-François Pinchon addresses his furnishings while Richard Klein – the author of the recent Robert Mallet-Stevens. La villa Cavrois (2005) – examines his attempts to coordinate artistic and industrial production. The short but incisive essays are accompanied by faithful reproductions of period pictures and precise notes. These are interspersed with an anthology of Mallet-Stevens’s writings, and exhaustive records of his works befor concluding with detailed biographical and bibliographic notes. These essays make the catalogue a vital tool of comparison on the broader theme of the French architectural culture between the late 1910s and the eve of World War II.

The book edited by Jean-Pierre Lyonnet is of a very different nature. Rather than essays by historians, it contains accounts written by journalists, gallery owners and art and architectural connoisseurs on the French architect’s work and character. Penetrating in some cases and never lacking in interest, nearly all the contributions – despite a succession of citations and references to unspecified sources – lack any bibliographic or documentary evidence and are based on more amateur than scientific research.

Cristiana Volpi’s book is, in contrast, backed up by thorough research. The author manages to handle a huge mass of references, which enables her to conduct a scrupulous review of bibliographic sources on the architect and meticulously compare documents scattered across various archives. She also painstakingly retraces the stages in Mallet-Stevens’s training, reconstructing the architect’s galaxy of cultural references from his first works to the epilogue of the Pavillon de la Presse et de la Publicité at the Exposition du Progrès Social in Lille (1939).

All this is done while stripping away the dubious collection of anecdotes that has often shrouded crucial stages in Mallet-Stevens’s career, such as the matter of his appointment for Villa De Noailles, which Volpi refers to by highlighting the contradictions legitimised by the declarations of Charles De Noailles as well as other scarcely accurate research. What also emerges is the interest Mallet-Stevens – and others – showed in Viennese architectural culture. This link is often also highlighted by the architect’s contemporary sources but never analysed very precisely within the dynamics of his progress, starting with the translation and publication of “L’architecture et le style moderne” and “Ornament et crime”, two crucial written pieces by Adolf Loos, in Les Cahiers d’aujourd’hui (no. 2, 1912; no. 5, 1913), which greatly influenced Mallet-Stevens.

For its far broader implications, the relationship with Viennese culture – certainly not Loos alone, and particularly Josef Hoffmann and the Wiener Werkstätte, which had a clear, also formal, effect on Mallet-Stevens – should prompt further studies on its huge impact on the 20th-century architectural avant-garde. This also occurred outside the European sphere. Frank Lloyd Wright was in Europe in 1909 and 1910 and – as demonstrated by Anthony Alofsin in his Frank Lloyd Wright. The Lost Years, 1910-1922 (1993) – he was clearly attracted to the works of the Viennese architects. Other interests manifested by Mallet-Stevens and extensively pursued by Wright, such as Japanese artistic culture, also became common ground in a number of experiences that sought to break away from more obvious cultural models. They tried to combine the ferment of the artistic renewal with a cultural root that was independent from widespread conventional tastes.

Mallet-Stevens’s research fitted this perspective perfectly and he immediately realised a pressing need to encourage close collaboration between architects, interior designers and artists – exactly like the Wiener Werkstätte. In 1929, he also tried to promote collective renewal with a view to constituting a form of dialogue with the public client by founding the Union des Architectes Modernes (UAM). At the same time, Mallet-Stevens was producing his strictly private masterpieces such as rue Mallet-Stevens in Paris (1926-34) and Villa Cavrois in Croix (1929-32). In them, bare volumes, sharp corners, terraces and projections developed in refined sculptural compositions, confirming him as one of the most talented architects of his generation. This is clearly demonstrated by Volpi in the succession of essays that substantiate her book, aided by a vast array of high quality pictures.

The solid documentary and bibliographic foundations of Volpi’s research could have allowed her to advance a more adventurous critical reinterpretation of the role played by Mallet-Stevens. One could, provokingly, say that in the 1920s and 30s Mallet-Stevens was comparable to the figure of Le Corbusier. However, his misfortunes with critics, especially Sigfried Giedion’s ostracism, and the fact that Mallet-Stevens died in 1945, have tended to distance irreconcilably the positions of these two architects, who despite their different temperaments, personalities and action strategies both served in the ranks of the avant-garde.

However, a new identity of the French architect does appear: Mallet-Stevens returns, to quote Daniel Vigne’s film Le retour de Martin Guerre (1981) based on a case of dual identity in 16th-century France and supported by the documentary evidence of the historian Natalie Zemon Davis, author of the essay of the same title (1982). This was the 20th century but the Mallet-Stevens who appears from recent critical reinterpretations seems – just like the real Martin Guerre – to unmask the impostor, which canonical historiography had frozen in the image of the “inveterate formalist”, as described by Giedion in 1928.

Roberto Dulio, Architect

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