Please don't touch the Deco

One of the first things you notice in a new exhibition of pieces by French Art Deco designer Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann is that it's going to be difficult to keep your hands to yourself.

Faced with shapes and textures that are meant to be alluring - ivory inlays, exotic woods - even the most disciplined gallerygoer might find themselves tempted to touch a cabinet or two. (Though, for the record, the Metropolitan Museum of Art frowns on that sort of thing.)

Working in conjunction with museums in Europe and Canada, the Metropolitan's show is the first dedicated exclusively to Ruhlmann since a 1934 exhibition at the Louvre in Paris - one year after his death. On display in New York are furniture, rugs, and sketches by the man whom the Met admiringly calls a "Genius of Art Deco."

Ruhlmann is one of the top designers associated with the French branch of Art Deco, a style of architecture and decorative arts that arose between World Wars I and II. In the hierarchy of Deco, the French is considered the classic form, with its simple, elegant styling. Some curators suggest that the pared down, modern aesthetic is what attracts people today. Indeed, the luxury conveyed by the French designs often has the affluent reaching for their checkbooks. Ruhlmann pieces, for example, can go for several hundred thousand to several million dollars. You won't find knock-offs at IKEA, but one of the organizers of the Metropolitan's show says viewing Ruhlmann's designs close up can help people recognize quality in today's furniture.

"Even if one cannot afford a piece by Ruhlmann, which most of us cannot," laughs Jared Goss, an assistant curator at the Metropolitan, "it's still very much worth studying and looking at.... You need a yardstick by which to measure things, and I think that he's a pretty good one."

Ruhlmann, whom Mr. Goss describes as a "control freak," didn't get his hands dirty carving or lacquering wood. Instead, he concentrated on designing individual pieces and interiors.

When he created items for his wealthy clients, he would go through a series of sketches with his workmen, starting tiny and scaling up until the drawings were actual size - an approach that led some to compare Ruhlmann to an architect.

At the New York exhibition, these drawings are often on display near the works they became, like the kidney-shaped David-Weill Desk - named for its owner, a French financier - and influenced by late 18th-century European designs.

The desk showcases the curves that Ruhlmann loved, and the lack of straight lines in his work, which made the execution that much more difficult.

The legs on his furniture could each take up to 60 or 70 hours to make because they generally have complicated features that suggest "preciousness" and elegance.

The well-appointed exhibition plays up the theatrical nature of Ruhlmann's work by using open spaces and specially designed alcoves to display the tables and chairs, rugs, and wallpaper samples.

Art Deco designers often used luxurious materials and lots of lacquer in their pieces, giving them a tactile quality. "You really want to reach out and feel the different materials that are used," says Lynn Orr, curator in charge of European art at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco, where "Art Deco, 1910-1939," an exhibition that originated in London last year (see The Monitor of July 11, 2003, for a review), is currently on display.

That exhibition includes a re-creation of the grand salon - featuring some original pieces - from the Ruhlmann pavilion at the 1925 Paris Exposition, a high point in his career and a place where the French aimed to display their mastery at making luxury goods.

"His designs are so sophisticated and forward reaching," Ms. Orr says of Ruhlmann.

Frank Pollaro, a New Jersey furnituremaker who replicates Ruhlmann pieces for wealthy clients, says you really feel the impact of Ruhlmann's work when you see it in person. "These pieces have presence, when you stand in front of them. So graceful, so elegant, yet so tense," he says.

Even when placed side by side with the works of other designers, Ruhlmann stands out, says Goss. "They always seem to have that one extra little thing that just makes it all the more refined and beautiful," says the assistant curator. "[The] difficulty of execution was something that he was extraordinary proud of in his pieces. I think that he drove his workmen nuts by the complicated quality of his design, but nonetheless, the final results are objects of exquisite refinement and sophistication."

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