Friday, August 5, 2011

Louis Vuitton and L' Art Nouveau

An image from Vuitton's Fall Winter 2011
campaign.  Red Guard goes S&M, with lovely
 Sometimes, it's hard to imagine that there really was, at one time, a man named Louis Vuitton.  In the era we live in, luxury fashion houses are owned by multi-national conglomerates who sometimes change designers as frequently as they change color stories; seeking to steal the limelight for a few seconds more to gain just that little bit of extra publicity.  With this m.o., many brands have lost the identities of those who founded them in favor of a more flashy and faddish existence. 

Of course, Vuitton hit pay dirt by employing Marc Jacobs to reinvent the classic motifs and silhouettes of the house for a new generation of consumers, but as with most things, we tend to focus on the current incarnation and willingly let the foundation of the past fade into a foggy memory.  We are left with the salable superficial beauty of the modern age, but we have no idea of the path we traveled to arrive at our destination.  True identity is often lost, in it's place a few epithets and a coveted logo that make up nothing more than a designer headstone in a grave yard of sentimentality.

The exterior of the Vuitton home shows an eclectic mix of
modest profiles and elaborate ornament indicative of the
Art Nouveau movement.
One thing, however, remains constant when it comes to discovering the true character of anyone; the home.  Nowhere else can we see the exquisite beauty of everyday life so well.  All that is human is on display for all to see in the sacred inner workings of the home.  Case in point, Villa Vuitton in Asnieres, just outside Paris.  The family home of the Vuitton's couldn't be further from the homogenized glossy commercial model of the Louis Vuitton boutiques that populate the up market shopping districts throughout the world, and that's an incredibly beautiful thing.

In 1859, Louis Vuitton purchased a plot of land just over an acre in size in the riverside village that was once the haunt of Monet, Manet, and many of the Impressionist painters during the 19th Century.  Vuitton would build a factory on the site, which would remain the companies sole production facility until 1977.  The whir of sewing machines and the sight of delivery trucks bearing freshly milled timber and leather for luggage would be commonplace.  The facility is still in use today, producing Vuitton's trunks, case goods and custom orders.

The Vuitton home has as much Art
Nouveau decoration on the outside
as it does on the inside.
 Vuitton also chose this plot of land to build his family home, which was occupied by his descendants until 1964.  The Villa dates to 1869; previously Vuitton and his wife Emilie occupied an apartment on the top floor of the factory.  Never one for overwrought extravagances, Vuitton aimed to build a dwelling that was 'homely and comfortable' where he could raise his family and also supervise production at the factory next door.  The modest aspirations for his home were just as well; during the Franco-Prussian War, army officers temporarily took over the Villa.

Vuitton's son, Georges, had a different idea for the design of the home.  After his fathers death in 1892, Georges called on Louis Majorelle to redecorate the Billiard Room and Salon in the most luxurious and up to date style, Art Nouveau.  A style truly fit for a luxury brand of that era and the family that built it.   Majorelle, along with Louis Comfort Tiffany, Rene Lalique and Emile Galle, was one of the leading proponents of the Art Nouveau style which dominated the Decorative Arts from the 1890's through the early 1900's.  It is this incarnation of the Vuitton home that is still seen today.  The home is dramatic and beautiful; compelling with it's intricate leaded glass windows, soft ethereal colors and incredibly ornate plasterwork, but for all of its jaw-dropping qualities, it is seen not as a show piece or a museum, but a living home, designed with comfort and family in mind.

A view into the Billiard Room with beautiful cove ceilings and stunning
leaded glass windows.  I am in love with those understated but dramatic
pendant fixtures above the pool table. 

The characteristic sweeping whiplash curves and fantastic organic motifs fill the space with an almost dream-like effect.  The leaded glass windows and interior are decorated with motifs that incorporate irises, poppies, nasturtiums, chrysanthemums, and clematis.  Columns are formed from florid leaves and flowers, and ceilings are ornamented with delicate tendrils of hand sculpted plaster.  The kitchen, also done during this time, is said to have had handmade tiles bearing the famous LV monogram, which was designed by Georges in 1897.  Georges' widow, Josephine, was the last Vuitton to live in the family home.  After her death at the age of 103, the house was gutted and converted to storage space and offices and the original furnishings dispersed among the family.

An alcove off the Salon is defined by the intricately carved columns and is filled
with eclectic furnishings such as the Beaux Arts settee, mahogany table and a bronze Crane.

A bay off the Salon houses a circa 1900 English cane furniture suite and
majolica style planters. The leaded window panes are dynamic with their
pencil thin whiplash curves and borders of leaded glass flowers.

A most exquisite chandelier of gilded bronze
and frosted glass leaves springs down from a whorl
of plasterwork tendrils on the Salon ceiling.
Matching sconces can be seen flanking the fireplace.
 In 1984, a decision was made to renovate the Villa and turn it into a museum chronicling the development of the Vuitton brand.  The Billiard and Salon were reconstructed through the use of old photos.  Plaster friezes and moldings in floral forms were remade, and a copy of the immense turquoise ceramic mantelpiece was installed.  Furnishing, purchased at auction, were selected to recreate the spirit of the original Art Nouveau interior; Louis XV bergeres, Beaux Arts settees, mother of pearl inlaid Chinese tables, Majorelle lamps, bronze sculptures, art pottery planters, and oriental carpets contribute to the eclectic, exotic, and sensual feeling that Art Nouveau is known for.

The Villa Vuitton stands as an emblem of the company's origins; a modest family home built by a proud patriarch and entrepreneur, then embellished by the heir apparent as the company grew.  Beyond the established brand image, the home is more than just a status symbol, it is the people that make it a home.  It's slamming doors and creaking floors and cracks in the plaster.  A home tells volumes about it's family, all we have to do is be ready to observe and listen.

- Ian

Hand painted details add charm to the entire room,
as this fragment of a white Lily frieze indicates.
I'm also smitten with the elegance and simplicity of
the egg shaped brass knob.  Given the exuberance of the
interior, this detail is restraint at its best.

The stunning turquoise ceramic mantelpiece was
recreated and installed.  Note the marvelous upward
sweep of the wainscot panels and the shield shape
of the mirror.  Epic drama on a residential scale.
And look at the art pottery hearth!  J'adore!

1 comment: