Beauty spot

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 43, Summer 2015

Page 39

Beauty spot

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 43, Summer 2015

Page 39

When English cosmetics house Yardley needed a makeover, it turned to Paris and the master of French Art Deco. Jared Goss gets the gloss

The world has looked to France in matters of taste ever since Louis XIV consolidated his court in the gilded cage that was Versailles. The courtiers of the Ancien Régime had little to do beyond competing in falbalas et fanfreluches, as flounces and frills are known in French. Their preoccupation with sophistication and elegance prompted an insatiable demand for luxurious novelties, giving rise to what are known as les arts de vivre, the arts of living well: refined, exquisite things that bring pleasure, delight and theater to daily life – from architecture and domestic furnishings to wine and cuisine – not to mention clothing, jewelry, cosmetics and perfumes.

It is fitting, then, that in the prosperous 1920s, Yardley & Company, the well-known London manufacturer of perfumes and soaps founded in 1770, decided to turn to Paris as it sought to grow, diversify, and modernize. In 1924 it purchased the French parfumerie Viville, established in 1892, renaming it Viville-Yardley. Its new showroom was in the chic center of the fashion capital of the world. To mastermind the interior it hired the most renowned French interior designer of the day, É-J Ruhlmann, whose work has come to epitomize French Art Deco. Several striking Ruhlmann pieces for Viville-Yardley's interior are on offer in June at Bonhams New York in the 20th Century Decorative Arts Sale.

Yardley's goals were presumably twofold: to expand the market for its British goods on the Continent, and increase the variety and allure of its merchandise. Yardley's range had relied heavily on traditional, if old-fashioned, products, particularly those with its signature English Lavender scent, which appealed to the Anglo-American market. Viville, on the other hand, was typically French, and during the Belle Époque offered an extensive choice of perfumes with suggestive and evocative names like Sourire d'Avril (April Smile) and L'Étoile de Napoléon (The Star of Napoleon). Viville promoted itself as vendor of "parfums des femmes de France" – a tagline surely aimed at attracting an international clientele as much as a domestic one. Yardley's English proprietors certainly recognized the need for a dose of Viville's French je ne sais quoi.

Yardley's acquisition was made when changing social norms first allowed respectable women to wear make-up. Nowhere was this more evident than in Paris, where not only perfumers, but beauticians, hairdressers, and couturiers introduced fragrances and cosmetics. Jewelers invented specialized accessories that were designed specifically for the application of make-up in public – vanity cases and minaudières (make-up bags) containing compacts, powder boxes, lipsticks and perfume vials – which soon became an integral part of the smart woman's accessory sets.

Viville's commercial operations were based at 24 avenue de l'Opéra, the major thoroughfare that links the Louvre with the Paris Opéra. The location, at the intersection of rue Thérèse, was near the world-famous jewelers and couturiers of rue de la Paix, the renowned department stores of the Grands Boulevards, and the majestic Palais Garnier opera house, where le tout Paris flocked to evening performances both on stage and off. As Viville-Yardley, the business continued to operate from this address, where it remained until the Second World War, although the shop itself – much like the company – was in for a dramatic modernisation: the premises, as much as the products, needed to reflect the most up-to-date, sophisticated taste.

The inter-war years in Paris witnessed the flourishing of French Art Deco, which reached its peak at the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes, the enormous fair in Paris from April to October 1925. Although international in scope, this state-sponsored exhibition promoted mainly French goods to more than six million visitors. Among the most popular displays was a pavilion conceived as an idealized private house for a rich collector of modern decorative arts that was designed by Ruhlmann. No one in Paris could have better realized Viville-Yardley's vision of refined modernity. Sadly, only a small number of original documents, all undated, survive in Ruhlmann's archive, raising the questions: why was he selected for the project? And when exactly was it carried out?

Ruhlmann, born in 1879, was undoubtedly the outstanding French interior designer of the era. After inheriting his family's building and decorating business in 1907, he quickly expanded its scope, producing wallpapers, textiles, and meubles précieux – delicate furniture that was more decorative than functional. After the First World War, Ruhlmann became an ensemblier, fabricating everything for interiors: architecture, furniture, textiles, carpets, lighting fixtures, even decorative hardware. His rooms achieved a degree of conceptual harmony rarely seen in others. Aesthetic refinement, sumptuous materials, and impeccable construction techniques place his furnishings on par with the finest from the Ancien Régime, the inspiration for many of his designs (which, however, never veer into pastiche). With a reputation burnished by critics and clients alike – from the start his furniture was acquired by the French state as well as international museums – Ruhlmann was an obvious choice for Viville-Yardley's upscale makeover.

In 1924, however, he was occupied with projects both private and commercial, including pavilions at the 1925 Exposition, so it is unlikely that he began the Viville-Yardley commission before 1926. A signed image of the apparently complete interior by photographer Henri Manuel and dated 1928 suggests that the project was completed by that year.

The Viville-Yardley showcased Ruhlmann's skills. Drawings from his archive illustrate the project's scope: interior and exterior elevations; floor and furnishing plans; designs for furniture, decorative metalwork, carpets, and lighting fixtures. The scarcity of period photographs makes it difficult to know exactly which proposals were realized, but the few that exist depict an exemplary Ruhlmann interior.

Ruhlmann's characteristic vocabulary of abstracted classicism dominated at Viville-Yardley. A screen of paired columns dividing the shop's interior, reeded wall panels, and minimal moldings were the only architectural embellishments. The furniture made references to historic French archetypes in form (gondola chairs, writing tables), details (saber and cabriole legs, decorative scrolls), and materials (exotic wood veneers, silvered bronze mounts). He mixed furniture models created specifically for Viville-Yardley with those developed for other clients – numerous Yardley display cabinets and tables were used alongside the pieces which will be sold at Bonhams: two graceful, rounded-back cannelé (fluted) armchairs; two elegant X-form stools and four tables lavishly veneered in Macassar ebony. Ruhlmann supplied additional furniture, lighting and carpets, and the project's completeness recalls other important Ruhlmann interiors from the period, namely the Paris apartment of Lord Rothermere and the first-class salon de thé on the ocean liner Île-de-France.

Viville-Yardley was open for business by October 1928, when an article in the Revue du Vrai et du Beau noted that a young designer named Yvonne Brunet had been hired to design new packaging for the company's products. That, together with Ruhlmann's glamorous interior, undoubtedly added a fresh and very French gloss to the British company's formerly stiff upper lip.

Jared Goss is the former Associate Curator in the Department of Modern and Contemporary Art at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Related auctions