Strolling down State Street, I peeked into a new business, Members Only: Barber Shop and Art Gallery.
Intrigued, I paid a visit to Franco, tonsorial artist, as his card announced. Franco had a gorgeous French Deco sideboard amid a collection of wonderful antique barbering chairs, themselves worth a great deal in the hipster market. But his sideboard, what a statement of French Deco! Shimmering, it's of wave design and matched veneering, a real piece of furniture that speaks of an era that will never come again.
France in the 1930s was conscious of its place in the world of art and fashion. The great jazz-era singers, as well as the painters and sculptors, flocked to Paris. The first World War had ended with France determined to be great again. And great it was but with a difference that no other country could boast. Because Paris, especially, was aware of the importance of the upper middle class. And a style was developing that was supremely upper middle class: showy, opulent and almost affordable. That was French Art Deco.
Italian Art Deco was linear and aggressive, focusing on the machine-era line and movement. American Art Deco was streamlined and forward-thrusting. But French Deco was graceful, playful, lighter, and harkened back to the golden era of Louis XV and XVI. And the ebenistes (furniture makers) knew how to make the surfaces of furniture come alive with veneer, and not only wood veneer. French Deco experimented with sharkskin (called shagreen), metals, mirrors and very shiny finishes, hand rubbed. The Deco parlor of 1930 was a thing to behold. This furniture catered to the new bourgeoisie of the 1930s. The best of it had a definite following in New York City, where you still find collectors of the best and most expensive French Deco.
Certain furniture makers in France were known for their popularity with the upper middle class, such as E. Jacquemin from Strasbourg. This is whom I suspect made Franco's barbershop piece.
This firm loved what we call "book-matched" burl wood veneering. A thin slice of a tree burl (a growth) would be machine cut and opened like a book. That mirror image of the graining echoed each other when sculptured side by side, as you can see in the hourglass shapes on the curvilinear sides of Franco's piece. In those sections, the graining runs vertically. The graining in the book-matched veneer to the cabinet doors to the front, however, runs horizontally, forming little islands of grain.
For this piece, the maker decided to use rosewood, a hard wood with deep, elegant, light and dark graining. The graining "waves" at the beholder; a literal wave motif was brought into the molding of the carved fretwork on the overmirror and the cornice under the drawer to the front. The whole top forms a big wave in scallops. The piece looks like it is going to shimmy out of the barbershop!
All this movement was a signature of French Deco. The cabriole legs appear to spring up and walk. Seen only on French Deco, this leg was invented for furniture in the era of Louis XV, having a "knee" meant to imitate the stance of a cat.
These pieces are rare to find because the following era, the Moderne, became devoted to simple geometric lines. So this curvy opulent look was tossed out by the real middle class, the true bourgeoisie of the working class, during the late 1940s for machine-made furniture.
The look of the French 1930s was stylish, fanciful, playfully trying to forget WWI and the shades of what was happening over the borders that would lead to WWII.
In the detail of the Carrera marble top, notice the "boiling sea" shapes that echo the waves of the furniture. This was no mistake. Richness in marble was part of the design, and this piece has its original top. The overmirror is for show and movement. In its era's setting, an elegant silver or bronze sculpture, a beautiful woman holding a brace of greyhounds, would have been reflected back in the mirror.
A period room that could hold such a piece contained silver wall sconces. The floors would have been highly polished and finished with a white rug. The chairs would have been low and barrel-shaped, in pale elegant blues or silver. The lady of the house would serve cocktails off this piece in hostess pajamas of silk. And everyone would be smoking something. The value is $1,000.
Certified appraiser for estates, inheritances and trusts.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart's column appears every week in the Salon & Style section of the Santa Barbara News Press. Email her your questions and high-resolution photos at ElizabethAppraisals @ gmail.com
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