Louis Majorelle


Louis MajorelleFirmly rooted in the craft of woodwork and furniture-making, Louis Majorelle’s furniture subtly recalled the splendors of furniture from the 1700's. Majorelle often ornamented his pieces with gracefully sculpted gilt mounts, while the sinuous natural forms which inspired him suggested the C-scrolls of the Louis XV era. In an age when France was still humiliated by the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, and when luxury production in other countries was threatening the cultural hegemony the French saw as their birthright, Majorelle's ability to suggest the nation's glory days was paramount. Using a new vocabulary of natural forms and the sumptuous lines of Art Nouveau, Majorelle's furniture merged old and new in a tantalizing way. This combination of exceptional craftsmanship with the new aesthetic was celebrated at the 1900 Exhibition by the public and critics alike, who saw in Majorelle a cherished link between the grandeur of the Eighteenth Century and the promise of the modern age.

Louis Majorelle was born in Toul, France, to a furniture and ceramics merchant in Nancy. There he spent his free time in his father's workshop where he developed his own artistic sense at an early age. By the time he was eleven, he had already produced his first work for sale, a piece of sculpture. In 1877, Majorelle went to study painting and architecture at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Only two years later, his father's death cut short his studies, as he was compelled him to take over the artistic direction of his father's company in Nancy. Majorelle devoted himself to mastering the technical skills of the profession, but remained stylistically conservative, following his father's practice of designing historicist furniture.

The Majorelle firm's factory was designed by famous École de Nancy architect Lucien Weissenburger and located at 6, rue du Vieil-Aître in the western part of Nancy. In the 1880s Majorelle turned out pastiches of Louis XV furniture styles, which he exhibited in 1894 at the Exposition d'Art Décoratif et Industriel in Nancy, but the influence of the glass and furniture maker Emile Gallé inspired him to take his production in new directions. Beginning in the 1890s, Majorelle's furniture, embellished with inlays, took their inspiration from nature, and began to reflect the Art Nouveau designs created by his contemporaries. He continued to experiment with Art Nouveau motifs that were gaining popularity in Nancy, Paris and abroad. Majorelle began working with floral decoration in marquetry, but overall his furniture still betrayed a Victorian sensibility.

The first hint of a new aesthetic appeared in one of twelve pieces that Majorelle exhibited at the 1894 Exposition d'Art Décoratif et Industriel Lorrain. Throughout the decade, By the end of the 1890s, Majorelle's company was expanding and moving away from handcrafting toward more industrialized practices. He added a metalworking atelier to the workshops, to produce drawer pulls and mounts in keeping with the fluid lines of his woodwork. His studio also was responsible for the ironwork of balconies, staircase railings, and exterior details on many buildings in Nancy at the turn of the twentieth century. Majorelle assembled a team of skilled artisans who would ultimately collaborate with him on his best work and he began collaborating with Daum Frères on lighting designs in a partnership that would last for decades.

Despite these developments, no one could have predicted Majorelle's extraordinary success at the Paris 1900 Exposition Universelle, at which he displayed a dining room and bedroom ensemble. Each suite was unified by a flower motifs - one orchid, one water lily - and decorated with mosaic inlays of exotic woods and mother-of-pearl. Majorelle and his team of artisans had evidently planned and labored for years on this elaborate display, which not only exemplified the new artistic style, but also demonstrated the highest level of craftsmanship and construction.

In 1898, Majorelle hired Henri Sauvage, a young Parisian architect, to collaborate with Weissenburger on the building of his own house, known as the Villa Jika (after the acronym of Majorelle's wife's maiden name), but now popularly known as simply the Villa Majorelle, in Nancy. Majorelle, like many industrialists in Nancy, located his house across the street from his factory. Sauvage and Weissenburger's three-story design for the villa represents the true flowering of Art Nouveau architecture in Nancy, with multiple bow windows and floral motifs covering the exterior. Majorelle himself produced the ironwork, furniture, and the interior woodwork, such as the grand staircase. Majorelle located his own personal studio on the third floor under a gabled roof, and included a huge arched window combled together with spandrels that evoke the branches of a tree or flower.

In February 1901, Majorelle became one of the founding members of the École de Nancy, alternatively known as the Alliance provinciale des industries d'art, which was a group of artists, architects, art critics, and industrialists in Lorraine who decided to work in a collaborative fashion, predominantly in the Art Nouveau style. Headed by Gallé until his death in 1904, the members joined together to ensure a high standard of quality of work in the French decorative arts, of which Lorraine artists were the chief producers at the time. Majorelle was one of the vice-presidents of the group from the outset, remained so throughout the existence of the École de Nancy. He and the other members worked to promote the work of Lorraine decorative artists through their advocacy of the establishment of a school for industrial arts, their participation at major exhibitions, and organized their own shows. Majorelle was consistently one of the internationally-renowned figures of the group who could always be found at any show at which the group exhibited. His connections with the Parisian art circles also helped assure the renown of Lorraine artists in the French capital.

In 1904 Majorelle won the Grand Prize at the St Louis World's Fair, demonstrating the cultural exchange encouraged by these international exhibitions. He continually produced furniture of the highest quality in a wide range of wood veneers including many newly introduced from France's colonies in North Africa and Asia. These woods, such as mahogany, amaranth and bougainvillea, added to the richness of quality in Majorelle's furniture.

In 1914, with the outbreak of war, Majorelle hoped to hold out and continue production in Nancy. Unfortunately, in an event apparently unrelated to the war, his factories on the rue de Vieil-Aître suddenly caught fire on the morning of November 20, 1916. The conflagration, spurred on by the fresh supply of lumber, unfinished furniture, and sawdust, burned through virtually all the firm's sketches, awards, molds, equipment, and archives that documented the fifty-year history of the enterprise. Ayear later, in 1917, a German aircraft bombing destroyed the Majorelle shop on the rue Saint-Georges. Later the Majorelle family reported that their shop in Lille had been looted by advancing German troops.

Majorelle relocated to Paris for the remainder of the war, where he worked in the workshops of fellow furniture designers. After the war, he reopened the factory and his shop, and continued to collaborate with the Daum glassworks and produce furniture, though these late designs show the stiffened geometry of Art Deco. Majorelle died in Nancy in 1926. After his death, his family, whose fortunes had been damaged severely by the war, could no longer afford to live in the Villa Majorelle, and the house and much of the outlying property were sold off in parcels. Today, the Villa has been acquired by the city of Nancy, which is undertaking a long-term project of renovation and restoration. Majorelle's factories were managed by Alfred Lévy who continued to make expensive and elaborate as well as more modest and reasonably priced objects. The firm closed in 1956.

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