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Architecture Misfit #30: Robert Mallet-Stevens

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Robert Mallet-Stevens was born in 1886 a year before Le Corbiusier and died in 1945 twenty years earlier. In the 1920s, they both published their own journals and founded their own associations. By the end of the 1920s, they were the two foremost architects in Paris, with largely seperate spheres of interest and influence. Mallet-Stevens was to design store fronts, a fire station, a theatre, a casino and exposition pavilions, but is most remembered for his private houses for wealthy clients – three in particular.


The first was a 1923 villa for then leading fashion designer Paul Poiret but construction was completed to an altered design for a different owner in the 1930s. These images are as it stands today.

villa Poiret à Mezy-sur-Seine by Luc Legay, sur Flickr

It doesn’t look that much different. The image on the right, below, is a 1917 Le Corbursier design Mr. Poiret rejected.

The caretaker’s house was recently on the market.

During the 1920s, Mallet-Stevens designed sets for some twenty movies of which Marcel L’Herbier’s 1924 silent film L’Inhumaine [on YouTube] is best known. Mallet-Stevens believed a movie set should convey something of the character before they even entered the frame. 

Collaboration was very much in the air in the twenties. Mallet-Stevens designed sets for L’Inhumaine but so did Fernand Léger and two other designers. Pierre Chareau designed some furniture, René Lalique some glassware, and so on. A crowd scene is said to have included Erik Satie, Pablo Picasso, Man Ray, Léon Blum, James Joyce, Ezra Pound and the Prince of Monaco. Mallet-Stevens was used to working with a team of artisans and craftspersons such as interior designers, sculptors, glaziers, lighting specialists, and ironsmiths. For a 1923-28 villa for the Vicomte and Vicomtesse de Noailles in Hyères, overlooking the Riviera, the team included Georges and Elise Djo-Bouregois (furniture, textiles), Eileen Gray, Pierre Chareau, and Theo van Doesberg.

The Vicomte and Vicomtesse de Noailles were enthusiastic about surrealism and chose Mallet-Stevens after interviewing both Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier.  They were more than benefactors or patrons – they lived and breathed art and culture. * They threw large parties and costume balls, knew everyone, and were generally rather fabulous.

Their villa was photographed by surrealist filmmaker Man Ray and by acclaimed wartime photojournalist Thérèse Bonney.

Man Ray is said to have been inspired by the house to make his 1926 The Mysteries of the Château de Dé (The Mysteries of the Chateau of Dice) [also on YouTube]. 

Over the period 1926–1938 Mallet-Stevens designed and built five houses (six if you count the caretaker’s), including one for himself, in rue Mallet-Stevens in Paris. Five adjacent buildings by the same architect don’t happen by accident.

Plan rue Mallet-Stevens

The Mallet-Stevens family were well connected and well off so I imagine they owned the street that, after all, is a private road.

No. 10 is known as Hôtel Martel after the twin sculptors Jan and Joël Martel who occupied it.

It was recently on the market and we have to thank for these images.

The building on the corner at No. 12 is where the Mallet-Stevenses lived.

Relatively little is known about the other buildings, apartments change hands occasionally.

Together with sculptors Jan and Joel Martel, Mallet-Stevens collaborated on the design of the Cubist Garden at the International Exposition of Decorative Arts Paris in 1925. Their concrete trees were a sensation/scandal.

Mallet-Stevens also designed the Information and Tourism Pavilion, and the Hall of The Embassy of France.

I mention the 1925 exposition out of sequence because it leads to what was to be Mallet-Stevens’ defining project, the Villa Cavrois. The concrete garden was adjacent to the Roubaix and Tourcing Pavilion of Carpets and Upholstery Fabrics that housed an exhibition that included the products of the Roubaix factory of the textile entrepreneur, Paul Cavrois. Cavrois is said to have enjoyed the shock of the trees. Richard Klein, the person who knows more about Mallet-Stevens than anyone else, described it like this.

Adrien Auger, the contractor who built the tourism pavilion designed by Mallet-Stevens for the 1925 exhibition, became one of the architect’s sponsors: he entrusted him with the design of his home in Ville d’Avray . The wife of Adrien Auger, Marie Prouvost is at the same time one of the daughters of Amédée prouvost (1853-1927), one of the tycoons of the Roubais textile industry, a cousin of Lucie Vanoutryve, the wife of Paul Cavrois, and Cousin of Jean Prouvost, the founder of the Lainière de Roubaix, one of the largest French spinners.

M. Cavrois wanted a modern villa, something shocking.

This photograph I didn’t take. Jean-Luc-Paillé did. 

The house is big, but, compared to houses of only fifty years earlier, not that big. There aren’t that many different places for people to be. When at home and not asleep, Mon. Cavrois had the (admittedly capacious) living room, smoking room and his office. Mme. Cavrois had the living room and her boudoir. There were also the large terraces and gardens but the north of France is not as warm or sunny as the famously warm and sunny south. Windows are large and plentiful. The service corridor borrows additional light from the washroom and kitchen. Rather than have a bathroom window on the main façade, one of the boy’s bathrooms borrows light from the bedroom.

Each room had a telephone and wireless and, somewhat curiously, a clock. The circular black spots on the living room wall are speakers that could relay either wireless or phonograph. None of this is made a fetish of. The radiators are not painted red, for example, but given functional yet gorgeous surrounds of stainless steel bands.

Importance is given to artificial light but, apart from the entry hallway fittings and the light boxes at the salon entrance, the general lighting is concealed strip lighting bounced off curved reflectors. The many mirrors are used more for spatial effects than to amplify the sensation of light. 

Vestiges of much grander houses and the differentiation of function remain with the smoking room, the gun room, and the capacious and functional basement and wine cellars. There were three live-in domestic staff (cook, front maid and housekeeper) as well as the governess and chauffer. Day staff would have been employed for maintenance and gardening. Children are separated and their presence regulated, as is that of the domestic staff.  The house is thus a mixture of modernist sensibilities and traditional requirements – though Karel Teige would say bourgeois, and did, more than once.

Karel Teige, The Minimum Dwelling, p167.jpg

Karel Teige’s position on Robert Mallet-Stevens is at least clear and consistent. Architectural historian Willam Curtis’ antipathy towards Robert Mallet-Stevens seems to stem from the fact Mallet-Stevens not only wasn’t Le Corbusier, but denied Le Corbusier the chance to design and build possibly two more buildings for him to write about.

Mallet-Stevens simply doesn’t fit into any of the common narratives about modern architecture.

He refused to be a content provider. Mallet-Stevens requested his entire archive of drawings and writings be destroyed after his death. This is usually given as the reason he’s not better remembered but I doubt it’s as simple as that. An architect’s degree of recognition shouldn’t be determined by how much information they make available for that very purpose. One thing is clear: Mallet-Stevens’ disdain for the myth-making of architecture by depriving future historians of source material did nothing to endear him to them.

He was born into a family of wealth and privilege. He was naturally connected with the 1920s French world of culture and art. Once their villa was complete, the Vicomte and Vicomtesse of Noailles spent months attending furniture and art exhibitions so they could make better informed choices regarding its interiors. In the end, they chose Louis Barillet (decorative glazing), Pierre Chareau, Eileen Gray, Djo-Bourgeois et Francis Jourdain (furniture), Gabriel Guévrékian (garden), and Piet Mondrian, Henri Laurens, Jacques Lipchitz, Constantin Brancusi and Alberto Giacometti (various artworks.) They don’t seem like the kind of people who, in 1923, would have chosen an architect on a whim or hearsay. They would have known Mallet-Stevens was more familiar the world they moved in.

There’s no evidence of an architectural agenda. Mallet-Stevens buildings were selectively modern but Curtis mistakes this for being superficially modern. But who needs a roof terrace when there’s a huge terrace or belvedere leading on to gardens just outside? The terrace at Villa Noailles is surely one of the world’s nicer places to be.

Villa Noailles and Villa Cavrois are modern anachronisms but there’s no way they would have benefited from incorporating any of Le Corbusier’s Five Points and, more to the point, no reason why they should have. They were built for people with very firm ideas of what they wanted their villas to be. They were progressive within the scope of their brief and not experimental beyond it. We should not see this as something negative.

His buildings can be seen as more style than substance. This follows on from the above. Books with titles like The Invention of Chic don’t help but, it must be said, Mallet-Stevens definitely had a way with staircases.

He made no notable effort to market himself. Personal recommendations are the best way to receive work and Mallet-Stevens’ circle of acquaintances and colleagues was wide, influential, and respected. Rue Mallet-Stevens was a private road but it had a very public inauguration in 1927. The opening of Mallet-Stevens BALLY store in 1928 was attended by the then French Minister of Commerce.

In the same way events such as these were cultural ones as well as architectural ones, Villa Noailles was also a social event, and at one time or another hosted André Gidé, Francis Poulenc, Arthur Rubenstein, Salvador Dalí, Balthus, Jean Cocteau, Ned Rorem, Man Ray, Luis Buñuel, Max Ernst, Francis Poulenc, Wolfgang Paalen, Jean Hugo, Jean-Michel Frank, …

Mallet-Stevens didn’t design everything himself. The “total work of art” was a recent affectation but Mallet-Stevens produced it by coordinating the efforts of others. The glass ceiling in the Pink Room at Villa Noailles is stunningly beautiful, but was designed by Louis Barillet, for example. The light boxes and the ceiling light reflectors at Villa Cavrois were designed by André Salomon. I get the feeling Mallet-Stevens had nothing to prove. This does not fit the accepted narrative of ambitious architects and career trajectories.

Mallet-Stevens placed too much emphasis on detail. Small things mattered. No bricks were cut in the making of Villa Cavrois. Instead, the house was clad with bricks all the same thickness but made to twenty-six different lengths. This is a triumph of detailing and bricklaying when there are horizontal joints as long as 60 metres. It’s a decadence of process yes, but it’s also amazing that someone thought it was important for who would have ever noticed? It’s a very handmade house that does not fit well with a notion of houses as metaphors for machines. Brick is not trying to represent the new plasticity.

Mallet-Stevens placed too much emphasis on craftsmanship. This next image is not of a Mallet-Stevens building but the one adjacent to Hôtel Mallet-Stevens on rue du Docteur Blanche. It has some exquisite mosaic work that illustrates exactly what I mean.

It’s a bravura display of craftsmanship and aesthetic sensibility. It’s not necessary (as it wasn’t with the equally bravura counterpoint on the window sill) but it’s there and it’s beautiful. It’s not a machine product, and it’s not wanting to be one. Mallet-Stevens could also design for mass production. He just managed to find some of the last clients who could afford and appreciate excellent materials and craftsmanship.

While architecture was moving in the direction of mass production and the larger market afforded by clients less wealthy, Mallet-Stevens was designing rooms where subtly theatrical spaces didn’t flow into each other, but presented a succession of scenes and spaces. Choice of materials often reflected the personality of the intended occupant of the space. This meant sycamore in the boudoir, pear wood in the office, zebrawood in the children’s dining room, black pear wood and Swedish marble in the dining room, Cuban mahogany in the smoking room, and so on. This was clearly not the way the market for architecture was moving.

Mallet-Stevens’ career never “progressed”. Architects are supposed to begin small, do a few houses and then move on to larger and more public commissions before international ones, aping the career trajectories of Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier. Mallet-Stevens didn’t do this. His list of buildings is eclectic and follows no sequence. It tells no story other than that of not conforming to our expectations. The following list is taken from Contemporary Architects (edited by Muriel Emanued) but supplemented with information from which is the best resource I’ve come across. Whoever’s responsible has done a wonderful job tracking down photographs of most buildings on this list. I’ve mostly resisted adding them.

1914: Workman’s house, Saint Cloud, paris (project)
1922: Electricity Transformer Station (project)
1922: Aéro-Club de France Pavilion, Salon d’Automne, Paris
1923: Bookshop, Paris
1923: Vicomte de Noailles Villa, Hyères, Var, France (with others)
1923: Facades and interiors for the Cafés du Brésil, Paris
1924: Film sets for Marcel l’Herbier’s L’Inhumaine
1924: Poiret Chateau, Mezy, Seine et Oise, France
1924: Hotel des Roches Noires reconstruction, Trouville, France
1925: Pavilion of Tourism, Exposition des Arts Décoratifs, Paris (with others)1926: House, Ville d’Avray, France
1926: Villa Collinet, Denfert-Rochereau, Paris
1926: Freres Martel House, Paris
1926: House, Boulogne-sur-Seine, Paris 
Houses, rue Mallet-Stevens, Paris (1926/7)
1927: Mallet-Stevens House Paris
1928: Casino, Saint Jean de Lux, France
1929: Apartment building, rue Mechain, Paris
1929: (incl. the studio of Polish artist Tamara Lempicka)

1929: House, Pernambuco, Brazil
1929: Offices for the P.F. Department Stores, Paris
1929: Bally Shoe Shop, Boulevard de la Madeleine, Paris
1930: Municipal Theatre, Grasse, Alpes Maritimes, France
1930: Government Distillery, Istanbul, Turkey
1930: Delza Shop, rue de la Paix, Paris
1930: Shop front, rue d’Assas, Paris
1930: Worker’s housing, Roubaix (project)

1931: Villa Cavrois, Roubaix, France
1931: House/Studio for master glassmaker Louis Barillet, Paris
1931: Trappenard House, Sceaux, France
1934: Houses, Roubaix, France
1935/6: Fire Station, rue Mesnil, Paris
1937: Palais d’Electricité, World’s Fair, Paris Olympic Stadium, Paris
1939: Press and Advertising pavilion, L’Exposition du Progrès Social de Lille

The Press and Advertising Pavilion was Robert Mallet-Stevens’ last project. He did not work for anyone during the German occupation of France. He died in 1945, probably knowing he’d been fortunate in life and career.

• • •

Robert Mallet-Stevens!

for being very good at what you did,
and for leaving it at that.

misfits salutes you!

• • •

Villa Cavrois

Ground Floor
GROUND FLOOR: A. Entrance porch, B. Swiming pool, C. South Terrace, D. North terrace, E. Children’s staircase, F. Children’s entrance, 1. Main entrance hall, 2. Double-height sitting room, 3. Inglenook, 4. Smoking room, 5. Main dining room, 6. Children’s dining room, 7. Scullery, 8. Kitchen, 9. Pantry, 10–12. Servants’ rooms, 13. Bathroom, 14. W.C., 15, Service entrance, 17. Washbasin, 18. W.C., 19. Service stairs, 20. Cloakroom, 21. W.C., 22. Waiting room,athroom 24. Bathroom, 25. Young man’s room, 26. Young man’s room, 27. Bathroom, 28. Office, 29. Safe
First Floor
FIRST FLOOR: A. Balcony, B. South Terrace, C. Covered terrace, D. North terrace, 1. Void over sitting room, 2. Bathroom, 3. Girls’ room, 4. Governess’ room, 5. Bathroom, 6. Boys’ room, 7. Service room, 8. Corridor, 9. W.C., 10. Service stairs, 12. Linen, 13. Storage, 16. Master bathroom, 17. Master bedroom, 18. Boudoir, 19. Bathroom, 20. Main staircase
Second Floor
SECOND FLOOR: A. East terrace, B. West terrace, 1. Children’s playroom, 2. Storage, 3. Service room, 4. Study room, 5. Study room
BASEMENT: A. Swimming pool, B. Covered passageway 1. Wine, 2. Fine wine, 3. Bottling room, 4. Fruit storage, 5. Wood storage, 6. Boiler room, 7. Laundry, 8. Cellars and storage, 9. W.C., 10, Coal storage, 12. Oil tanks, 13. Service stairs, 14. Larder, 15. Flowers, 16. Cellars and storage, 17. Garage, 18. Trunk storage, 19. Lift motor room, 20. Gun room

• • •


• • •

31st August 2017: The Mallet-Stevens door handle is still in production. I just noticed I have something very similar on my bathroom door.