Nancy, in eastern France, was the heart of Art Nouveau, the movement of swirling tendrils, budding flowers, stained glass and wilting women. And the Villa Majorelle was its epicentre, a beautiful domestic laboratory of ideas about architecture, furniture, craft and nature.
The house has just reopened after a much-needed restoration — and decades as a highways department office. It is an exemplar of one of design’s most charismatic periods.
Conceived at the fin de siècle and completed in 1902, it tells the story of a synthesis of art, architecture and design that would influence the birth of Modernism.
The house was commissioned and occupied by Louis Majorelle (1859-1926), a traditional furniture maker, or ébéniste, working with fine woods such as ebony. Influenced by the Rococo revival of delicate furniture with curving, slender legs, elaborate inlay and bronze fittings, he transferred those techniques to the Art Nouveau style then emerging in Paris and Brussels.
Nancy was the perfect setting for an Art Nouveau school. It was a city with a Rococo heart — the Place Stanislas was one of France’s most perfect Rococo set pieces.
After the Franco-Prussian war, a disastrous humiliation for the French, Nancy’s population was boosted by wealthy industrialists and craftsmen from neighbouring Alsace, subsumed by a newly unified Germany. The influx of capital and creativity kickstarted a cultural revival. A group known as the Ecole de Nancy allowed the city to express itself through production.
Majorelle’s house is its apotheosis. It looks eccentric, an amalgamation of gothic, Germanic and suburban villa. Like Majorelle’s furniture, it is a hybrid, an application of modernity to a conservative armature. The surfaces and spaces are rich, seductive planes and volumes that you can almost sink into, like a comfortable, sinuous day bed.
The faience stair, designed by ceramicist Alexandre Bigot, is a swirling green mass that looks as if it has oozed from the building. The canopy above the door appears like a creeping vine.
Inside, tendrils, flowers and leaves are painted and carved on to walls, furniture and mouldings — but not to excess. Decoration is used to highlight rather than blanket. On the exterior, each room is given its own identity through a distinctive window, decorative feature or material.
Majorelle designed the furniture but the architect was Henri Sauvage (1873-1932), who would later become a pioneering force in Modernism. His stepped, terraced apartment block in Paris’s Rue Vavin (1912-14) is a visionary building that might have become an archetype — yet oddly did not.
Still only in his twenties, Sauvage threw himself into the opportunities that Majorelle’s house presented. It is a Gesamtkunstwerk — featuring the work of numerous artists. There is stained glass by Jacques Gruber and painted panels by Francis Jourdain, while Bigot designed the terrace balustrade and a remarkable fireplace in the dining room.
There, painted panels on the covings depict a rural idyll and the stained glass shows glowing scenes of vegetables and rolling scenery. Delicate glass lamps hang from the ceiling like exotic fruits (some by Majorelle’s friend, the brilliant Emile Gallé) and the buffet is carved with abstracted ears of wheat.
The effect is a cornucopia in every material from ceramic to bronze. And in the centre stands Bigot’s fireplace, reminiscent of a tree growing from the floor.
The plants depicted are local crops. This was a house rooted in the land, an expression of Nancy as a determinedly French place of resistance to the encroaching German threat.
It continues the Symbolist ideas that preceded it, most notably those embedded in Charles Baudelaire’s 1857 poems of Les Fleurs du Mal, which bemoans the gentrification of Paris as it was transformed by Baron Haussmann from a mysterious, medieval city into a militarised, sterile place.
Art Nouveau’s floral metaphors provided the dreamlike and surreal anti-rationalism that Paris was losing. Nancy attempted to claim its crown.
Vegetation crops up everywhere in the house. In the hall there is the auspicious money plant motif, with silvery, moon-like leaves, appearing in each stage of its life from bud to full flower.
In the lounge, the theme is the forest. Furniture and mouldings are carved with pine cones and the upholstery features a fine pattern of cones and needles. Marquetry revealing flowers, leaves, birds and butterflies evokes a woodland grove.
The one jarring note here is a stained glass panel of pseudo-Islamic design, in the gem-like colours of a bazaar. The original Art Nouveau panels were damaged in the first world war and replaced with these by Majorelle’s son Jacques, an artist in his own right. Jacques had moved to Marrakesh, entranced by the architecture, and this panel echoes that influence.
Jacques’ own house and garden became another famous dwelling: the hybrid Modernist-Orientalist Jardin Majorelle, which was acquired by Yves Saint Laurent and became one of Morocco’s loveliest tourist attractions.
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Father and son became estranged and Majorelle’s furniture-making legacy faded. But at the top of the Nancy villa, in his studio, one has a glimpse into the creative centre of the house, currently unrestored but soon to be transformed into education spaces.
Other seductive details include the stained-glass lights, complex staircase balustrade and mother-of-pearl inlay in the bedroom. This was a showroom as well as a home, used to show potential customers what Majorelle’s furniture might look like in situ.
The designer had lofty ideals about making fine design for the masses, but its expense ensured the clientele was solidly bourgeois. He failed in his egalitarian impulses, as William Morris had before him.
This is a house that is both work of art, rich in iconography, and a comfortable home. In its execution Majorelle succeeded wonderfully. Today, we obsess about how contemporary architecture can be of its place without falling back on the familiar tropes of vernacular and pastiche.
Majorelle created something new by studying the flora and fauna of Lorraine and sculpting them into his home, inscribing nature into culture.
Villa Majorelle is closed due to coronavirus. Edwin Heathcote is the FT’s
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