Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann, eminent designer of the French Art Deco tradition, stands as a unique figure of the era. Without formal training in furniture design or construction, he was able to shop his designs to the most fashionable homes of Paris, and his work is now displayed in revered institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Brooklyn Museum. Eschewing the traditional French modes of design, as well as Art Nouveau, which were in vogue in his time, in favor of foreign influences and unusual mediums, Ruhlmann was able to carve a place for himself in the pantheon of twentieth century design.
Ruhlmann was born in Paris to parents of Alsatian extraction in 1879. His parents made their living by running a contracting company which specialized in mirrors, gilding, and stained glass. Upon his father’s death in 1907, Ruhlmann assumed leadership of the business, creating relationships which would later be of use to him in his distinguished career as a furniture designer.
Ruhlmann became involved seriously in furniture design in 1910, after furnishing an apartment for himself and his new bride. By 1919, after the close of the First World War, he and his friend Pierre Laurent established Ruhlmann et Laurent (or REL), their own interior design firm. Dissatisfied with the trends of design current in France at the time, Ruhlmann looked toward pre-war Viennese design, as well as eighteenth century aesthetics for his inspiration. Ruhlmann understood that his innovationswould not be understood, appreciated, or even available to the vast majority of people. Seeking to make a trend, Ruhlmann was conscious of the fact that he would need to appeal to the elite.
Using the finest materials, such as amboyna burl, Macassar ebony, and Brazilian rosewood for construction, and ivory for details, Ruhlmann was able to create distinct, stand out, one of a kind pieces. The hallmarks of these early works were their almost imperceptible curves and elegantly subtle uses of ivory.
Never having been formally trained in furniture construction himself, Ruhlmann contracted out all of his cabinet making until 1923, when he established his own workshop for the firm. By 1927, he employed over sixty master craftsmen of every stripe—cabinetmakers, finishers, upholsters, and draftsmen. Though not an expert in the execution of design, he was insistent that his craftsmen keep at it until achieving perfection.
Ruhlmann became terminally ill in 1933. Fearing that the quality of the firm’s productions would suffer after his death, he willed it that the company would complete only the orders in progress. After that, Ruhlmann ordered the operation be dissolved.
Some of Ruhlmann’s notable projects and commissions include his showing at the 1925 International Exhibition of Decorative and Industrial Arts, his decoration of the meeting hall of the Paris Chamber of Commerce in 1926-7, his work on the ocean liner Île-de-France in 1927, and the interior of the Marignan cinema in 1928.