15 July 2010

How Therese Bonney Shaped Modern Design

In the Parisian salon (c. 1925) at left we see the interior design by Pierre-Paul Montagnac, with a rug by Ivan DaSylva Bruns. Its sleek lines, its tactfully placed lacquer and chinoiserie, its luxurious sense of space and light express the Art Deco aesthetic in its most refined and modernist aspects.

More than we realize, our version of modern design's history has been influenced by the photography of Therese Bonney. The designers whose works she championed were an impressive group, Eileen Gray, none accomplished more than Bonney herself.

Among architects, she recognized early that Robert Mallet-Stevens (1886-1945) was the equal of Le Corbusier; his total design of Rue Mallet-Stevens in the 16th arrondissement of Paris compares favorably with bleak urbanism of Corbusier's 'Radiant City'. But while Corbusier manufactured the myth of himself as a modern design prophet, Mallet-Stevens ordered that his archives be destroyed upon his death. His wishes were honored but Bonney's record of his work continues to speak for his achievements and inspires younger designers like Jacqueline Salmon (b. 1943).

Mallet-Stevens, as architect, collaborated with designer Elise Djo-Bourgeois (1898-1937) on one of the 20th century's iconic homes - the Villa Noailles at Hyeres for Vicomte Charles and Marie-Laure de Noailles in 1925. The couple, especially the Vicomtesse who included both American Quakers and the Marquis de Sade among her ancestors, were important patrons of the arts, especially the Surrealists.
Bonney's working methods included photographing from the street, the “true democratic museum” as architect Rene Herbst called it. Before Brassai, she realized that certain designs could be best understood at night. The bottle of booze that is the light-draped Hotel de Ville looks all too familiar these days, but we are still riveted by the new (in 1925) Citroen showroom in the rue Marbeuf, suggesting either an automat or a parking garage.

The characteristic Art Deco lettering on the soap truck, done by graphic designer Jean Carlu dates from 1930, as does the escalator at the department store Au Printemps. At the time Bonney shot several buildings, deliberately focusing on the signage, notably the Andre Balmann fleuriste and the newspaper offices of La Semaine.

Bonney supported the work of other talented women through her photographs, and even modeled clothing designed by Sonia Delaunay. Indeed, designer Madeleine Vionnet was her closest friend, after sister Louise. Her canny juxtaposition of Austrian artist Hilda Polsterer at work in her studio on a mural for a fashionable dining room was typical. She also photographed the painter Tamara de Lempicka touching up a portrait of her husband Tadeusz. Possibly this type of photo was inspired by the rumors that Bonney affixed her name to the work of others.
In effect, Bonney became an early image maker. Paolo Garretto, the Italian caricaturist strikes a serious pose as his creations wink or roll their eyes, as if to say that they know him better and we are part of the joke.
Therese Booney must have been captivating as well as hard-working, because the people she photographed often became her friends. Many artists painted her during the 1920s and 1930s: Robert Delaunay, Alicia Halicka, Raoul Dufy - three times, and Georges Roualt, six times. After World War II, when Dufy became ill, Bonney arranged for medical treatment in the United States that prolonged the artist's life.

Note: I am indebted to L'Invention du Chic: Therese Bonney et le Paris Moderne by Lisa Schlansker Kolosek, Norma - Thames & Hudson, 2002, for biographical cinformation about Bonney.


Gerrie said...

Delightfull reading, great lady. What a light she brought to the modern world. She was the generation of my grandparents. Hard to believe. Worlds apart.
Thank you Jane.

Jane said...

I purposely left out Bonney's heroic photo-journalism during World War II, as that is the one thing she is remembered for in her native country. The only book, as yet, about Bonney was written by a francophone Swiss - Dr. Kolosek - and it fills in many gaps, but left me wanting more. This was an extraordinary woman. I hope I did her some small justice.