11 March 2015

Therese Bonney & Paris Moderne

"Paris was where the twentieth century was."- Gertrude Stein

Les Annees Folles (The Crazy Years) as the French called the year between the two world wars, were heady ones for modern  design. The official name of the 1925 Wold's Fair was Exposition des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes, in preparation for more than a decade, postponed due to war in Europe.  The French were eager to reassert their role as the world's arbiter of good design. Post-war prosperity made it possible once again for the middle classes to shop freely, and the designers and department stores that participated at the fair were eager to lure the public to spend with grand pavilions, each one more dazzling than the next.

Like the 1925 exposition itself, modern design was then largely a Parisian phenomenon, extending piecemeal to the suburbs with an occasional outpost on the Riviera (think the Villa Noailles designed by architect Robert Mallet-Stevens).  Much of what was on display at the exposition was commercial in nature, aimed at encouraging the war-weary public to spend  its newly-acquired wealth. Most of it  turned out to be conventional and not radical at all.   The iconic Cubist trees at the French pavilion were a cheeky exception, subjected to ridicule in the contemporary press: “one cartoon depicted a baffled gardener debating whether to water them.”

Although we now think of 1925 as the year of Art Deco, that term was only coined in the 1960s by Bevis Hillier, a British art historian.  At the time, the style was generally referred to as Paris moderne and its foremost chronicler was an American expatriate named Therese Bonney who  had founded the first  illustrated press service specializing in French design and architecture - the Bonney Agency - which eventually supplied as many as 350  photographs a month to publications in dozens of countries.   So who was Therese Bonney and why don't Americans know more about one of our own? 

She was born Mabel Therese Bonney in Syracuse, N.Y in 1894.  Her mother was a bookkeeper and her father an electrician.  The family grew in 1889 when  a  sister, Louise, was born.   The Bonneys had lived in New York State for several generations, so when they moved to California around 1903, first to Sacramento and then to Oakland, it was a momentous change for a family of modest means.
While in high school, Bonney began earning money by tutoring other students in  French and Spanish. She  dropped her first name, considering it too prosaic and not French enough for this budding Francophile; from then on she would be known simply as Therese Bonney.   
After graduating from U.C. Berkeley in 1916, Bonney came east alone to attend Radcliffe College where she earned a master's degree in Romance Languages.  New York City had many attractions, not least in halving the distance between a West Coast Francophile  and Paris.  Bonney found her first  job in the city with the Theatre du Vieux Colombier, then on tour in North America.  From this foothold, Therese was able to send for her sister Louise;  the two young women opened a bookshop specializing in French theater, with Therese doubling as the official English translator for the  French actress Sarah Bernhardt. 

Within months of the Armistice, Bonney sailed for France early in 1919, supported by a newly-created  position with the American Association of Colleges; she was to set up a student exchange program.   Arriving  in Paris, Bonney received a scholarship from the Sorbonne to complete a doctorate (begun at Columbia University) on the theatrical works of Alexandre Dumas. She earned her doctorate in just two years (the youngest person and only the  fourth woman to do so).  

Torn between an academic career and promoting Franco-American cultural relations, Bonney turned to journalism to support herself,  serving as  correspondent for newspapers in Britain and the U.S.   It may have been her stint as  Paris fashion correspondent for the New York Times (1923-1928) that led her to try modeling or it may have been her friendships with fashion designers Jeanne Lanvin and Sonia Delaunay.  At any rate, word reached her hometown where the Syracuse Herald reported that Bonney had been "acclaimed the most perfect da Vinci model in the world."

Among her circle of friends were several artists who painted her portrait: Robert Delaunay, Alicia Halicka, Raoul Dufy (three times) and Georges Rouault (six times!).  Bonney snapped Tamara de Lempicka touching up a portrait of her husband Tadeuz, possibly an insider's joke at the rumors that Bonney affixed her name to work done by other photographers. (How many women creators have seen their efforts attributed to others, namely men). In another photograph Boney captured the impish Italian caricaturist Paolo Garetto in an uncharacteristically somber pose, framed by his creations that wink and roll their eyes as a signal to the viewer that they know better.
Bonney often liked to shoot from curbside, calling streets the “true democratic museum.”  Among her memorable street shots are Jean Carlu's decorated soap truck and the sign for the emporium L'escargot d'or  (The Golden Snail).   Her sensitivity to what made something 'moderne' extended to the effects of artificial light.   Which is the more surprising discovery: that the bar of the Hotel de Ville is transformed into bottle of booze or  that the Citroen showroom in the rue Marbeuf looks like a parking garage?

“Our furniture and our homes are of the past, ” Bonney lamented of homegrown American design.  In the New Yorker Robert McBride she found  a publisher for a series guidebooks including Buying Antique and Modern Furniture in Paris, A Shopping Guide to Paris, Guide to the Restaurants of Paris, and French Cooking for Americans. .This last anticipated Julia Child by decades. For the New York department store Lord & Taylor, Bonney would arrange an exhibition Modern French Decorative Art in 1928, followed by a number of traveling exhibitions that appeared at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.  

Therese Bonney donated 4,000 of her photographic prints to the Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum in the late 1930s, while she and Louise,  an industrial designer, were involved in the planning for the 1939 World's Fair at Flushing Meadows. In 1985 the museum presented the exhibition Paris Recorded based on the Bonney collection.  It surveyed her work from the 1920s documenting the evolution of interior design following the watershed Exposition Internationales des Arts Decoratifs held in 1925.  Therese also served as an official of the 1937 Paris World's Fair.  She had never been busier and more in demand.

Addendum: 03/24/2015.  I note with dismay that the Shaffer Art Gallery at Syracuse University, on its Facebook page, misidentifies a photo of Therese Bonney, taken in 1942 for the New York World Telegram while she was covering WWII in Europe, as being the image of Margaret Bourke-White.  The woman who received awards from the Sorbonne, the Belknap Award from Harvard, the Croix de Guerre and the Legion d'Honneur from the French government, still can't get any respect in her hometown!

For further reading: 
The Invention of Chic: Therese Bonney and Paris Moderne by Lisa Schlansker, New York, Thames & Hudson: 2002,

1. Therese Bonney - Grand Bazaar of the Hotel de Ville, 1920, Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum.
2. Therese Bonney - Models wearing outfits designed by Sonia Delaunay pose in front of concrete trees at the World's Fair, 1925, Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum.
3. Therese Bonney - Paolo Garretto and his desing for the Nestle Copnay, c.1929, Bibliotheque nationale de France, Paris.
4. Therese Bonney - Citroen showroom in the rue Marbeuf, c.1928, Bibliotheque nationale de France.
5. Therese Bonney -  A corner of Tamara de Lempicka's maison-studio in the rue Mechain, Mediatheque, Charenton-le-Pont.
6. Therese Bonney - Living room designed by Elise Djo-Bourgeois, no date given, Mediatheque, Charenton-le-Pont.
7. Therese Bonney - L'escargot d'or insigne (sign of the Golden Snail), Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum, NYC.
8.  Lee Miller - photograph of Therese Bonney, British Vogue, April 1942, Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum, NYC.


Hels said...

Great post. I have had a good look at the 1925 Exhibition over the last 10 years, so when you note that modern design was mostly a Parisian phenomenon, I need to ask why. Were the suburbs and other cities simply more conservative and traditional? Since a lot of the displays were intentionally commercial, why did other cities outside Paris not jump at the chance to participate?

Jane said...

Hels,thank you, and nice to hear from you again! France recovered slowly from WWI. Prosperity spread out from Paris and, with the exception of an occasional commission from a wealthy client, architects and designers clustered in Paris.
The fact that it took four decades to discern something separate that could be called "Art Deco" shows that most design evolved gradually. Even now, many museums still catalog their Deco works under the heading "Art Nouveau."
Added to that, the other established centers of production (Nancy, Sevres, and Limoges)had their own designers and clients to keep happy. Paris alone had the elements that came together so it seems natural that the style was christened "Paris moderne."
More coming on Robert Mallet-Stevens and the Martel twins.

Tania said...

Very interesting, I shall come to read your future posts.

Jane said...

Tania, thank you, as always. I have tried on several occasions to post comments at Textes et Pretextes by your internet server doesn't accept them. A shame, because I enjoy your website very much. Alos, it is part of my French reading each day! Thank you for keeping me on my toes.

Tania said...

Sometimes (this happened to me also on certain blogs), the comment does not pass with mention of your blog, but well just with name. Sorry, in any case, Jane, thank you for your answer.