How Paul Dupré-Lafon Became ‘The Decorator of Millionaires’
By Josh Sims
He was dubbed ‘the decorator of millionaires’, and this was back when a million was still a lot of money. He had a reputation for his exquisite taste and worked with some of the finest craftspeople in Paris to effect his vision for furniture, homewares and other design objects. Yet few people outside of the auction house circuit have likely heard of Paul Dupré-Lafon, despite his working from the 1920s through to his death 50 years ago this year, in 1971.
“He seemed to be a very discreet individual, quietly designing for the elite, and the discretion of his work was a large part of its appeal too,” notes Marcus McDonald, UK director of modern decorative art and design at auctioneers Bonhams. “He never became the household name that, say, the likes of Gio Ponti would become, and yet he’s definitely recognised, and his influence is clear. His work struck a careful balance – it was refined, sophisticated, never verbose or flamboyant. Perhaps his reputation isn’t what it might be because it was so restrained.”
Indeed, man and output alike. As Megan Whippen, senior specialist at Chicago-based, 20th century art and design dealers Wright20 stresses, Dupré-Lafon didn’t play the promotion game either. Yes, he appeared in a few magazines, the likes of the influential ‘Art et Decoration’, but he declined to be part of any of the many exhibitions that followed 1925’s ground-breaking International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts. He didn’t open a shop or retail his designs under his own name. He didn’t give interviews.
But that didn’t stop Paul Dupré-Lafon’s rapid progress. Born in 1900 in Marseille, to a family of traders, he graduated from the city’s Ecole des Beaux-Arts as a painter in 1923, exhibited in local galleries, but then moved to Paris the same year and relaunched himself as an architect and decorator (this before the term ‘interior designer’ had taken hold). Thanks in part due to introductions made by his art school friend Georges Willameur, Dupré-Lafon landed on his feet, showing early talent in his design for the headquarters of the apparel company Weill. By 1928 he had a thriving firm with his own apprentices.
In 1929 he completed a private four storey mansion on Paris’ Rue Rembrandt – his first major project and one of the biggest private decoration projects of the time – and the following year started to pull in a long roster of fashionable clients for whom he’d master the design of every aspect of their interior. In 1938 he took on another huge mansion project, overlooking Parc Monceau, often cited as his most important and described at the time by the designer and architecture critic Michel Dufet as showing how Dupré-Lafon’s “understood the profound essence of luxury”. It was many such projects that Dupré-Lafon took on for the great and good during the pre-war period. He worked right up to the end, completing a country house in Deauville shortly before his death.
“What he was doing for the time was unusual and [rather than being put into serial production] nearly all of his work was commissioned by private individuals who tended to want to keep him to themselves,” says Whippen. “These were the wealthy of the banking community, industrialists and the like, with the records often referring to them not by name but by their addresses. These were the people who wanted his aesthetic.”
And what an aesthetic – “satisfying both the spirit and sense of comfort while maintaining perfect elegance,” as the critic Bernard Champigneulle was proclaiming as early as 1929. Whippen argues that Dupré-Lafon’s work – Art Deco-ish, a touch Cubist, geometric, linear, rational, functional and free of ornamentation – was at least a few years ahead of the contemporary curve. There was its exacting proportions and readiness to employ size to give presence – Dupré-Lafon designed small pieces the likes of desk accessories, but his furniture is voluminous – but also in his use of often carefully juxtaposed materials.
“His choice of materials was very rich, but what’s important is that he let these materials speak for themselves. They were very much part of the design,” she says – Dupré-Lafon also, in an avant-garde way, characteristically allowed technical details, the likes of screws and bolts, to remain visible in his designs. “These kinds of pairings were really new then too – you’d get a beautiful piece of leather next to a patinated piece of bronze, for example.”
The result allowed Dupré-Lafon to straddle the worlds of both Art Deco, sometimes ostentatious, and Modernism, “without modernism’s sometimes blandness,” adds McDonald. Yes Dupré-Lafon would use the most expensive materials, but he’d do so in the most understated of ways – lacquered wood, for example, was very much a designer’s choice in the 1920s and 30s, but Dupré-Lafon’s configuration and use of colour would make it his own. Or he set these expensive materials next to more basic, noble ones – stone, chromed steel, iron. “He’d use bling materials, to use modern parlance, but his designs somehow always managed to avoid looking bling,” says McDonald. “His designs were simply very chic.”
Certainly, that has ensured his lasting appeal to those in the know. But a Dupré-Lafon piece is not easy to come by. Since his audience was typically extremely wealthy, his pieces tended to end up in well-tended luxurious homes, these passed down through generations, and – since Dupré-Lafon’s designs were often site-specific – they have stayed there. Small wonder then that Whippen – who would love to see just one major retrospective of Dupré-Lafon’s work put on some time, just to level the playing field with far better-known French designers of the period, the likes of Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann, Armand-Albert Rateau, and Jean Dunand – reckons each year maybe only a single Dupré-Lafon masterwork comes to market.
“The first Dupré-Lafon pieces really came to light in the early 2000s and up until then very little was known about him,” she says. Since then, good examples of his work often appear at auction only as a result of probate. But when one does go to auction, it’s likely to sell for anywhere between US$2,500 – though that’s just for an ashtray – and several hundred thousand dollars.
Dupré-Lafon’s high-profile associations have helped to boost his reputation, both during his lifetime and since his death. Andy Warhol was a collector – even if, interestingly, Paul Dupré-Lafon’s work might well be regarded as the antithesis of pop art’s gaudy loudness – as is Art Deco fan Elton John. Marc Jacobs collects Dupré-Lafon too, selling a pair of his 1940 chests of drawers – in limed oak, lacquered wood and gilt bronze – as part the fashion designer’s ‘A Life of Design’ sale with Sotheby’s two years back. The chests had an estimate of $240,000. They sold for $425,000.
As a further boost to his standing, from 1929 Dupré-Lafon also made several pieces in partnership with Hermès, utilising the company’s expertise in leather-working – much as he made best use of the talents of craft experts in rosewood, ivory, parchment, ebony or marble – and culminating in the production of a series of designs throughout the 1950s. As Whippen stresses, only a handful of name designers have ever worked for the esteemed French luxury goods house.
“And that’s how I came to discover him, through the lamps and clocks, desk accessories and gifts he designed for Hermès, appreciating the little details in these little objects. And really it was Dupré-Lafon who helped develop the Hermes design language that it still has today,” adds New York and California-based interior designer David Lucido, ex of a private estate with a large Dupré-Lafon collection. He was recently inspired by Dupré-Lafon to create the look for an upscale Palm Beach restaurant group, making reproductions of the designer’s chairs in the process.
“Given the seamless, understated luxury of Dupré-Lafon’s designs, it’s always amazed me just how under the radar his work still is,” says Lucido, who notes that to date there is still only one monograph, now out of print, of Dupré-Lafon’s work. “It was minimalistic and quiet for the times perhaps, and maybe that’s why the likes of his contemporary, the minimalist Jean-Michel Frank, seem to have got all the praise.
“But the fact is that people are influenced by Dupré-Lafon’s designs all the time now. They just don’t know it,” Lucido says. “And, you know, let’s keep it that way. In these times, in which everything seems to have to come with a name attached in some way, let’s just keep that of Dupré-Lafon between us.”