As the subject of monographs, museum shows and gallery exhibitions, the creations of Jean Royère have been wildly popular for some 25 years among the design cognoscenti — perhaps because the self-taught French decorator, who died in 1981 at age 79, defies categorization.
His extravagantly puffy Polar Bear sofas and biomorphic Egg chairs look completely unlike his gilded-iron Eiffel Tower consoles and geometric, perforated-metal deck chairs.
But why should the prolific talent have adhered to a consistent style, anyway? Born into a bourgeois family, educated at the best Paris private schools and Cambridge University, Royère had no classical design education, just a golden youth attending balls with the Rothschilds and Daisy Fellowes and hanging out with friends like André Gide, Paul Valéry and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. An adventuresome dilettante, at age 29 he quit his job in the import-export trade to become a decorator. (“For my father it was a catastrophe,” he wrote.)
In his quest for the “new,” he followed no school or design theory. But he certainly had the right clients to support his creative impulses, including King Farouk of Egypt, King Saud of Saudi Arabia, King Hussein of Jordan and the Shah of Iran. In the 1940s and ’50s, he opened branch offices in Beirut, Cairo, Lima, Saint-Tropez, São Paulo and Tehran. He was one of the first globe-trotting designers of international renown.
In Patrick Favardin’s illustrated decorative-arts survey Les Décorateurs des Années 50, the author writes of Royère, “He was a decorator essential to the avant-garde of the fifties and one of the precursors of organic form.” (Accordingly, he gave his biomorphic designs such whimsical names as Elephant, Banana, Boomerang, Sphere, Ribbon and Yo-Yo.)
There is a couture quality to much of his furniture, which is why BAC, a gallery in New York’s Soho, is so excited to have found a pair of rare Royère benches in Brazil and to offer them on 1stdibs. (The pair will also be star attractions in the gallery’s booth at New York’s Collective Design Fair, running from May 13 through 17.) Here, dealers Carlos Aparicio and James Buresh discuss the craftsmanship, provenance and rationale behind its price: $250,000.
The benches are part of Royère’s “Ondulation” series of lamps, tables and benches, which display wavy shapes like sculpture. “He was thought of as an incredibly serious, intellectual designer,” says Aparicio, the architect who founded BAC in New York in 2001 and specializes in 20th-century European furniture. “Royère strives to develop a language here, a lexicon of designs, and the objects are subservient to that idea. He has carefully chosen a pattern of curving lines intersected by balls.”
For the benches’ legs, he created undulating “ropes” of gilded wrought iron, making them look like jets of water erupting from a fountain. The corners are formed by three narrow “jets” or loops. The base and apex of each loop is filled with a suspended brass sphere about the size of a ping-pong ball. A gilded-iron, X-shaped stretcher low to the floor anchors the corners.
“The design looks simple at the beginning, but it’s much more complicated,” Aparicio says. “Nothing could be more subtle.” He points out how, in each corner, the curving line ends, mid-air, almost as if the water jet was instantly frozen. The suspended “water” adds a certain tension to the overall design.
Similarly, the X-shaped stretcher at the base is not a simple X. “The crossing of the pieces is more radical,” Aparicio points out. As each arm of the X approaches its corner, it branches, to form a Y, with each arm of the Y connecting to an individual brass ball.
The beautiful patina of the gilded wrought iron is original. Royère at one point worked with the renowned Paris ironworkers Raymond Subes and Gilbert Poillerat, so he knew how elegant gilded wrought iron could be. Like a couturier, he also seems to have been obsessed with all kinds of naturally luxurious materials: mahogany, West African zebrawood, Oregon pine, blonde oak, bamboo, lacquered rattan, raffia, straw marquetry, pony skin, velvet and lacquered metal. Here he has applied gold to iron. The original teal-blue velvet upholstery is in remarkably good shape and was kept intact because “teal works so well with gold,” in the words of BAC director Buresh.
The benches were bought as a pair and stayed together. “The wrought iron pieces were always made in pairs,” Aparicio says.
“The benches were purchased for a house in São Paulo in about 1950 and were always in the same family,” Aparicio says. “Royère was an optimistic man, infused with the idea of exporting beauty to the world. He thought of himself as someone who had a lot to say.”
Royère was not unknown in Brazil: In 1957, the Esquisses Gallery, a home decor shop in São Paulo, did an exhibition of his furniture.
“I’ve never seen this model before,” Aparicio says. “It’s incredibly rare.” Nor does it appear in the 2008 monograph on Royère compiled by Paris dealers Patrick Seguin and Jacques Lacoste, or in Favardin’s Les Décorateurs des Années 50. There is, however, in Pierre-Emmanuel Martin-Vivier’s 2002 book, Jean Royère, one 1956 gouache drawing of a living room he proposed for a palace for the Shah of Iran with a coffee table similar to these benches.
Royère was a great original, quickly recognized as such in 1934, when, as a totally unknown entity, he won a design competition to decorate a brasserie for the Hotel Carlton on the Champs-Élysées. It was his first commission. As he once wrote: “There’s no question that for everyday living, modern furnishings are far better from every point of view.”
Some Royère works have been fetching amazing prices at auction. According to Artprice, a Polar Bear sofa and two matching armchairs sold for $842,500 at Phillips New York last December. In April 2013, Phillips London sold an Egg Chair and matching stool for $305,862.
The benches have a timeless look, are in perfect condition, come from a good family and are uncommonly rare. Thus, the price of $250,000.