Jean Dunand

Jean Dunand

Born: 1877, Lancy, Switzerland

Died: 1942, Paris

Literature: F. Marcilhac, Jean Dunand and His Works, New York, 1991, pp. 79 and 247, fig. 436 for illustrations of other tables by this design.

Jean Dunand was, arguably, the most important and influential metalsmith and lacquer artist of the Art Deco movement. After completing his studies at the Geneva School of International Art, and serving as an apprentice to the sculptor Damptz, Dunand worked as a sculptor until 1902, and began work as a coppersmith a year later. Using all the techniques available to him, he experimented with many metals, and produced a range of hammered, encrusted, inlaid and etched vessels, varying from pieces based on natural forms to increasingly geometric forms and patterns.

The influence of Japanese art, design and metal techniques that began in the late 19th century greatly contributed to the expansion of this interest in the early 20th century, especially in the techniques of dinanderie and lacquer. The term dinanderie took its name from the Flemish town of Dinant, a center for brass work during the Middle Ages. In 1912, Dunand began to experiment with lacquerwork and dinanderie. He was trained in the difficult and demanding techniques of lacquer by the master Japanese lacquer artist Sougawara.

Sougawara had approached Dunand with a metal problem, and Dunand agreed to help if, in return, Sugawara would teach him how to master lacquer. Lacquer is a difficult and often dangerous material to work with, as the resin employed is related to Poison Ivy, and could cause severe skin allergies. The fumes were also irritating. In addition, it had to be applied in many layers, and each layer had to cure completely, and then be perfectly polished before the next layer could be applied. There was the belief that lacquer cured better during a full moon. Many layers were required, which made these pieces time consuming, and required great patience and the highest levels of technical expertise.

Dunand was an apt pupil, and mastered these techniques, including the highly desirable coquille d’oeuf, in which small pieces of egg shell are painstakingly embedded into the lacquer to form various patterns. Either the inside or the outside of the shell could be used, each giving a different effect.

Soon, Dunand had so many important commissions that he had to enlarge his studio, and he was employing 100 people. He went beyond the teachings of Sugawara, and developed new colors, such as greens, corals and yellows.

Obviously, lacquer must be applied to a surface. Dunand began with vases, which he hand-raised – in itself a demanding process. His earlier pieces are more closely reflective of the great interest in Japonisme, which has as one of its elements a strong interest in Naturalism, and was a major influence on much of Art Nouveau design. Dunand often worked the surfaces with repoussé, chiseling, and inlays of other colored metals. Gradually, however, he abandoned these motifs for smooth surfaces and more geometric designs reflective of African Art and Cubism. Some of his most successful pieces are pure forms of perfect proportions, with only one color.

In addition to vases, Dunand created furniture, panels, screens, portraits and jewelry using his beautiful lacquers. Some of them are pictorial, with stylized fish birds or flowers, and some are quite naturalistic scenes, such as ducks on a river, but most of them are rigorously geometric. He also did portraits, combining realism for the fasc of the subject, and then incorporating beautiful and complex patterns in lacquers and coquille d’oeuf. He also collaborated with other furniture designers, such as Emil-Jacques Ruhlmann, Pierre Legrain, and Eugene Printz, as well as commissioning designs from friends. A very important collaboration was with the painter and sculptor Jean Lambert-Rucki, who created motifs of bizarre and highly imaginative animals on vases, screens and furniture, and who also created sculptures based on African figures, which Dunand then embellished with lacquer.

Dunand exhibited regularly in important exhibitions in France and Abroad. He was a regular contributor to the salons de la Nationale des Beaux-Arts and the salon d’Automne, of which he was a member. He was also Vice-President of the Artists Decorateurs.

He worked closely with a number of other artists and designers of the period, and exhibited regularly with Paul Jouve, Francois-Louis Schmied, for whom he executed extra-ordinary book covers, and Jean Goulden at the Galerie Georges Petit.

At the 1925 Paris Exposition, Dunand designed the smoking room for the French Embassy, which recently came up for sale in Paris, and was purchased by the French Government as a National Treasure. He also supplied lacquer panels for many of the displays. Dunand is also well known for his commissions to decorate areas of the Ocean liners Normandie and Atlantique.

Jean Dunand created some of the most extra-ordinary furniture and objects of his or any other time, and they continue to be in high demand, as well they should be.

Jean Dunand died on June 7, 1942.