In the mid to late1800’s luxurious Neo-Classical and Neo-Rococo furniture pieces were all the rage. In the town of Nancy, a young man called Louis-Jean-Sylvestre Majorelle (1859 – 1926) inherited his father’s furniture workshop copying old style furniture and pastiches of Louis XV furniture styles, which he exhibited in 1894 at the Exposition d’Art Décoratif et Industriel (Exposition of Decorative and Industrial Art) in Nancy.
But the influence of the glass- and furniture-maker Emile Gallé (1846 – 1904) inspired him to take his production in new directions, turning him towards a ‘modern’ Art Nouveau style with elegant proportions and refined marquetries. This he balanced with an architectural balance and ensured that his works’ lines could still exist without the ornamentation.
Beginning in the 1890s, Majorelle’s furniture, embellished with inlays, took its inspiration from nature: stems of plants, waterlily leaves, tendrils, dragonflies – finding in nature a key inspiration and proclaims that his ‘garden is his library.’
Before 1900 he added a metalworking atelier to the workshops, to produce drawerpulls and mounts in keeping with the fluid lines of his woodwork. His studio also was responsible for the ironwork of balconies, staircase railings, and exterior details on many buildings in Nancy at the turn of the twentieth century. Some of his original woodwork designs can still be found in Grand Hotel Moderne, Lourdes.
Majorelle often collaborated on lamp designs with the Daum Frères glassworks of Nancy and helped make the city one of the European centers of Art Nouveau. At the apogee of the Belle Époque, during the 1900 Paris World’s Fair (Exposition Universelle), Majorelle’s designs triumphed and drew him an international clientele. By 1910, Majorelle had opened shops for his furniture in Nancy, Paris, Lyon, and Lille.
Majorelle and the École de Nancy
In February 1901, Majorelle became one of the founding members of the École de Nancy, alternatively known as the Alliance Provinciale Des Industries D’art, which was a group of artists, architects, art critics, and industrialists in Lorraine who decided to work in a collaborative fashion, and predominantly in the Art Nouveau style. They, headed by Gallé (until his death in 1904, and thereafter by Victor Prouvé) did this for several reasons, chief among which was to ensure a high standard of quality of work in the French decorative arts, of which Lorraine artists were the chief producers at the time.
Majorelle was one of the vice-presidents of the group from the outset, remained so throughout the existence of the École de Nancy, and was certainly considered one of the group’s leaders. For the most part, he and the other members worked to promote the work of Lorraine decorative artists through their advocacy of the establishment of a school for industrial arts, their participation at major exhibitions (as well as organizing their own shows), and through their collaborative efforts on individual art pieces and buildings, almost all of which were in the Art Nouveau style. His connections with the Parisian art circles also helped assure the renown of Lorraine artists in the French capital.
The Vola Majorelle
In 1898, Majorelle hired Henri Sauvage (1873 – 1932), a young Parisian architect, to collaborate with Weissenburger on the building of his own house, known as the Villa Jika (after the acronym of Majorelle’s wife’s maiden name), but now popularly known as simply the Villa Majorelle, in Nancy. Majorelle, like many industrialists in Nancy, located his house across the street from his factory, but in a relatively new area of town, the large parcel of land which it occupied made it seem like a veritable country estate. His house and factory were located on land that was given to him by his mother-in-law, Madame Kretz.
Sauvage and Weissenburger’s three-story design for the villa represents the true flowering of Art Nouveau architecture in Nancy, with multiple bow windows and floral motifs covering the exterior. Majorelle himself produced the ironwork, furniture, and the interior woodwork, such as the grand staircase. Majorelle located his own personal studio on the third floor under a gabled roof, and included a huge arched window combled together with spandrels that evoke the branches of a tree or flower. Most of the floral motifs seen in the house use the forms of the monnaie-du-pape plant. In addition, Majorelle employed Jacques Gruber to create the original stained glass for the house, and on the interior, the artisans created impressive painted friezes in the dining room, which contains a large ceramic Art Nouveau fireplace designed by Alexandre Bigot.
World War I and Majorelle’s Late Career
By 1914, with the outbreak of war, Majorelle hoped to hold out and continue production in Nancy. Unfortunately, in an event apparently unrelated to the war, his factories on the Rue De Vieil-Aître suddenly caught fire on the morning of 20 November 1916. The conflagration, no doubt spurred on by the fresh supply of lumber, unfinished furniture, and sawdust, burned virtually all the firm’s sketches, awards, molds, equipment, and archives that documented the fifty-year history of the enterprise. As if to add insult to injury, a year later, in 1917 German aircraft bombing of Nancy destroyed the Majorelle shop on the rue Saint-Georges. The Majorelle family reported that their shop in Lille had been looted by advancing German troops.
Majorelle relocated to Paris for the remainder of the war, where he worked in the workshops of fellow furniture designers. After the war, he reopened the factory and his shop, and continued to collaborate with the Daum glassworks and produce furniture, though these late designs show the stiffened geometry of Art Deco.
Majorelle died in Nancy in 1926. After his death, his family, whose fortunes had been damaged severely by the war, could no longer afford to live in the Villa Majorelle, and the house and much of the outlying property were sold off in parcels. Majorelle’s factories closed in 1931. Eventually, the villa went through several architectural modifications (aside from those Majorelle himself made while he resided there), including the addition of a concrete bunker near the rear and the enclosure of the front terrasse. The large stone fence and gate that surrounded the property were eventually reduced to a small piece around the house, which itself went through various uses and owners over the next century. Today, the Villa has been acquired by the city of Nancy, which is undertaking a long-term project of renovation and restoration.