the french architect Hector Guimard was a pioneer in Art nouveau design—and in the art of marketing. In 1903, Guimard published a series of hand-colored drawings. postcards to publicize his work. Anointing himself an “architect of art”, he had each card adorned with the slogans The Guimard style Y Hector Guimard, Arch’te d’Art.
By the reticent standards of her day, her self-promotion went well beyond “notions of propriety and modesty,” says Yao-Fen You, curator of the new exhibition. “Héctor Guimard: How Paris Got Its Curves” at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York City. “He wanted to make a name for himself.”
At that time, Guimard was already one of the best-known architects and designers in France. The “architect of art” specialized in creating total environmentsintegrating luxury materials with unconventional substances such as cast iron, working with sinuous lines and asymmetrical biomorphic forms.
For wealthy clients, he could design an entire mansion and its contents, including metalwork, House numbers, curtains and wall coverings, piece of furnitureY desk ornaments. You, who is the museum’s senior curator and head of product design and decorative arts, says, “I was designing a lifestyle.”
But inside this luxury goods promoter, the spirit of anarchism was in the air.
Guimard was a pacifist and a passionate defender of the worker. When the French League for Human Rights was founded in 1898, Guimard was one of the first to join. This was the “intellectual stream” he was swimming in, You says.
In France at the end of the 19th century, an elite list of artists and literary figures embraced the philosophy of anarchism, not as a movement to overthrow the state, but as a vision of absolute personal freedom. “Courbet, Pissarro, Seurat, Signac, Mallarmé, they were all sympathetic to this as a philosophy,” You says. “It was about stressing the individual.”
Guimard’s concern for working people took shape in his designs for the tickets to the new Paris metro system, the Métro.
Guimard saw the metro as a source of freedom of movement for workers and a place where social classes would mingle. Today its entrances are icons of old-fashioned Parisian charm, but when they were built around 1900, they were as modern as the metro itself. Guimard used cast iron and molten glass in new ways and developed an efficient system of parts that can be quickly assembled, like Legos, for different purposes.
With its Art Nouveau asymmetry and plunging, plant-like drop curvesGuimard’s metro design was radical, says You, “and it was a shock.”
Even his lettering for the entrances drew fire from one expert: “These messy hieroglyphics cause excusable joy for young children and stupefaction for foreign visitors,” the critic. She complainedand added: “For the honor of French taste, these ridiculous inscriptions must be removed.”
World War I brought a sudden end to Guimard’s high-end commissions, and Art Nouveau fell out of fashion almost overnight. You think that the disruption unleashed by the war caused people to move away from the exuberance of Art Nouveau, towards more traditional or streamlined forms. No one wanted to “see that chaos visualized,” she says.
After the war thousands of homes had been destroyed and Guimard, enterprising as ever, set to work designing what he hoped would be fast and affordable. replacements. Between 1920 and 2021, he filed a series of patents for his standard construction prefabricated housing system. He planned building blocks of cast stone or wood to be fixed in place with concrete and iron bars. The pieces were modular, so they could be used to build houses of any size, in the city or in the country. And they would be mass-produced in a factory and shipped to the site.
Other architects and manufacturers of the time were also developing prefab, do-it-yourself, or modular homes made possible by the industrial advances of the new century.
In the United States, Sears, Roebuck and Co. sold its first kit houses from its catalog in 1908, providing all the ingredients for a house; tens of thousands would be built over the next three decades.
Architectural historian Barry Bergdoll, writing in the exhibition catalogue, notes that after World War I, avant-garde architects in Germany and the Soviet Union, as well as France, sought the “industrialization of housing” and the potential of factory-built homes. In the 1910s and early 1920s, architects from Le Corbusier to Frank Lloyd Wright produced plans for affordable housing using modular systems similar to Guimard’s.
In the end, only one of Guimard’s modular homes was built, in Paris, where it still stands. His system apparently worked. Construction was completed in a matter of days.
Although the standard build never really took off, You marvels at the ambition behind it. Guimard remained dedicated to labor rights. By creating a simple system for prefabrication and construction, he envisioned his houses could be assembled by common workers, without the need for skilled craftsmen or management supervision.
“I was trying to change the previous economic conditions under which things were done,” You says. “To empower workers.”
In this, she says, he was addressing the issues of his day. “Yes, he’s a phenomenal designer, but he’s also responding to the challenges that he’s posing at the time.”
“Héctor Guimard: How Paris Got Its Curves” is on view at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York City through May 21, 2023. The exhibition will travel to the Richard H. Driehaus Museum in Chicago from June 22, 2023 through January 7, 2024.
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