Figure 1: Desk, France, ca. 1935, Jean-Michel Frank

This desk can been seen in the exhibition The Jazz Age: American Style in the 1920s, now on view through August 20, 2017.

This desk is part of a group of objects primarily designed by Jean-Michel Frank for Villa Bontoc, the residence of Mr. and Mrs. William Forsythe Sherfesee, American clients in Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, in the maritime Alps of the French Riviera. Comprising five armchairs, two side chairs, three desks, three tables, a removable tabletop covered in parchment, several lamp bases and shades, a leather bed, and two decorative ornaments, these items were given to the museum as a group in 1968, in the name of both the original owners, by Mr. Sherfesee some years after his wife’s death. Together the objects represent elements of a unified interior treatment in the modern fashion that was emblematic of both its designer and of the impact of the unified interiors shown in the Exposition des Arts Décoratifs in Paris in 1925.

Jean-Michel Frank produced interiors, furniture, and accessories that were influential on domestic spaces and the social scene in Europe and America from the mid-1920s up to his untimely death in 1941, at the age of forty-six. His nearly two-decade career coincided with a vibrant period for the arts in Paris.

His family and business connections led him to work with such high-profile clients as fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli, the Viscount and Viscountess Charles and Marie-Laure de Noailles, and the American composer and lyricist Cole Porter.[1] Two American projects were the 1929 San Francisco penthouse for millionaire art enthusiast Templeton Crocker, called at the time by Vogue the first truly modern apartment in the United States[2], and, ten years later, the Nelson Rockefeller apartment at the top of Rockefeller Center in New York. In the Crocker space, Frank included walls and ceilings upholstered in parchment or straw, and furniture made of cast bronze, or covered in materials like leather and straw marquetry.

Frank’s work could be considered a hybrid. His designs combined elements suggestive of the decorative approach based in a tradition of fine craftsmanship, as seen in the work of contemporaries like Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann and Sue et Mare’s use of luxurious materials, voluptuous forms, and rich surface treatments that suggested the ancient régime of the late eighteenth century. Yet it also showed an understanding of and appreciation for the modern. While Frank did not deeply investigate innovative industrial materials of the time, such as tubular steel, his forms were very functional, often stripped to the minimum, emphasizing proportion and line for interest. This is also seen in the work of modernist contemporaries such as Eileen Gray and René Herbst, for example. Frank also used humble substances such as straw or plaster in concert with the more lavish surface treatments as he sought texture in the overall scheme.

The mixture of textures is characteristic of the Sherfesee ensemble, which includes shagreen (usually sharkskin but in this case skateskin) on this desk (Fig. 1) and a side chair; a lacquered painted surface on another desk with chair; straw and striated wood veneers on some of the chairs and tables; others with parchment and painted textured gesso surfaces; pigskin leather on the club chairs and bed; glass decorative ornamental discs; and rock and crystal for the lamp bases with mica and shell shades, the last, no doubt, a topical reference to Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat’s location near the Mediterranean sea. This unique combination of simple, clean-lined modernism and a lavish art deco style meant Frank’s style and commissions worked well with skyscrapers, Paris apartments, and seaside casual environments, varying the blend and balance of austere forms combined with elegant, luxurious-looking surface treatments, depending on the client and locale.

While much of Frank’s work has been documented so that this piece can be attributed to him, less documented are the Sherfesees, an unusual but by all accounts well-suited couple. Forsythe Sherfesee was a graduate of the Yale School of Forestry who went on to become assistant director of the Philippines Bureau of Forestry and a financial advisor to China. There he met Emily Borie Ryerson, a widow nineteen years his senior, who was visiting the country in 1927; they were married in December that year. In 1912, she and her first husband had been aboard the ill-fated Titanic, after a vacation in France. While she survived, her husband perished. As a widow, she not only raised her children, but did charity work abroad including so much for the French wounded in World War I that she was awarded the Croix de Guerre. So the choice of the south of France may have been initially hers, but clearly Sherfesee was no stranger to life abroad. They settled in Cap-Ferrat not long after their villa, named Villa Bontoc, was completed during their extended honeymoon travels that lasted a year starting in December 1927.

Her wealth had been enough to send a plane for her fiancé to St. Paul, Minnesota from Chicago to get him there for the wedding when snowstorms delayed his return, but he too had collected in his foreign postings. Thus, Chinese carpets and ceramics found their way, along with modern paintings, into the interiors that Frank designed. Clearly the couple was wealthy and sophisticated, having built their villa in a place frequented by an elegant and international coterie, and next door to Somerset Maugham.

It may have been Frank’s 1929 visit to Pierre Drieu, a friend in Cap-Ferrat, that brought him into contact with the Sherfesees. What is not clear is whether the Frank furnishings were all of a period or augmented over several years-or possibly included pieces first at their Paris apartment. Nor has any mention been made of who the architect of Villa Bontoc was, or whether Frank first appeared only after its completion. However, the pieces seem to be part of a unified vision. It is also important that the Sherfesees had an apartment in Paris, which was published in Creative Art in 1929 as the work of interior designer Eyre de Lanux (born in the U.S. as Anne Eyre) who frequently used Frank’s furniture in her interiors, and used Chanaux & Company to produce her somewhat similar designs.

Thus, the desk and other furniture pieces may well have been produced by Chanaux & Company, the interior design firm Frank co-owned with decorator-craftsman Adolphe Chanaux. As design director there, Frank was responsible for over thirty workers assigned to his projects, and he taught as well. The collaboration enabled him to use proficient draftsmen and other skilled members of the firm rather than draw himself. Also while at Chanaux in the 1930s, Frank developed what came to be known as the Parsons table, a simple rectilinear form consisting of a thin square tabletop on four slim legs, through a design exercise he devised for students at the Paris Atelier (now Parsons Paris School of Art and Design).[3] The Sherfesee ensemble features this sort of table with a parchment surface, another with a textured gesso surface, not associated with this design classic today.

Frank collaborated with artists of his day to create accessories, including plaster vases and wall sconces, and cast and gilt-bronze floor lamps by the sculptor Alberto Giacometti; this ensemble features objects he designed, such as the discs. Although Frank did not design for mass industrial production per se, he understood that his furniture could be marketed on its own, not just part of a specific interior. This desk, while part of a larger ensemble, could work well in almost any interior of his day, as well as with the classic lines of the late eighteenth century.

Despite its luxury status, the desk may have inspired others, as his firm sometimes produced variations of a model to hold as inventory for use in later commissions or to be sold individually. Frank also sold his designs through his own boutique established in 1935, in French department stores, from 1924 at Hermès, licensed through design firms in England and Argentina, and sold in the United States.

World War II brought both Frank’s and the Sherfesees’ flight from France, the former in 1940, and the latter in 1939. Frank went to Argentina, and thence to New York, where he committed suicide in 1941. The Sherfesees also went to South America, where, while traveling, Emily Sherfesee died of a heart attack that year. Her husband, known as Forsythe, returned to France after the war, during which time the house had been commandeered by the Germans and many of the furnishings dispersed. However, he was able to retrieve or buy back most of them, and continued to entertain the Anglo-French community and visitors until his death in 1971. In 1968 he arranged through a decorator friend, William Pahlmann, to donate the Frank furniture and an accompanying carpet to Cooper Hewitt, where this desk and its companions give insight into Frank’s style, an era, and the taste of his clients.

This essay is augmented from an excerpt from the book Making Design, available through SHOP Cooper Hewitt.

[1] Peirre-Emmanuel Martin-Vivier, Jean-Michel Frank: The Strange and Subtle Luxury of the Parisian Haute-Monde in the Art Deco Period (New York: Rizzoli International Publications, Inc., 2008).

[2] Mary Ashee Miller, “A Twentieth Century Apartment,” Vogue, August 3, 1929, 30–35, 94.

[3] “Frank Alvah Parsons: Leader in Franco-American Education Exchange,” American Center France, accessed January 13, 2014, php?&lvlid=37&dsgtypid= 10&artid= 48&pos=1&lang=en.

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