This post was originally published on April 1, 2013.

Between 1909 and 1948, the Grand Palais near the Champs-Elysées in Paris featured  remarkable decorative interiors which housed automotive, aeronautical and many other types of trade shows. For the buildings and other structures of the Paris Colonial Exposition of 1931, decorative lighting helped create a unity among the diverse architectures. The splendor of these temporary sets was a direct expression of a gloriously progressive Paris married with the work of the French architect André Granet (1881-1974).The mastermind behind many of these temporary installations was the French architect André Granét (1881-1974). In 1948, Granet’s work was documented in a large-format book, which has long been out of print and is now available again here as a stunning facsimile reprint. In 1948, he documented this work in Decors, part of the Special Collections of the Cooper-Hewitt Library.

The preface states thatThanks to the advent of modern technology, new mediums have replaced [them} in the creation of quest for beauty and artistic expression. There is no better example of this than the recent innovation of Art de la Lumière, inspired by scientific discoveries in the field of technical lighting…. the development of incandescent lamps, electric arcs, mercury vapor arcs, tubes illuminated by neon and other rare gasses.”

Pont de l'eau and Totems, illuminared fouintains from the Colonial Exposition 1931 Paris

(l:) The Pont d’Eau,  a bridge composed entirely of water –was made by jets of water from water from a lake. This was the first fountain made entirely of water. (r:)  The illuminated fountain Totem, Paris Colonial Exposition of 1931.

The Cactus illuminated fountain, Paris Colonial Exposition, 1930

The Colonial Exposition was one of the most extraordinary spectacles ever conceived.  Built in the Bois de Vincennes, it brought  together the wonders of the unique architecture of very  diverse civilizations.  Lighting devices were placed throughout the Exhibition to harmonize with the surrounding architecture. Granet designed many  illuminated fountains for the Exhibition, which were mirrored in the lakes they were built on. The exhibition opened in the spring of 1931, among the trees and flowers for a most surreal assemblage of palaces.

In the foreword to Decors, Granet explains that “What follows are reproductions of lighting, fountains and fireworks (designs involving the interplay  of light and water) … It goes without saying that no matter how much care was put into choosing the photographs, these (2-dimensional ) reproductions could never really accurately capture works which depend on movement, color and all kinds of reflections. I can only hope that the reader will be able to use his imagination to complete the picture. “-A.G.

The transient nature of these spectacles for temporary exhibitions lends to the excitement and a sense of enjoying art and light in the here and now, but at the same time, it the experience of these fantastic sigths can only live in the memories of those who were there to see it.  Luckily, we have the photographs in this book to show what no one will ever see again. Wow! I wish I could have been there!


Elizabeth Broman is a Reference Librarian at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Library.

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