Jean Dunand

One of the great names of the Art Deco movement, Jean Dunand (1877-1942) was a multi-disciplinary artist : a decorator, sculptor, brassworker, cabinetmaker, mosaicist and painter, of Swiss origin, who introduced France to the lacquer technique, to which he himself was initiated by a Japanese master in 1912. He used this technique to create ten lacquer panels that would decorate the library at the Palais de la Porte Dorée in 1931.

Jeand Dunand dans son atelier
Jean Dunand (1877-1942) French lacquerer, coppersmith and sculptor of the Art Deco period (style 1925). Paris, circa 1940.
© Laure Albin Guillot / Roger-Viollet

Born on May 20th 1877 in Lancy, Switzerland, died on June 7th 1942 in Paris, Jean Dunand started out training as a sculptor in 1891 at the École des Arts Industriels in Geneva, then left to study sculpture in Jean Dampt’s workshop at the École des Arts Décoratifs in Paris in 1898. He became an apprentice in a modelling, staff and decoration workshop, where he became friends with Paul Jouve, who would become one of the most talented animal sculptors of the Art Deco period. Dunand took part in the 1900 Universal Exposition in Paris as a Swiss exhibitor, and his bronze sculpture Quo Vadis was awarded a gold medal.

From 1903, Dunand produced many decorations for mansions on behalf of Jean Dampt (sculpture of panelling and furniture), which opened up new prospects for him in the decorative arts field. In 1904, he moved into his workshop in the Rue Hallé in the 14th arrondissement of Paris, where he would work until his death in 1942.

From dinanderie to the art of lacquer

From 1905, Jean Dunand increasingly devoted his time to the dinanderie technique, working on metal, and exhibited many hammered copper or brass pieces, which were a great success and made a name for him in the decorative arts field. In 1906, he exhibited at the Milan International Exposition as a Swiss artist in the decorative arts section, and obtained a gold medal for his dinanderie pieces. His works featured in many artists’ exhibitions in Paris and Geneva and were purchased by museums (Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, Musée de Genève, Musée du Luxembourg in Paris, etc.). He became a member of the Société des Artistes Décorateurs in 1909 and subsequently took part in all its annual shows.

In 1910, he participated in the Salon d’Automne and began to make a name for himself, synonymous with elegance and refinement, in the Paris market. Orders flooded in and he became a renowned designer in the decorative arts, mainly producing hammered and sculpted metal vases, sometimes in large formats.
The year 1912 proved to be a turning point in his career: he was initiated into the lacquer technique by a Japanese master lacquerer, Seizo Sugawara (1884-1937), who had been living in Paris since 1906, and who also taught this thousand-year-old art to the Irish architect and designer Eileen Gray.

There has been evidence of lacquer art existing in China for over 3000 years, then it was mastered in Japan from the 7th century, before spreading throughout Asia in the Middle Ages, used in decorating luxury utilitarian items. This technique reached its peak in the 8th century with the Coromandel lacquers, which take their name from the Indian coast from which ships belonging to the Compagnie des Indes used to export Chinese screens, hugely popular among its European aristocratic clients. European cabinetmakers of the 18th century re-used these decorative plaques in sophisticated ways to enhance their furniture.

Thanks to Jean Dunand, this technique enjoyed a new lease of life in the decorative arts of the 20th century and became one of the markers of the Art Deco style. A meticulous technique, requiring up to 40 superimposed layers, lacquer was his favourite material at the time, and he used it on metal and wood in his own works (panels or screens), in vogue at the time, and also on furniture for other decorators like Printz and Ruhlmann.

The war and post-war

Upon the declaration of war in 1914, Jean Dunand, who was still a Swiss national at the time (he would become a French citizen in 1922), signed up with the French Red Cross as an ambulance driver. He developed a new model of helmet with removeable visor, made of manganese steel, cold-stamped in one piece, to protect solders’ eyes from shrapnel, blasted earth and sprays of burning liquid.
Amidst the artistic effervescence of the post-war period, Jean Dunand’s lacquer works with their stylised geometric decorations reached a level of refinement and originality that placed the artist in high demand from a wealthy clientele eager for luxury, but also for collaborations with renowned artists. This was the case for Jacques-Émile Ruhlmann who solicited him for lacquer embellishments  on his many furniture pieces, particular the one he exhibited at his Hôtel du Collectionneur, a true manifesto to Art Deco architecture, at the 1925 Exhibition of Decorative Arts (which gave its name to Art Deco style). Dunand was involved in  the 1925 exhibition on various levels: creation of four monumental vases for the inner courtyard of the Art Professions pavilion; decoration of the Japanese-inspired smoking room in black and red in the private apartments of a French embassy’s pavilion; vases for the stand of milliner Madame Agnès in the Pavillon de l'Elégance; lacquer panels in a luxury apartment created for the Compagnie Générale Transatlantique in the Means of Transport section, alongside René Lalique’s glasswork…

The Art Deco designer

In all his exhibitions at the Georges Petit gallery, epicentre of the Art Deco style, Jean Dunand increasingly used lacquer and extended his range of artistic expression across a multitude of media: vases, trays, articles for smokers, perfume vaporizers, boxes, candy boxes, ash trays, cups, screens, coffee tables, nested tables, decorative panels, chimney screens, bas-reliefs, interior decoration of limousines, etc. He was now in charge of a workshop employing almost 60 workers to meet the orders that were flooding in.

He even made jewellery (bracelets, necklaces, cuffs, hook and eye mechanisms that could be adapted to shoes, hats or belts…) made of hammered metal with silver-metal or eggshell inlays, or of course lacquered, with geometric patterns, designed for the Worth, Elsa Schiaparelli, Madeleine Vionnet or Jeanne Lanvin fashion houses.

In 1927, Dunand also took part in the decoration of the Île-de-France ocean liner, a project that involved the other great names of Art Deco as well, among them the indispensable Ruhlmann. After that came other large lacquer panels for the Atlantique liner in 1930 (destroyed by a fire in 1933, along with the lacquers) and for Le Normandie in 1931.

At the 1930 Salon des Artistes Décorateurs, Dunand organised a preview presentation in a “colonial entrance hall” of seven lacquers he had made to decorate the future Musée des Colonies, which would open during the 1931 Colonial Exposition. After the Exposition, he donated them to the French state, which had already purchased the large format work La forêt in 1929 (a panel 3 metres high and 3.30 metres wide). In total, ten lacquer panels, representative of the different lacquer techniques (laque arrachée, Coromandel lacquer, laque défoncée) graced the double reading room at the Musée des Colonies.