Jean-Michel Frank (second from right) in conversation with Alberto Giacometti (far right) in his boutique on Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, Paris, 1935. Also in the group are Paul Rodochanachi,

Antenna: Jean-Michel Frank’s most important project

Meredith Etherington-Smith on designer Jean-Michel Frank and pieces he created for a very special interior in Argentina, which sold for €1,174,625 in Paris

In pre-war Paris, the interior designer Jean-Michel Frank (1895-1941) was celebrated internationally as the apostle of Modernism. Nearly 100 years after his death, nothing has changed — as the Design sale on 19 November in Paris demonstrates.

Frank gathered around him a close circle of like-minded creators, including both Giacometti brothers, who sculpted lamps and wall lights; French painter Christian Bérard; Salvador Dali, who painted screens for him; and the Cuban-born artist, architect and interior and landscape designer Emilio Terry.

In the inter-war period, Paris was in party mode and themed fancy dress balls were the order of the day. Art, fashion money and society mingled to create a rich, glittering impasto of bright lights, elaborate costumes and fantasy masks. Jean-Michel Frank played a central part in this revelry, as did the young Picasso and Matisse.

Jean-Michel Frank (1895-1941), Chair, model circa 1931, version circa 1939. Sold for €35,000 on November 19 2019 at Christie’s in Paris

Jean-Michel Frank (1895-1941), Chair, model circa 1931, version circa 1939. Sold for €35,000 on November 19 2019 at Christie’s in Paris

During this time, Frank enjoyed the considerable patronage of well connected clients. These included members of the Rothschild family, wealthy South Americans such as the Lopez-Wilshaw family, the Comtesse de Noailles, the Guerlain and Hermes families, and the couturière Elsa Schiaparelli, for whom Frank designed a trend-setting interior for her house in the Place Vendôme in Paris.

For this scheme, the designer used monochrome leather, waxed parchment wall panelling, straw veneers and glazed plasters to create what one exponent of grande luxe modernism described as the ‘absolute silence of true luxury’. Many of Frank’s commissions survive in part today.

Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966), Lamp Bilboquet, model circa 1939, version circa 1939. Sold for €298,000 on November 19 2019 at Christie’s in Paris

Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966), Lamp 'Bilboquet', model circa 1939, version circa 1939. Sold for €298,000 on November 19 2019 at Christie’s in Paris

Frank’s most important project, however, was in Buenos Aires in Argentina. Between 1939 and 1941, Frank worked extensively on Born House, named after the family that had commissioned both the house and its interiors. Its rooms remain as they were when they were very first installed in place in 1940.

Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966), Le Poing, model circa 1935, version circa 1939. Bronze, 26 x 21.5 x 14.5 cm  10 ¼ x 8 ½ x 5 ¾ in. Sold for €187,500 on 19 November 2019 at Christie’s in Paris

Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966), Le Poing, model circa 1935, version circa 1939. Bronze, 26 x 21.5 x 14.5 cm / 10 ¼ x 8 ½ x 5 ¾ in. Sold for €187,500 on 19 November 2019 at Christie’s in Paris

The project began back in Paris in 1939, where Frank was living and working at the time. He assembled the artefacts for the rooms; notably classically-inspired lamps from Alberto Giacometti, as well as bronze and alabaster wall lights — examples of which were in our Paris sale sale. Among the smaller treasures offered were an inkwell, a perfume box and vanity set.

Jean-Michel Frank (1895-1941) for Guerlain (Founded in 1828), Perfume box, circa 1935. Painted oak, sandblasted and gilded, brass and satin  painted, gilt and sanded oak, brass and silk. 6 x 21 x 13.5 cm  2⅜ x 8 ¼ x 5 ¼ in. Sold for €6,875 on November 19 2019 at Christie’s in Paris

Jean-Michel Frank (1895-1941) for Guerlain (Founded in 1828), Perfume box, circa 1935. Painted oak, sandblasted and gilded, brass and satin / painted, gilt and sanded oak, brass and silk. 6 x 21 x 13.5 cm / 2⅜ x 8 ¼ x 5 ¼ in. Sold for €6,875 on November 19 2019 at Christie’s in Paris

Scale models perfect in every degree were made of the rooms being designed and decorated. These were then shipped to Buenos Aires as guidance of room layout and design, together with the finished artefacts to be placed in them, including lamps, tooled leathers from Hermes, and furniture.

Jean-Michel Frank (1895-1941), Office in Gradin, model created circa 1933, achieved circa 1939. Brass, 77.5 x 110.5 x 55.5 cm  30 ½ x 43 ½ x 21⅜ in. Sold for €112,500 on November 19 2019 at Christie’s in Paris

Jean-Michel Frank (1895-1941), Office in Gradin, model created circa 1933, achieved circa 1939. Brass, 77.5 x 110.5 x 55.5 cm / 30 ½ x 43 ½ x 21⅜ in. Sold for €112,500 on November 19 2019 at Christie’s in Paris

In 1940, Frank fled occupied Paris and flew first to Brazil, then to Buenos Aires, where he worked with his friend and collaborator Ignacio Pirovano at COMTE, a decoration and cabinetmaking firm. Once Frank had settled in the Argentine capital, the decoration of Born House gathered pace. The rooms, which have remained unchanged nearly a century later, present the most complete vision of Frank’s pure aesthetic.