Inventory Number 6184
Size See Description
Period Art Nouveau
Country of Origin France
Year Made 1898
This monumental fireplace and chimney piece were designed by Hector Guimard for a building commissioned by Louis Coilliot, a manufacturer of ceramic blocks and tiles. Coilliot gave Guimard his first opportunity to design a fully integrated architectural composition. The fireplace is made of enameled stoneware, which is actually reconstituted lava powder fused in molds, similar to cast bronze. Fired at high temperatures, the extremely dense stoneware resembled lava blocks. Coilliot invented this material and the textured enamel on the surface, and Guimard used it to full advantage to advertise his client’s product.
In its original setting, the fireplace stood within an arch formed by the stalk-like elements of an elaborate pear wood buffet. The flanking vestigial piers of the fireplace have flattened capitals that echoed the buffet's flat shelves. Although the Maison Coilliot still stands, most of its furnishings, including this fireplace, were sold at auction in the early 1990s and early 2000s.
The French architect Hector Guimard is best remembered for designing the entrances to the Paris Métro, which transformed the streets of the city in 1900.[i] Guimard was a master of ornamental and sculptural metal but also a talented designer in ceramic and wood. His goal was to challenge the creative possibilities of industrial art: "When I design a piece of furniture or sculpt it, I reflect upon the spectacle the universe provides. Beauty appears there in constant variety. There is no parallelism, no symmetry: forms are perpetuated in movements that are never the same."[ii] The Style Guimard, as he termed it, came to encompass a world of architectural details from drain pipes, to house numbers, to doorknobs, all inspired by plant life and the modern vocabulary of Art Nouveau.
Hector-Germain Guimard was born in Lyon in 1867. At age thirteen, his family moved to the northwestern edge of Paris and two years later, Guimard entered the École Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, the national school for decorative arts. There, he studied under disciples of the great neo-Gothic architect Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc and who encouraged him to look to the past, not as a style to copy, but as a source of artistic inspiration that would foster the creation of something completely new. As a student, Guimard proved very adept artistically and won many awards. He opened an independent architectural practice in 1888 and also began to teach at his alma mater. He remained a professor there until leaving in 1900 after his architectural career had achieved great heights.
In 1894, Guimard, a young and rather unknown artist, found himself entrusted with the creation of the Castel Béranger, a building situated in the Sixteenth arrondissement in Paris. Commissioned by Anne-Elisabeth Fournier, a wealthy widow, Guimard began building the new speculative apartment house on the rue de la Fontaine, soon to be called the Castel Beranger, by the end of that year. After a transformative trip to Brussels where he met with with fellow designers including Victor Horta and Henri van de Velde, Guimard persuaded Fournier to let him design the building using the newly developing style of Art Nouveau. In Guimard’s hands, these designs were abstract and energized often featuring whiplash lines which distilled the sinuous movement of climbing flowering plants to their very essence. Created using prefabricated metal and ceramic work, the building’s fitting were a radical fusion of architecture and industry. [iii] The building was a critical success, and the architect moved into one of the new apartments and relocated his studio there as well.
The Castel Beranger was only just completed when Guimard received several commissions for other buildings in the Sixteenth arrondissement and also for the Maison Coilliot in Lille, in 1897. Envisioning the house as a total work of art, Guimard designed a combined shop and residence for the patron: art tile and stoneware contractor Louis Coilliot. He employed the same sinuous lines and unorthodox materials for the interior and furnishings that he used for the facade of the building, creating a fully unified and singular aesthetic. Although the building itself was completed by 1900, Guimard continued to work on the interior decoration of the house, in particular the furnishings, through 1903.
Still referred to by some locals as the “crazy house,” the Maison Coilliot is faced with bright green “lava” blocks. The façade was intended as a kind of visual advertisement for the owner’s trade and Guimard’s use of the tiles as a construction material demonstrates his wit and emphasizes his intense dedication to realizing the potential of new materials and technologies. The lave emaillée was fabricated using a process developed by Guimard’s ceramicist, Eugène Gillet, in which the lava powder was heated in a mold to obtain a uniform sculptured stone-like piece.[iv]
The Lille house featured Guimard’s most integrated scheme of integrated interior design, including furniture and two monumental fireplaces. The fireplaces are both an unusual mixture of materials, textures and curving Art Nouveau lines. Made of enameled stoneware similar to that on the building frontage, the fixtures create strong decorative links between Guimard’s points of design. In its original position, this fireplace and chimney piece stood framed within an archway formed by the curving stalk of an enormous wall-sized wooden buffet. They served to anchor the reaching vegetal forms in a manner that illustrates Guimard’s ability to create exquisite tension within his designs.
Guimard’s interest in the aesthetic possibilities of ceramics continued on after his work at the Maison Coilliot. The twisting, dynamic, natural motifs that made his in his architectural work so distinctive are equally evident--albeit on a smaller scale--in his ceramic designs. One of three vase designs supplied by Guimard to the Sèvres National Manufactory, the Vase de Cerny features a softly-ribbed, columnar body, suggesting a tight cluster of stalks, rising from an irregularly splayed base and terminating at the rim in a tangle of asymmetrical curves suggestive of leaves about to unfurl. The energetic twists and turns of the crowning forms suggests the dynamic energy of the plant in the moments just before first bloom and the exquisite crystalline glaze recalls the texture of a stalk growing out of the earth. Even in these smaller designs, Guimard’s embrace of new techniques and materials is evident: the Sèvres Manufactory’s experimentation with crystalline glazes during the 1890s resulted in new levels of technical control that were unimaginable prior to the late 1890s, when these glazes occurred only sporadically in the kiln. The vase is an excellent example of Guimard’s enduring interest in materiality, seen in buildings and all things used to furnish them, and how it could serve his unique vision of what was beautiful.
[i] Guimard’s biography is well documented. See, for instance: Georges Vigne, Hector Guimard: Architect Designer, 1867-1942 (New York: Delano Greenidge, 2003).
[ii] “Le Castel Béranger et M. Guimard, Architecte,” Revue des Arts Décoratifs 19 (Jan. 1899): 7-11.
[iii] Gabriel P. Weisberg, “The Parisian Situation: Hector Guimard and the Emergence of Art Nouveau,” in Art Nouveau: 1890-1914 (London: V&A Publications, 2000), 265.
[iv] Vigne, Hector Guimard, 129-30.
Vignes, Georges. Hector Guimard (New York: Delano Greenidge Editions, 2003), p. 130.
Professional restorations to the surface of the fireplace, and chips along base, consistent with age and probably result of movement from original location. Resorted crack in top and side of lower Proper Left piece; front of lower Proper Right piece; side of upper Proper Left piece; and side of upper Proper Right piece. Modern wooden plinth.