Henri Chwast is one of the pioneers who, in the early 1970s, rediscovered and championed many artworks of the 1920s, from artists and designers such as Eileen Gray and Jean Dunand. A secret collector, known only to several big Parisian dealers, he died almost 25 years ago, leaving intact his compact collection consisting of about sixty masterpieces created by a small number of first-rate artists including Clément Rousseau, Pierre Chareau and Bernard Boutet de Monvel. Here, his children outline his career ahead of the upcoming sale in Paris.
Your father was a collector unknown to the wider public, can you tell us something about him?
Born in Paris in the mid-1930s, to a family of tailors from Central Europe, he always worked in fashion. His professional life began in Belgium, then took him to Northern France where he ran a textile factory, before he and his wife set up a shop in Paris that became very successful very quickly: Meredith. They offered a selection of fashion by a wide range of designers, which was probably the first multi-franchise business. The shop was immediately successful, and allowed him to satisfy his nascent passion for objects. He devoted a lot of his free time to it, and didn’t involve us in it very much, because he was a very secretive person.
How did your father discover the world of objects?
He didn’t come from a family of collectors. In 1972, the year of the mythical Jacques Doucet sale, he made the acquaintance of Alain Lesieutre through a friend. That meeting and sale were a real revelation to him. Straight away, Alain Lesieutre introduced him to the small circle of the art world. And he very quickly met other passionate collectors like Félix Marcilhac, with whom he became friends (he was invited to his wedding), and Bob and Cheska Vallois. He also frequented the Galerie du Luxembourg, and the galleries of Maria de Beyrie and Anne-Sophie Duval. Keeping a close eye on sales rooms and flea markets, he quickly acquired a knowledge that allowed him to assemble a very personal collection, simply for the pleasure of the quest, never for reasons of speculation.
What was his first purchase?
A Tiffany lamp, I think, I can’t really remember. His career was typical of that of collectors at the time, starting with Art Nouveau with a few lamps and vases by Émile Gallé and Tiffany. Then he was very quickly attracted by pieces by Jean Dunand and Pierre Chareau and turned away from Art Nouveau. All he kept from that first period was a Tiffany lamp. So he sold on, but that only applies to a very few items.
JEAN DUNAND, A UNIQUE EGGSHALL AND LACQUERED WOOD FIRE SURROUND, 1926. ESTIMATE €200,000–300,000.
What was the driving force?
Our father didn't try to accumulate things for accumulation's sake, but bought on impulse pieces that touched him. He was fascinated by the preciousness of the materials, exceptional quality and the pertinence of each one. He worked instinctively, on love at first sight. The object had to harmonise with its environment. In fact he built space through the object, and through this was able to permanently enrich his surroundings.
Did he involve you in his discoveries?
Very little, he was a secretive man, who was really building up his collection. Nonetheless my sister and I remember the few sales we went to with him, particularly the sale of the Alain Lesieutre collections in December 1989. And there were precise moments, when he came back with a piece that he'd just bought, like that sculpture wrapped in linen that he brought back one evening, happy to share his latest finding with us.
PIERRE CHAREAU, SN31 ALSO KNOWN AS LA RELIGIEUSE, A MAHOGANY, ALABASTER AND METAL FLOOR LAMP, CIRCA 1928. ESTIMATE €300,000–500,000.
What kind of relationship did he have with his work – and his collection?
Our father loved objects the way he loved fashion. For him, creation, quality, the originality of lines, the architecture of the works, like the architecture of the clothing, the wealth and diversity of materials, was of great importance. I think that the relationship was also apparent in the architecture of places. Whether it was our apartment or the shop, those spaces were profoundly transformed in the early 1970s, and our father knew how to create very innovative worlds compared to the ones you saw at the time. The shop became extremely original, and our apartment was unique, in the sense that both were seen as actual showcases for clothes and his collection.
SEYMOUR CHWAST'S BRANDING FOR THE MEREDITH BOUTIQUE, OPENED ON RUE DE PASSY BY HENRI AND ANNE-MARIE CHWAST IN 1960. © SEYMOUR CHWAST ARCHIVE.
There are also obvious correspondences between the geometric lines of the furniture and objects from his collection and the graphic identity of the shop that he had entrusted to Seymour Chwast, a famous American designer to whom he had become very close, and whom he saw as a member of his family. The typography of the M (for Meredith) that Chwast designed and repeated through the whole visual identity of the shop doubtless refers to the creations of Jean Dunand, like a rain of eggshell on a black lacquer background.
Did he have other passions?
Surrounded by friends from very different worlds, he didn't live entirely in the world of Art Deco. Passionate about architecture (he took photographs of the Gare d’Orsay before it was demolished), graphic design, jazz too… The cellars of Saint-Germain-des-Prés were his domain, so close to the home he had chosen for us.
EILEEN GRAY, A UNIQUE PINE AND LACQUER VASE, 1920. ESTIMATE €250,000–350,000.
What was his favourite object?
We'd say there were two, which reflect the two aspects of his taste: the Jean Dunand fireplace and the Pierre Chareau desk. Those objects translate what he wanted to show: the transition that occurred in the mid-1920s, between the luxury items made in precious materials (lacquer, shagreen, ivory, or precious woods), with forms and settings inspired by Cubism, and modernist furniture, metal objects.