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Interiors + Design

How Dior and His Decorators Preserved France’s Cultural Heritage and Douceur de Vivre

Coinciding with Christian Dior’s 70th anniversary last year, the legendary fashion house debuted a collection by its first female artistic director and starred in exhibitions at the National Gallery of Victoria and Musée des Arts Décoratifs, with museums shows in Denver, Philadelphia and London still to come. But beyond la mode, New York-based author and design historian Maureen Footer urges you to reconsider Dior’s profound influence on the decorative arts. In her new book, Dior and His Decorators: Victor Grandpierre, George Geoffroy, and the New Look (The Vendome Press), Footer beautifully chronicles how Dior cemented its visual identity with the help of the glamorous decorator Victor Grandpierre. “I’d seen Grandpierre’s and Geoffroy’s interiors for Dior’s townhouse in 1950s copies of Vogue and was fascinated by their eclecticism, sophistication, sumptuousness and references to other cultures,” Footer told Sotheby’s. Ahead, Footer speaks about this trio’s design legacy and applies her French furniture connoisseurship to Sotheby’s upcoming auction L’Art de Vivre: Property from the Collection of Kathleen and Martin Field.

How would you describe the dynamic between Dior, Grandpierre and Geffroy?
There was no connection between Grandpierre and Geffroy, and they had entirely different temperaments. Geffroy was very ambitious and competitive, and Grandpierre was more understated and literary. With the exception of his townhouse, Dior worked with them both independently. Geoffroy had been Dior’s old friend who introduced him to the world of haute couture. Grandpierre was like Dior’s soulmate who channeled his same vision of the 18th century and the Belle Époque through a modern lens. Dior left behind a very articulate memoir that gave more insight into them.

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“The sublime creations of Roger Vivier, a former sculptor, were displayed like artwork in the shoe boutique. Naturally, gray and white and Louis XVI seating defined the space. In a time before computers matched paint colors, the formula for Dior gray was a strictly guarded secret.” © Sabine Weiss

In your opinion, what was Dior’s genius?
Dior was an extremely contemporary man, but he also looked backward and realized that we are products of our history. He studied modern music composition. His friends were all Modern artists. He had been a gallerist before he came into couture. Grandpierre had been a photojournalist and a writer, so he too was very much in touch with the modern world. Then and now, Dior has proven how contemporary and relevant references to the past can be. Rather than being repeated, classic designs – like the Bar jacket, the silhouette, the gray and white interiors – are readopted and renewed.

"Then and now, Dior has proven how contemporary and relevant references to the past can be. "

How did World War II threaten France’s national identity and the fashion industry?
There was so much angst within the French society who was traumatized by the war. In terms of fashion, Dior brought the spotlight back to Paris and arguably saved the haute couture industry. Dior’s New Look was such a resounding success because he had his finger on the pulse of something – that France needed to be assured of its identity and history. He looked to the 18th century and the Belle Époque for visual inspiration, and he also conserved their great techniques. All of that had almost disappeared by the 1930s, between the bias cut, jersey fabric and Chanel.

What was happening to design after the war?
Geffroy was using and preserving French techniques from couture ateliers. He had craftsmen work on his interiors. They weren’t doing things like sliding doors and utilitarian multipurpose rooms, which came into popular vogue after the war. The US was making Levittown houses for veterans, and that kind of practicality was part of the spirit in France too. However, there was also France’s incredible heritage, which Dior and his decorators helped preserve.

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"Dior’s bedroom at La Colle Noire combined gauffraged linen velvet with chalky white walls, simple gray trim, and gleaming terra-cotta floors. Since his childhood in Granville, he had sought security in curtained and alcove beds." © André Svetchine/Collection Luc Svetchine

When I think of Dior, and especially upon seeing the images in your book, I personally believe there’s an enduring sense of Frenchness in the company’s aesthetic.
It is classic, and it is French but if you look at Grandpierre’s interiors for Dior’s boutique and couture house, they are really pared down. He wasn’t recreating Versailles. He combined 18th-century elements with the modernism of the 1920s and the fluidity of the 1930s.

Would you say their style reflects your personal taste?
In many ways, yes. I was trained in the 18th-century French decorative arts. I actually was renovating my apartment while working on this book. It’s full of 18th-century furniture, and it has Grandpierre’s spring palette, but there’s a lot of eclecticism. It has bleached floors. The windows are relatively uncovered. There are pre-Columbian sculpture and Tang dancer figurines. The living room is parrot green, and the entrance hall is lacquered tangerine. In the spirit of Dior, I had to use tiger silk velvet.

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Maureen Footer. Photograph by Julie Skarratt.

Where did Dior, Grandpierre and Geffroy shop for their interiors?
Of course they went to the great French Parisian antique dealers, such as Kraemer Gallery, Didier Aaron and Aveline. Geffroy had very grand clientele, and Grandpierre did too, but he also would take on smaller jobs for friends. Dior loved to go to the French auction house Drouot. As a young man when he had his first real apartment on Rue Royale, Dior would go to the marché aux puces. He loved ferreting out lost treasures amidst the junk.

In life and in design, what can we take away from Dior and his decorators?
Dior, Grandpierre and Geffroy were romantics. They were young teens before World War I, and they remember charming French traditions. Their interiors and clothes were trying to suggest a little bit more of that gentility and douceur in life. Yes, one can go to Crate & Barrel and get simple and lovely everyday white china, but it enriches our lives when we can take the time to dip into history and make things more special.

Lead Image: © Association Willy Maywald

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