B y reimagining the interiors of the wealthy elite, Jean-Michel Frank quickly became the most highly sought after decorator of his time. In the fall of 1938, he was commissioned to decorate the New York apartment of one of the United States’ most legendary and wealthy public figures, Nelson Rockefeller. After a ten-day journey in first class aboard the Normandie, a relieved Frank arrived in the City of Dreams. His friend Elsa Schiaparelli had just opened her boutique in the heart of Rockefeller Center, which he had also designed. While the burgeoning success of Frank’s design work thrust him into the public eye, he found himself rather lonely, a contradictory persona of socialite and recluse.
Situated on Fifth Avenue, the apartment had been designed by Rockefeller’s friend and architect, Wallace K. Harrison. Harrison had the woodwork installed, as well as a wall panel commissioned from Henri Matisse. When creating “La Poésie”, it is said that Matisse drew inspiration from Rockefeller’s own collection of Kang His Chinese porcelains, which he familiarized himself with at a dinner party the Rockefellers hosted in December of 1930.
What undoubtedly linked Frank to Rockefeller was their shared enthusiasm for art and culture. For Frank, this was attributable equally to his avant-garde connections as to his exposure to the splendor of the decorative arts by masters such as Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann. In particular, Frank was immersed in Ruhlmann’s work during his 1938 voyage to the United States on the Normandie. Upon his arrival, Frank reflected in a letter to Christian Bérard: “I should have waited to see the various lounges of the Normandie to get inspired. It seems to me that my potential clients would prefer this style to the one to which I remain committed. I admit that during this crossing I completely forgot about both decoration and the purpose of my trip. As I am approaching the coasts, I find myself wondering how these people will conduct themselves.”1
As early as 1930, Frank initiated a working relationship with one of the greatest sculptors of his time, Alberto Giacometti. This important collaboration preludes his work with other influential artists such as Salvador Dali, Christian Bérard and Emilio Terry. Though vilified by the Surrealists who considered these objects and sculptures a betrayal, Giacometti’s “Tête de Femme” became a strong presence in the interiors of Frank’s important commissions, such as the homes of Marie-Laure de Noailles, Elsa Schiaparelli and Francois Mauriac. Nelson Rockefeller was drawn to this aesthetic in which the archaic and primitive coexist alongside the greatest pieces of European classicism.
Soon after his arrival in New York, Frank was invited by Rockefeller to study the space and to begin the work following a well-defined protocol. His search for the absolute unfolded in a unique game of mixing materials, lines and curves. Frank traced in black ink the numbers corresponding to the precise positioning he envisioned for the Rockefeller living room: 18.104.22.168: armchairs upholstered in beige silk, 5.6: tables with three shelves in blackened pearwood, 7: Giacometti bronze sconces, 11.36: two ivory coffee tables, 23.24.25: dark green leather Hermès armchairs, 34: Pyramid lamp on the desk or on the dark green marble table, 41.42: Bérard carpets. Here again, his designs are arranged on the white page as like a series of notes in a masterful musical score. The Rockefeller interior would be Frank’s last great project before his death in 1941. The living room furnishings, including armchairs, tables, Aubusson rugs, organdy curtains for the dining room, and thirteen meters of green and white hand-woven silk, were delivered in various shipments on board the Normandie and the Île de France. In a letter to Bérard, Frank assured him that his client “is very nice and very understanding. This does not mean that it is not a struggle. I am involved in other projects for him at the architect’s office, a little thing on the 54th floor at Radio City Music Hall; and I assure you that my meetings with the designers and contractors are not always fun. From here, the rue Montauban appears to be a miracle of efficiency…”2
The fees and furniture list were substantial. The letters from Rockefeller to Frank are extremely precise and the tone remained always friendly and professional. Frank was the first to refer to their relationship as a collaboration. “I do think that I know exactly what you desire”, the decorator writes to his client, on November 11, 1938.3 The same day, a Chase Manhattan Bank wire transfer of $95,000 was signed by Nelson Rockefeller, 30 Rockefeller Plaza. On November 12th, Frank boarded the Normandie. He stayed only a few days in Paris where on December 2nd he once again wrote to Rockefeller to inform him that the silk was being woven and to inquire about his choices of color for the Bérard rug, which was soon to be manufactured at Aubusson.
In this unique designer-client collaboration, arguably one of the most defining commissions of his career, Jean-Michel Frank displays the renewed elements of his style for which he will be remembered. The affinity between these two remarkable individuals resulted in a perfect alliance of beauty and function, one that continues to move us beyond time and fashion and exposes “the invisible side of true elegance” evoked by Jean Cocteau in his 1941 tribute to Jean-Michel Frank.
1 Jean-Michel Frank, letter to Christian Bérard, November 1938, private archives, New York.
3 Rockefeller Archive Center, Sleepy Hollow, New York.