“What is interesting to consider in this historical past is the evolution of ideas as well as arts… It is thanks to this instinctive impulse of the present where men live, that the traces of past events, enclosed in their movements in general, allow us to know the life and customs of a people.” Wrote Robert Mallet-Steven at the age of eighteen, in a small book published in 1904 on Guérande, a medieval town in the Vendée.

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Robert Mallet-Stevens_ © Cinq Point

Couldn’t find better words to introduce this so-called cursed and modern builder, because Robert Mallet-Stevens also unleashes passions, for better or for worse. He was an admired architect in his time but unfortunately misunderstood by later generations, and here’s why and how. 

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Portrait de Robert Mallet-Stevens, vers 1924. Photo D.R. Centre Pompidou, Mnam-Cci, Bibliothèque Kandinsky, fonds Mallet-Stevens._© ADAGP, 2004, Paris

Robert Mallet-Stevens’ Early Life

Mallet-Stevens was one of the French architects most involved with the international avant-garde and one of the most distant from the tradition of the beaux-arts. He was born on March 24, 1886, in Paris, the son of Maurice André Mallet, a painter, and Juliette Stevens, the granddaughter of Arthur Stevens, a Belgian collector, and critic. He spent his youth in Maison-Laffitte. From 1903 to 1906, he studied architecture at the École spéciale d’architecture in Paris. 

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Since childhood, he learned from his father, as well as from his mother, to consider works of art as the very expression of the truth of an era, that he has constantly kept expressing through his architecture later in his life. His family undoubtedly played a role in his ability to recognize and analyze plastic forms in addition to his studies, where he had an education that values volumes to the detriment of ornamental architecture, in addition to his visits to cities like Guérande, from which we can state that his full background has already prepared him since the beginning to flourish in the field. 

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Le tournage du film ” La sirène des tropiques ” de Mario Nalpas et Henri Etiévant, 1927, in La rue Mallet-Stevens _ © La rue Mallet-Stevens

Beginnings and Career

Mallet-Stevens was not only a curious and polymorphous architect, but he also was involved in a variety of disciplines of industry and commerce during the 1920s. He created shop windows and designed shops, and after the war, when he served in the air force, he designed sets for the cinema: interior layouts, furniture, exterior architecture, where he worked with lightning as a material and expressed a framework of life that was that of the “present moment,” and even of anticipation, with the sets of L’Inhumaine, by Marcel L’Herbier in 1923, and other twenty films, where he produced an interior design vision that was often inspired from the psychology of the characters.

The beginnings of Robert Mallet-Stevens’s career were clearly inspired by the work of Joseph Hoffmann and the principles of the Wiener Werkstätte, but he already made a reputation for himself by defending a modern and rational vision of architecture that is free of ornamentation, during his studies at the École Spéciale d’Architecture. As a representation of his thoughts, the Palais Stoclet (1905-1911), built in Brussels by Joseph Hoffmann and commissioned by Adolphe Stoclet, Mallet-Stevens’s uncle, was a model for him, as it was marked by a rigorous volumetry, the synthesis of the arts, the reasoned use of ornamentation and logic of expression in the facing…Everything that could fulfill his modern vision for architecture and design.

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Le palais Stoclet _© Stephane Mignon/Flickr

The architect has a portfolio of 32 designs that were published under the title Une Cité Moderne in 1922, and designed cubist villa-palaces for the chicest personalities of the time, the couturier Paul Poiret in Mézy (Yvelines) or the viscountess of Noailles(1923–1928), in addition to 6 other famous houses. Unfortunately, all of his works realized between the two wars have been ignored, plundered, and distorted. However, much of his remaining works could be discovered by walking in the rue Mallet-Stevens in Paris (16th arrondissement), that was designed by him, or by visiting the Villa Noailles, in Hyères (Var).

In 1929, Mallet-Stevens founded the Union des Artistes Modernes, to which other great names of French modernism adhered, such as Jean Prouvé and Le Corbusier. He was also one of the founders of the magazine L’Architecture d’aujourd’hui and, in the 1930s, he directed the École des Beaux-Arts de Lille.

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La villa Cavrois de Robert Mallet-Stevens_© Milk Décoration

Robert Mallet-stevens’ ideology  

Although he wrote several essays that explain his thoughts, such as “Une cité moderne” in 1928, or “Grandes constructions” in 1929, Mallet-Stevens, unlike many of his peers, did not leave any works outlining his position in the Modern Movement, such as those by Le Corbusier, Loos, Wright, or even Perret in his Aphorismes. Also, the several publications written by this architect do not constitute a corpus of theory, and his architectural firm’s archives, which were often valuable, were burned after his death according to his will. 

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The major lines of his ideology could only be found in his life story, in his writings, and via memories of talks with him or with members of the UAM, whom he met during the UAM’s young people’s meetings in 1946. 

As expressed through the design of Palais Stoclet in Brussels at the beginning of his career, Joseph Hoffman as well as  Charles Rennie Mackintosh had a significant influence on Mallet-Stevens. This explains his reference to the integration of the arts and the plastic continuity that links the furniture, the decoration, the layout of the gardens, to the architecture.

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Salon rose de la Villa Noailles à Hyères, Rob Mallet-Stevens._© Thérèse Bonney, 1928

In the analysis of some of the architect’s works, we can observe the use of a geometrical layout, while respecting the metric specifications of the program, the dimensions and possible prospects, the harmonic play of solids and voids, leaving the initial geometrical framework in place, even if it has been cut out. This is the same process used by the architects of the Renaissance, Palladio in particular. The ancient method of regulating layouts was applied by Mallet-Stevens to programs as complex as that of the Château de Poiret in Mézy, or as delicate as that of the Palais de l’Électricité at the 1937 exhibition.

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The architect’s innovation was to reconcile the strict adherence to the program with the project’s volumetric unity; he sought to find a modern solution that would integrate the existing while also introducing a new way of life; his accomplishments were thus the result of a combination of proportions and style.

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Villa Poiret, Château De Mézy_© Materialiste Paris

Doing Justice To The Mallet-Stevens

Mallet-Stevens, along with Le Corbusier, was one of the most notable architects around the turn of the century. Despite his significance in the development of modern architectural philosophy, after he died in 1945, his work faded into obscurity. Sixty years after his death, we are rediscovering the qualities of a sincere modernist.

Mallet-Stevens’ work did not achieve the renown it has today during his lifetime. He wasn’t recognized until the 1980s, and the Centre Pompidou dedicated a retrospective exhibition to him in 2005. Some of his works, such as the Paul Poiret villa, were left unfinished or abandoned and had to wait until the 1990s or 2000 to be rehabilitated. His architectural positivism, on the other hand, appears to be in line with contemporary aspirations. “Air, light, labor, sports, hygiene, comfort, and economy,” he says of his Villa Cavrois. A program that appears to be quite current!

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Hôtel Martel, 10 rue Mallet-Stevens, Paris._© Photo : Marc Vaux, 1927 – Mallet-Stevens : © Adagp, Paris 2007

References

Delahautemaison, P. (2019, August 30). À propos de Robert Mallet-Stevens – La théorie architecturale et la géométrie – François Hébert-Stevens. Design Luminy. Available at: <https://designluminy.com/robert-mallet-stevens-la-theorie-architecturale-et-la-geometrie/>

Monde, L. (2005, April 28). Robert Mallet-Stevens, bâtisseur maudit et moderne. Le Monde.fr. Available at: <https://www.lemonde.fr/culture/article/2005/04/28/architecture-robert-mallet-stevens-batisseur-maudit-et-moderne_643902_3246.html>

WHO IS ROBERT MALLET-STEVENS? (n.d.). Centre Des Monuments Nationaux. Retrieved September 24, 2021, Available at: <http://www.villa-cavrois.fr/en/Explore/WHO-IS-ROBERT-MALLET-STEVENS>

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Author

Oumaima is an architect and a spatial planning student passionate about arts, cultures and everything in between. She is a constant learner and a striver for continual growth, who spends most of her time, gathering inspirations, writing rad thoughts, exploring stories throughout architecture and putting colorful poems on paper & canvas.

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