Cruise Ships and Jetports: Modern Furniture of Maxime Old
As the Union des Artistes Modernes was making waves by rejecting the craft tradition of French luxury in favor of industrial materials and simplified forms, the French designer Maxime Old (1910-1991) was busy forging a middle path. Trained by the Art Deco master Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann, Old remained committed to craftsmanship while embracing materials like glass and steel, eventually earning commissions that stretched from a high-end hotel in Casablanca to the French Embassy in Oslo. New editions of pieces from Old’s most iconic series, produced under the direction of the designer’s son Olivier, are currently on offer in Paris at Galerie Yves Gastou.
The defining moment of Maxime Old’s career came in 1958, when the Compagnie Générale Transatlantique (French Line) commissioned Old to design the first class living room for their new ocean liner the SS France. The basic unit of Old’s decorative scheme was the “Léger” (“light”) armchair. The chair has an agile, springy quality, and the slender steel legs cut a sleek profile. A plush red fabric seat balances the unadorned metal of the supports–a perfect blend of function and comfort.
On the ship, the “Léger” chairs were grouped around a set of equally thoughtfully designed tables, the most distinctive being the “Iceberg.” The name is certainly odd for a piece of furniture on a transatlantic ocean liner, and the sharp edges and angular base of the table suggest the fearsome qualities of an iceberg. However, this “Iceberg,” with its carefully balanced sheets of glass, is a fragile one–its power has been neutered. In the modern age, the dangers of yesteryear no longer pose a threat.
Maxime Old, "Saturn ring" low table, c. 1961.
The triumph of modernity is best seen in a mahogany table Old designed for the first class lounge at the Marseille airport. A round slab perched atop an angular support, the “Saturn Ring” table has a springy quality like the “Léger” chair. Seen from above, a circular opening reveals a triangular shape reminiscent of a plane’s propeller. We feel as though this table might whir to life at any moment and lift off the ground, just like the travelers sitting around it soon would. Pieces like this reveal the conceit at the heart of Old’s work. While his contemporaries were abandoning luxury, Maxime Old was bringing the great French craft tradition into the Jet Age.