Remembering André Sornay, the Art Deco Furniture Designer Who Laid the Groundwork for IKEA

Feb 29, 2016 10:59PM

Born in 1902, André Sornay was a French modernist furniture designer who developed revolutionary fabrication techniques and new ideas about furniture material. His efforts helped shape the furniture industry as we know it today. Yet outside of collectors and devout followers, his name is relatively unknown, partially due to his decision to remain in the then-provincial town of Lyon, away from the cultural capital of Paris.

Michel Giraud, of Galerie Michel Giraud in Paris, began working with Sornay in 1986. Giraud happens to hail from Lyon—a fortuitous link that helped connect him to the talented but underappreciated designer. He is one of few dealers with access to artist copies of Sornay’s original pieces. In 2004, Giraud even helped organize the first exhibition of Sornay’s work in the United States.

Though Sornay died in 2000 after a long life of 98 years, he essentially stopped making work by the late 1950s, when his career was still going strong. Recently, however, Sornay’s legacy has been revitalized as interest in his life and work grows.

As a young man in Lyon, Sornay took over the family business of producing and copying furniture pieces, but, once he was in charge, with a new focus solely on modernism. From there, the interwar era was an extremely productive period for Sornay, particularly after his 1925 participation in the International Exposition of Modern Industrial and Decorative Arts in Paris. Sornay left that experience rather embittered due to some major delays and technical issues, Giraud says, though it did provide an international platform that brought Sornay a solid client following.

Around the time of the financial crash in 1929, Sornay developed what would become one of his signature styles: cloutage. The technique involved hammering nails in perfect proportion along the edges of furniture. The process not only created a minimalist, modernist aesthetic, but it allowed him to experiment with new methods of fabrication. He began developing structural frames using cheaper materials, like plywood, that would then be covered with high-end wood and finished with cloutage. Above all, Sornay was interested in how the piece of furniture functioned, and he wanted to create work that was smart, sturdy, and, of course, aesthetically pleasing. This newfangled technique brought down manufacturing costs, making the furniture more affordable to clients without without sacrificing functionality or elegance.

Then, in the late 1940s, Sornay pioneered an innovative manufacturing technique that was essentially a precursor to IKEA’s flat-packed furniture. While working to furnish a building for refugees, he devised a system of modular furniture that used long metal poles to twist and fit together for construction. IKEA’s famous hex key may have been missing, but the same construction principals were there, as was Sornay’s dual focus on the practical and the functional. 

Unfortunately, Sornay’s studio burned down and much of his work and research was destroyed, making his earlier work difficult to come by. Nevertheless, Giraud’s gallery recently featured a pair of chairs from 1932. Made from caramel-colored mahogany and bourbon-toned leather, they are perfect examples of the subtle, elegant Sornay aesthetic.

—Blaire Dessent

See other designers and artists at Galerie Michel Giraud.