The Vibrant Influence of French Tastemaker Henri Samuel on Parisian Design

During the 1970s and ’80s in Paris, the influential French decorator Henri Samuel spearheaded a trend among spheres of art and design—he commissioned leading contemporary artists to create functional objects, and introduced them into spaces that were not a traditional match. “Samuel was renowned for his ability to mix historical periods and genres with contemporary art and design, and was one of the first decorators to commission artists to design furniture,” Suzanne Demisch, owner of New York design gallery Demisch Danant, recently told Artsy. His own apartment on rue Faubourg Saint-Honoré and the other interiors he designed were testament to what became known as “the Samuel style”—characterized by vibrant, eclectic environments ripe with unexpected juxtapositions, like the intermingling of contemporary art with 18th-century furniture. This month the new exhibition at Demisch Danant, “Paris Match: Henri Samuel and the Artists He Commissioned, 1968-1977,” transports us back to this pivotal moment in modern French design where predilections were changing, anachronisms were welcome, and contemporary art and design became integral to bourgeois style.

“During this period between 1968 and 1977 in France, artists and designers had become increasingly interested in the synthesis of art, design, and architecture,” Demisch explains. “Though there were many artists producing furniture and rarified designs, Henri Samuel’s patronage brought the work of César, Hiquily, and Rougemont to the forefront, because of his status as a tastemaker and his ability to integrate these contemporary works with more accepted objects of high style.” Featuring works by major contemporary artists at the time who Samuel was known to commission—namely, César, François Arnal, Philippe Hiquily, Guy de Rougemont, and Diego Giacometti—the exhibition revives his interiors and reconsiders his rare artist commissions in a context that evokes their original environments.

Characterized by striking materials and forms, the works on view encapsulate a new, lighter spirit and vitality which was common among contemporary art and design in France at the time and furthered by artist collectives like Arnal’s Atelier A. Two tables in the exhibition for example, by Arnal and Hiquily, respectively, are made from curvilinear forms that play with negative space and mix translucent and opaque materials, resulting in sleek, clearly modern works.

At the heart of the exhibition are works by French sculptor César, marked by glossy finishes, gleaming metallic accents, ebullient forms, and an evident sense of humor. “The César Expansion Table from 1977 is one of the highlights of the show along with the Expansion Lamp by César,” Demisch reveals. “César didn't make very much furniture, and these works have not been available on the market in over a decade. This exhibition will be the first time that these ‘Expansion’ works will be publicly exhibited in this country.” The lamp, a delightful, voluminous form made from gilt bronze and polyurethane foam, appears to be melting, as does the table, a glass oval perched atop two majestic bronze legs. Rejecting the contemporaneous tendency towards matching, homogeneous interiors, Samuel fostered this break with tradition and these amusing, innovative works are testament to his progressive taste and powerful influence.

Casey Lesser

Paris Match: Henri Samuel and the Artists He Commissioned, 1968-1977” is on view at Demisch Danant, New York, Nov. 7, 2014–Jan. 31, 2015.

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Images: Jerome Huet, View Interior du Salon, 1987. Copyright: © Christies Images Limited (1996).
Henri Samuel apartment, interior view.  Photo by Pascal Hinous. Copyright: © Christies Images Limited (2011).

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