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Exhibition about Hector Guimard in New York and Chicago

At the moment, there is a wonderful exhibition about Hector Guimard at the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum in New York which will later on travel to the Driehaus Museum in Chicago. The exhibition showcases objects that have never been on display before. Unfortunately, I am not in a position to visit either of the exhibitions as I live in Europe. But the good news is that Yale University Press, in association with the Richard H. Driehaus Museum, has published a beautifully illustrated retrospective catalogue to accompany the exhibition, covering all aspects of Guimard’s artistic output and the story of his life. I have just finished reading the book from cover to cover and enjoyed every bit of it.

Hector Guimard - Art Nouveau to Modernism by Yale Universtity Press

The book, edited by curator David A. Hanks, is called ‘Hector Guimard, Art Nouveau to Modernism‘. Insightful essays cover the following five subjects that help us better understand the architect’s groundbreaking work:

Adeline and Hector Guimard 1910

  1. Mr. & Mrs. Guimard’s Life in Paris
  2. A Visionary Architect – Le Style Guimard
  3. Guimard the Entrepreneur – Selfpromotion
  4. Design for Production and Standardization
  5. Adeline Oppenheim Guimard – Creating a Legacy

Abundantly illustrated chapters portray how Guimard’s career began, how he met his muse Adeline Oppenheim (1872-1965) and married her. How they built their dream home and decorated the interior together. And how Guimard became a visionary architect.

I particularly appreciated the quotes of Guimard’s contemporary critics as they give a great insight into how his designs were perceived. “A dwelling by Guimard becomes a palace where our eyes are enchanted, where our soul rests. It is the poetry of architecture.”

Dining Room at Hôtel Guimard ca. 1910

Dining Room at Hôtel Guimard ca. 1910

Hector Guimard – A Visionary Architect

Hector Guimard (1867-1942) is probably the best known Art Nouveau architect / designer in the whole of France. ‘Le Style Guimard’ became synonymous with the term Art Nouveau when Guimard designed his sinuous and elegant, yet modular and mass-produced Metro entrances for the 1900 World’s Fair in Paris.

If you’ld like to learn more about the Paris Metro entrances, I wrote about that subject earlier. You can find the story here.

Étoile Metro Pavilion Paris 1900

Étoile Metro Pavilion Paris 1900

Hector Guimard was a radical and modern architect in his time. Inspired by Victor Horta – who revealed his principle of ignoring flowers and leafs, and to focus exclusively on the stem – Guimard rejected classicism and based his forms on nature. He used new materials and insisted on designing not only the exterior of a building but also the interior. Guimard wanted to design Total Works of Art; he was dedicated to the so-called Gesamtkunstwerk. And for Castel Béranger, Villa La Bluette, Castel Henriëtte and Hôtel Guimard he actually díd design everything. From furniture to carpets and textiles, to doorknobs, tableware and wallpaper. Guimard connected the exterior with the interior, marrying structure and decoration.


Mme. Guimard’s Bedroom, Hôtel Guimard, ca. 1909

Hector Guimard the Entrepreneur

Being an entrepreneur myself, I found it very interesting to read how Guimard was 100 years ahead of his time with posters, exhibitions, portfolios, postcards and his use of free publicity. He branded his style Le Style Guimard in 1900 at the Exposition Universelle and published a series of 24 postcards for the Housing Exhibition in 1903. Like we promote our products on Instagram today. Meanwhile, Guimard signed and dated his buildings to acknowledge his artistic role. He developed his own typography and created a portfolio with beautiful graphic designs for Castel Béranger. Comparable with coffee table books. And also for other creations Guimard produced beautiful catalogues.

Le Style Guimard invitation housing exhibition 1903


Signature Design vs. Standardization and Mass-Production

An essential difference between the earlier Arts & Crafts Movement and the Art Nouveau Movement was that Art Nouveau designers in general accepted the use of technology and machines as a means of creating a modern style. Guimard embraced the industrial processes and he was particularly attracted to the molding and production possibilities of cast iron, which allowed him to replicate his designs fast and in larger quantities.

Guimard modular element for Paris metro entrances

Guimard, modular element for Paris Metro entrances

A trade catalogue of one of the Saint-Dizier foundries shows Guimard’s characteristic cast iron house numbers. And it also includes standardized and modular architectural, garden and burial elements like balcony grilles, fences, mantelpieces and brackets for benches. But hardly anyone today knows that Guimard designed perfume bottles for Kantirix by F. Millot, lamps for Lustre Lumière, vases for Sèvres etc. All items that could be produced in larger quantities and achieve economies of scale, because they were molded. While working on his unique designs for costly private dwellings, Guimard made sure to bring Art Nouveau to the masses too. As if he wanted to apply his industrial design skills to reshape society. Best example being of course his Metro entrances as they connected all social classes across socioeconomic boundaries.

Le Beau à la portée de tous

After World War I Guimard abandoned the decorative arts and focussed mainly on the technical aspects of architecture, and construction systems for pre-fab housing. More than half a million houses had been destroyed during the war in France and there was a housing crisis that urgently needed to be addressed. Being a socialist, Guimard would devote all his creativity to developing houses that could be produced rapidly, and at the same time be well-designed and remain affordable. A prototype, Villa Jasmin, was built at 3, Square Jasmin in Paris in 1922.

Plate illustrating the Construction of Reinforced “Standard” Facade Walls, Standard-Construction October 1920

Plate illustrating the Construction of Reinforced “Standard” Facade Walls, Standard-Construction October 1920

From what I read in the book, Guimard seems to have over-complicated his system though. He filed for at least 10 patents while Le Corbusier had sought a single patent for his pre-fab system. In the end, Guimard’s modular housing project turned out to be a short-lived experiment. It is known today mostly through photographs and drawings that were gifted by Adeline Oppenheim to museums after her husband had passed away.

Adeline Oppenheim Guimard – Creating a Legacy

When Hector Guimard and Adeline Oppenheim got married in 1909, Hector was 43 years old. Adeline was 37 when she became his partner in life and work. She was born into a wealthy American family of bankers and a trained and practicing painter. During the preparation of the ceremony for their engagment, Adeline told the reverend “It will be necessary for us to make our whole life a work of art.” Obviously, artistry was their shared passion and their joined commitment.

After their marriage, Adeline’s father and his associates invested in Hector’s building firm. So not only Adeline, but also her family believed in Guimard and supported his projects. During and after WWI the Guimards displayed an increasing commitment to social activism. Hector explored design for the masses while Adeline painted portraits to raise money for the Red Cross. And while Hector attempted to adjust his style and focus on low-cost housing in the post-war economy, his commissions declined dramatically. The stockmarket crash of 1929 almost certainly reduced Adeline’s wealth. They sold their appartment and, anticipating the approaching second world war, embarked for New York in haste in 1938. A nazi-occupied France would be a threat to Adeline because of her Jewish heritage and to Hector because of his liberal political activism. They did maintain ownership of Hôtel Guimard, apparently with the idea to return after the war and transform it into a Guimard Museum. But that dream was never realised.

From Guimard's Album for Castel Beranger

From Guimard’s Album for Castel Béranger; stair runner and mosaics

After Hector Guimard had died in 1942, Adeline’s main aim was to donate her husband’s work to American Museums. Carefully selected items were donated to the MoMA, the Cooper Union Museum for the Arts and Decoration, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Drawings were given to the Avery Library at Columbia University. And after she returned to Paris in 1948 to sell Hôtel Guimard, Adeline also gifted a lot of their furniture and decorative objects to French museums like the Musée de l’École de Nancy, the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon and the library and archives of the Musée des Arts Décoratives in Paris. By giving related materials to more than one institution, Adeline may have aimed to ensure their wider study.

After her death, Adeline left the jewellery that Hector had designed for her, to her nephew who added it to her gift to the Museum of Modern Art. And in a final act of generosity to her husband’s country, she made a bequest to the École des Beaux-Arts for a prize named after Hector Guimard. Every 4 years, the French student in the final year who produces the most innovative scheme for a building or a monument receives a cash award.

Adeline’s offerings to museums and other institutions have proven to be decisive not only in preserving Guimard’s legacy as an architect and designer but also in deepening the understanding of an entire era. The beautiful exhibition catalogue is testimony to that. It covers all aspects of Guimard’s artistry and recognizes the fundamental modernity of his work. It offers us the opportunity to see the wonderful designs Guimard created, and get to understand this ‘Architecte d’Art’ and his lifelong commitment to finding a synthesis of artistic and manufacturing invention.

Hector Guimard's Signature

Hector Guimard: How Paris Got Its Curves is on view at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York City through May 21, 2023. The exhibition will then travel to the Richard H. Driehaus Museum in Chicago, and open from June 22, 2023 through January 7, 2024.

The book Hector Guimard, Art Nouveau to Modernism can be obtained directly from Yale Books or from the museum shops. You can also order it from your local book store. The ISBN number is 9780300248364. The authors present Guimard as a visionary architect, a shrewd entrepreneur, an industrialist, and a social activist.

Continue Reading: 
Digital Archives Guimard Collection at Cooper Hewitt
Meet the Designer of the Fanciful Subway Entrances to the Paris Métro
Hector Guimard: How Paris got its Curves – Cooper Hewitt
Hector Guimard’s Paris Métropolitain
Hôtel Mezzara, 60 Rue Jean de la Fontaine, Paris
Le Cercle Guimard
Marriage à la Mode
MoMa Catalogue 1970 – Hector Guimard, by F. Lanier Graham PDF
Parsons-Cooper Hewitt Master’s candidate about Hector Guimard – Podcast
The Magic of Hector Guimard – Daniella on Design
The Modernism of Hector Guimard