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Where Have All the Ensembliers D├ęcorateurs Gone?

November 2019

If you follow us on any social network, or if you have already read any coverage of Rinck, or if you had the opportunity to read the special issue of Connaissance des Arts magazine that featured our company, you are sure to have noticed at least one thing: Rinck calls itself an “Ensemblier Décorateur.”

Preparatory drawing by Julien Boaretto, interior architect, Rinck, on the cover of

Connaissance des Arts, Special Issue n°810 - Rinck Ensemblier Décorateur - 2018. © RINCK.

Appartment design by Rinck - 2018 © Hervé Goluza/RINCK 

A décorateur, typically translated as “decorator,” is, in North American dictionaries, “a person whose job is planning how the inside of a house, etc. will look, choosing the color of the paint, the furniture, etc.” or, in British English, “a person whose job is to paint the inside or outside of buildings and to do other related work.” For the other half of the term, ensemblier often translates to “interior designer” and is “a person who plans the decoration of the inside of a building such as a house or office” or, more formally, “a person who is qualified by education, experience, and examination to enhance the function and quality of interior spaces.” And an ensemblier décorateur? There is no definition – or translation – for the term. Actually, there is, or was, but it seems to have varied over the years, across confusion and semantic shifts, since it first appeared almost a century ago. Let’s look back on a trade that brought French decoration the glory it still enjoys today.

Old advertisement for RINCK, Meubles précieux, Décoration © RINCK

The story begins in Paris in the 1920s.  The Faubourg Saint-Antoine, which was both far from and close to the chicest quarters, is where, for several centuries, the interiors of the finest residences of Paris, Versailles, and the world were designed and manufactured. The 11th arrondissement was an industrious district in which tens of thousands of craftspersons labored assiduously in the backyards of their workshops. Upholsterers, carpenters, cabinetmakers, bronze-smiths, marquetry-makers – all devoted to the same task, carrying on the tradition of excellence in French decoration.

 

In that neighborhood, at Number 8 Passage de la Bonne Graine, Maurice Rinck was poised to take over the family company founded by his great-grandfather some seven decades earlier, in 1841, in Alsace. His father and grandfather, Eugène and Jacques, settled in Paris after the Franco-Prussian War ended in 1871 and made a name for themselves in that district with their collection of Napoleon III furniture, high-quality reproductions of the styles of previous centuries. Their maxim, “Vieille renommée vaut blazon” (“Longstanding renown is worth a coat of arms”), was proudly proclaimed by the company, but that did not sit quite so well with Maurice, who was determined to infuse the workshop’s designs with new energy and ideas.

Storefront of Rinck at 8, Passage de la Bonne-Graine, in Paris, in the 1950s. © RINCK

“Longstanding renown is worth a coat of arms” - Blazon-shaped sign of house Rinck. © RINCK

Publication in the Bottin du Commerce in 1948. © Archives de Paris

 

The Roaring Twenties were in full swing, as was design with the explosion of Art Deco at the 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes (International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts). Now one also had to be a decorator, and even an ensemblier, that new word invented a decade earlier. From the early 1930s, change was in the air and the Rinck company, that had been listed in the 1885 Le Bottin du Commerce et de l’Industrie business directory as a cabinetmaker, now proudly proclaimed on its letterhead, “E. RINCK & FILS - Magasins & Ateliers d’Ebénisterie d’Art – Ameublement – Décoration.” A few years later, at the end of the World War II, the 1948 directory listed Rinck under the category of Décorateurs (Tapissiers et ensembliers) (Decorators [Upholsterers and Interior Designers]). Fluctuating definitions of a trade that was swiftly evolving, a profession coming into its own.

Furniture ensemble by decorators Lucie Renaudot (top left), and Lahalle et Levard (top right), displayed at the famous

International Exhibition of 1925 in Paris. © DR / Magazine « L’Illustration » Octobre 31, 1925.

The bedroom of Mr W...., Rinck ensemble,1930. © RINCK

Prior to the 20th century, in the classical tradition, the interior décor of any premises was often the creative realm of the architect, with the help of an ornamentalist. This craftsperson specialized in designing ornamentation that served as the stylistic alphabet, thereby adding a special, signature touch to the interior décor, woodwork, marble, stucco, or paint, incorporating the full corresponding repertoire. Trophies, suns, or grotesque figures for the Louis XIV style, coquilles (shells) and musical instruments for Louis XV, shepherds and ribbons for the Louis XVI, or eagles, swans, and bees for the Empire. Each trade then did its part: tapissiers (a word meaning anything from tapestry-makers to upholsterers, but here implying interior decorators) carpenters or cabinetmakers for the furniture, with the tapissier, sometimes called tapissier-décorateur, often having the greatest influence.

 

The 19th century, marked by an eclecticism that involved revisiting the major styles of previous centuries, did not fundamentally change the situation. At most, it solidified the reign of antiques, which was logical at a time when the taste for ancient things was keen – from neo-Renaissance to neo-Louis XVI to neo-Gothic. At the dawn of the 20th century, influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement and the total art style of Art Nouveau, fashions leaned more toward decorative ensembles. As early as the end of the preceding century, in his report on the 1878 Paris World’s Fair, Jules Simon wrote that English furniture manufacturers, instead of presenting their designs based on furniture categories, furnished entire rooms: “They take this focus on the ensemble to the extreme, to the point of placing crystal and porcelain articles on a living room shelf.”

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Furniture ensemble by decorators J. Leleu et J.-E. Ruhlmann, displayed at the famous

International Exhibition of 1925 in Paris. 

© DR / Magazine « L’Illustration » Octobre 31, 1925.

“Ensemble.” There it was, that soon-to-be-infamous word. In 1912, French weekly magazine La Vie Parisienne turned the noun for the thing to a noun for the trade: “The ensemblier. This is a new word and one that, along with many other things, unfortunately, we owe to the prodigality of the Salon d’Automne organizers. Because one no longer calls an artist a decorator – he is a creator of ensembles, an ensemblier.” The ensemblier was the cutting-edge creator of that day, which did not necessarily make him popular. The article goes on to say, “An ensemblier is a gentleman who, under the pretext of updating present-day tastes – were they as bad as all that? – seeks to show his contemporaries how an artist can adorn his home. Go to the Salon, you will see how easy it is. You put an egg-yolk-yellow cushion on an episcopal rug, apple-green hangings next to indigo walls, pink painted furniture with black silks ... and there you have an ‘ensemble’!”

This modern taste in decoration had also its own body, La Société des Artistes Décorateurs, founded in 1901 by Frantz Jourdain. In the 1920s and 1930s, this society supported Art Deco, with prestigious members like Louis Sue, André Mare, Jacques Emile Ruhlmann, and André Groult and hosted the Artistes-Décorateurs show each year. Striving to bring forth an original style, therefore seeing space in terms of complete ensembles, these creators marked the golden age of the ensemblier décorateur concept. This movement would be weakened by the split with the functionalists who birthed the Union des Artistes Modernes in 1929, as well as by World War II.

Advertisement by Leleu in the magazine "Mobilier Décoration, December 1961. © LELEU

Drawing of a smoking lounge project for Mr Taurel in Caracas. © RINCK

After the war, another aesthetic preference would be yet another blow to the ensembliers décorateurs: the comeback of antiques. As in the 19th century, major names in the world of French décor, such as Madeleine Castaing and Emilio Terry, updated French classical styles, incorporating them into eclectic décors. Conversely, designers such as Louis Sognot, Jacques Adnet, Maurice Rinck, and André Arbus continued their work as ensembliers. This persistence was encouraged by the French government, especially by Michelle Auriol, wife of the President of France Vincent Auriol, leading to designs often publicly exhibited at the Salon des Arts Ménagers, which returned as an annual event in 1948. These post-war ensembliers décorateurs often remained closely linked with their workshops, which they owned themselves – as was the case with Maurice Rinck and André Arbus – or with which they worked in close collaboration. For many years, Louis Sognot had his designs manufactured by Maurice Rinck.

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Decor by Rinck and Sognot for the 1956 'Salon des Arts Ménagers',

on the cover of "Mobilier Décoration" magazine, April 1956. © DR

Advertisement from the 1960s by Meubles Roche Bobois,

introducing themselves as Ensemblier décorateur. © DR

Dining-room by Maison Jansen, © DR / Front Cover « Jansen, décoration » de J. Lévêque, Ed SEPE, 1971

Over the decades, however, while the trade of architecte d’intérieur (essentially an interior designer) was becoming a veritable profession, drifting ever further from key trades in arts, crafts, and production, the spotlight was dimming on the concept of the ensemblier décorateur. In the 1960s, it was still being used to describe older companies, like Leleu and Jansen (who would soon join forces), or young upstarts in the realm of contemporary design, like Roche Bobois. With the major houses going bankrupt in the 1980s, the term became a nostalgic one, synonymous with a golden age of the Faubourg Saint-Antoine and French production in interior decoration.

To this day, the teams at Rinck continue to define their work – our work – as that of an ensemblier décorateur, but not at all for sentimental reasons.  From our point of view, this almost untranslatable term still seems most apt in defining our singularity – at once interior designer, decorator, and manufacturer of furniture and fittings. A tradition that is wholly aligned with the professions we passionately practice and that keeps our mission in its most fitting context: a service trade.

- Valentin Goux -