Design | Serge Mouille Lights up New York

Serge Mouille
Simple floor lamp with Lampadaire shade,
designed 1953
Painted aluminium, painted tubular steel, brass
Produced by Atelier Serge Mouille, editioned by Galerie Steph Simon, France
Estimate $10000 > 15000 / £6370 > 9550 / € 8070 > 12100

New York City, USA
Exhibition 10th > 16th December
Sale 17th December

Born in Paris in 1922, and best known for his elegant, minimal, insect-like lamp designs of the 1950s, Serge Mouille originally trained as a silversmith at Paris’s École des Arts Appliqués, where he graduated in 1941, and taught from 1945. That year he opened his own metalwork studio, producing commissioned hand-rails, wall sconces and chandeliers for a small list of clients. A somewhat subdued start for a man whose design work would come to be compared with Alexander Calder’s sculptures, and who, in 1952, was to create a revolutionary stainless steel car, the Zebra, that, sadly, never made it to production.

Serge Mouille
Pivoting two-armed wall light with Lampadaire and Casquette shades,
designed 1953

Painted aluminium, painted tubular steel, brass
Produced by Atelier Serge Mouille, editioned by Galerie Steph Simon, France
Estimate $12000 > 18000 / £7639 > 11460 / €9680 > 14520

Perhaps it did all begin with Calder. But Calder himself had probably seen, or was aware of, the pioneering work of the constructivists and dadaists, of Naum Gabo and Marcel Duchamp, who invented kinetic art, imbuing their modernist works with movement. And Mouille, certainly knew Calder – 24 years his senior – well enough for the sculptor to have given Mouille’s girlfriend a small mobile as a present, so the comparisons that have been made could have some justification. It may have been, however, that in his design work, Mouille was reacting to the feelings in the air at the time, and whereas Calder’s work is about equilibrium and enlivened space, the younger man’s was based on simplicity and static balance.

As an antidote to their dreary post World War II existence, Europeans had begun searching for a new, more optimistic aesthetic. Wartime advances in technology had made it possible for designers to produce new types of furniture and home accessories that were stronger, but lighter in feel and look, than anything that had existed before, and the fast-expanding post-war population, would provide a ready market for them. Meanwhile, by the early 1950s interest in avant garde kinetic art was growing. Ernest Race’s jaunty Antelope chair, commissioned to furnish the outdoor terraces of the newly built Royal Festival Hall for the 1951 Festival of Britain, fulfilled its practical requirement, but had echoes of the playfulness of Calder’s work. It had the lightness of structure that was associated with kinetic art and shared something with the organic flavour of modernism that designers like Arne Jacobsen in Denmark, and Gio Ponti and the brothers Achille and Pier Giacomo Castiglioni in Italy, were also experimenting with. In the USA Charles and Ray Eames, Harry Bertoia and Eero Saarinen championed this same warmer, humanist approach to design.

Gino Sarfatti
Floor lamp, model no 1003b, c 1946
Painted aluminum, painted tubular brass, brass, marble
Manufactured by Arteluce, Italy
Estimate $5000 > 7000 / £3180 > 4460 / €4030 > 5650

Great Magnusson-Grossman
floor lamp, model no. 831, 1950s
Painted aluminum, painted tubular metal, brass
Manufactured by Bergboms Malmö, Sweden.
Interior of shade impressed with G-33-BERGBOM
Estimate $8000 > 12000 / £5090 > 7640 / €6450 > 9680

Pierre Guariche
floor lamp, c 1951
Brass, painted aluminum, painted steel
Manufactured by Disderot, France
Estimate $12000 > 18000 / £7639 > 11460 / €9680 > 14520

Mouille had claimed that his lighting fixtures were ‘… a reaction to the Italian models, which were beginning to invade the [French] market in 1950,’ and which considered ‘too complicated.’ He may have been referring to Gino Sarfatti’s (1912 > 1985) work, which is relatively simple and functional, while sharing a similar aesthetic to his own. A few years younger than Mouille, Pierre Guariche (1926 > 1995), and sometimes referred to as one of France’s most famous, post-war furniture designers, also created finely balanced lamps, such as his Equilibrium floor lamp, produced c 1951. From Sweden, the anthropomorphic Grasshopper floor lamp – more giraffe- than insect-like – was devised in the 1950s by prolific industrial designer, interior designer and architect, Greta Magnusson-Grossman (1906 > 1999).

In 1953, the French furniture and interior designer, Jacques Adnet, who had first risen to fame in the art deco period, asked Mouille to design lighting fixtures for him, and, having found his forte, Serge Mouille would devote himself almost exclusively to it for the rest of his life (d 1988). He received a Diploma of Honour at the Brussels Expo in 1958, and at about the same time began to design institutional lighting – over several years creating items for the University of Antony in Strasbourg, for a school in Marseilles and for the Bizerte Cathedral in Tunisia. With the invention of neon tubes, in the 1950s, Mouille was inspired to design a series of floor lamps that combined incandescence and fluorescence. Mouille’s legacy of 1950s lamps remain, however, the last word in timeless elegance. Several exquisite early examples will be included, alongside others by his contemporaries, and many fine items of classic modern furniture, in Design, Phillips forthcoming auction in New York.

All images courtesy of Phillips. © Phillips

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