From the June/July 2015 Issue:

Antiques: Some Assembly Required

    By: Leslie Gilbert Elman |

Gustave Serrurier-Bovy, a Belgian Art Nouveau designer, inspired many, including IKEA

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enlarge | Silex furniture was made from inexpensive wood and characterized by simple construction with exposed hardware. To demonstrate that it was worthy of use in all types of homes, Gustave Serrurier-Bovy created this high-backed armchair specifically for La Cheyrelle, a chateau in France for which he designed virtually all of the furnishings around 1905. When the chateau was sold in the 1990s, the furnishings were dispersed. Original La Cheyrelle furniture comes up for sale periodically, as this chair did at TEFAF in March. Courtesy of Yves Macaux
This year at TEFAF, the European Fine Art and Antiques Fair, Belgian antiques dealer Yves Macaux devoted his entire stand to Belgian Art Nouveau designer Gustave Serrurier-Bovy. “He is a designer we love, and we decided he deserved a solo show,” gallery representative Alexis Vanhove says, adding that the furniture and objects offered for sale at TEFAF were acquired over several years of thoughtful collection and curation. “Our main field is Vienna 1900 [the Vienna Secession], and normally we exhibit the work of the leaders of that movement—Josef Hoffmann, Koloman Moser, Adolf Loos—but we also like Belgian Art Nouveau, and for us this represents the best of that design.”

For many at the fair, this also represented an introduction to Serrurier-Bovy, the “father” of the Belgian Art Nouveau movement.

Born in Liège, Belgium, in 1858, Serrurier-Bovy was an architect, interior designer, decorator and cabinetmaker. Like William Morris and the other proponents of the English Arts and Crafts movement, Serrurier-Bovy believed the decorative arts of furniture making, glass and metalwork should be regarded with the same esteem as the fine arts of painting and sculpture. Like the designers of the Vienna Secession (see Design NJ, June/July 2011, pp. 116-119), who inspired him, he believed that beautiful furnishings for the home should be accessible to everyone, not only to the privileged classes. Unlike anyone before him, Serrurier-Bovy set about making furniture that was so democratic and accessible you could build it yourself.

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enlarge | These 1902 brass and copper vases have crystal inserts made by Belgian firm Val Saint-Lambert. Courtesy of Yves Macaux
Art in the Home
Serrurier-Bovy trained as an architect, but by the 1880s he focused on designing furniture and decorative objects. He had a contract to design for venerable retailer Liberty on Regent Street in London, and then set up his own firm in Liège. Success led to retail locations in Brussels, The Hague and Paris, where his showroom at 54 Rue de Tocqueville was called “L’Art dans l’habitation” or “Art in the Home.”

Adapting Japanese design motifs to European furniture forms, his pieces had the sweeping lines and delicate decorations that became hallmarks of Art Nouveau style. They were artistic without being overly ornate, emphasizing the beauty of the materials and the skill of the maker’s craftsmanship. He designed total rooms, from the furniture to the lighting fixtures to the vases on the tables. The Musée d’Orsay in Paris displays a complete reconstructed Serrurier-Bovy bedroom in its permanent collection. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City has on view a stunning “cabinet vitrine,” or display cabinet, of red narra wood and ash trimmed with copper and enamel that was presented as part of a complete dining room in Serrurier-Bovy’s Paris showroom in 1899.

In 1900, he and his French business partner, René Dulong, designed a restaurant for the Exposition Universelle in Paris. Then in his forties, his professional reputation was firmly established, his business was flourishing and Serrurier-Bovy was ready to embrace a new design challenge. He found the inspiration for what would be the final phase of his career in the designers of the Vienna Secession, whose sensibility was more industrial and who embraced manufacturing as a way to bring well-designed home furnishings to a broader market.

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enlarge | Made of poplar with green-painted fittings, this Silex cupboard was one of a pair intended for a bedroom. Courtesy of Yves Macaux
Kitted Out
Considering the best way to provide high design at low cost, Serrurier-Bovy came up with an unusual plan that embodied the philosophies of both the Arts and Crafts and Vienna Secession—the appreciation for handcrafting and the economy of factory production. He would create prefabricated, factory-produced furniture components to be sold in kits that buyers would assemble themselves. Serrurier-Bovy called the new line Silex, the French word for silica or flint.

Constructed of inexpensive materials such as poplar and held together with exposed hardware, Silex furniture was earthy and unpretentious and theoretically suited for a “typical worker’s home.” As the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh says of the Silex chair in its collection, “The process of constructing this chair, and thereby appreciating the beauty of its wood and the simplicity of its modular design, was intended to provide a social cure to the disheartening effects of machine production.”

Serrurier-Bovy introduced Silex furniture at the 1904 World’s Fair, the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, in St. Louis, but it gained more notice at the 1905 Exposition Universelle et Internationale in Liège, where he displayed it alongside his characteristic Art Nouveau designs. Ultimately, Silex wasn’t a success, in part because the working class didn’t aspire to own working-class furnishings—they wanted something closer to the furnishings of the fashionable upper class. Nevertheless, Silex broke new ground in its design and presentation, and its legacy can’t be denied. The D.I.Y. kit furniture we know so well today, originated more than 110 years ago with Gustave Serrurier-Bovy, the father of Belgian Art Nouveau.

Leslie Gilbert Elman, who just returned from TEFAF, writes about antiques and other subjects for Design NJ.

TEFAF, the European Fine Art and Antiques Fair, marked its 27th year in March, and the number of American collectors in attendance has grown noticeably in recent years. They come for the buying opportunities at a fair that is considered the “best of the best” within its industry, but they also come for the education it provides. There’s always something or someone to discover and learn about. This year, for me, that was Gustave Serrurier-Bovy.