Robert Mallet-Stevens was an anomaly of the modernist era of design—while most were moving toward a sober, subtractive approach, Mallet-Stevens was designing buildings and interiors with a decorative, mannerist flair, blending various styles to create unique spaces for a wealthy, avant-garde clientele.
Mallet-Stevens was born to a privileged family in 1886 in Paris and his father was an art collector, placing him in the milieu of French high society. He entered the École Spéciale d'Architecture in 1905, a progressive institution focused on modern rationalism. After completing his studies, he built a network of avant-garde artists and actively exhibited his drawings and models in Paris and abroad. Mallet-Stevens served in the air force from 1914 to 1917 and upon his return to Paris, he worked on various commissions for small private homes and the interiors of gas stations, ocean liners and showrooms.
The first residence Mallet-Stevens completed was the Villa Noailles in 1923, for Charles and Marie-Laure de Noailles, patrons of the Dada and Surrealist movements. The house was regarded for its eclecticism and mixing of rigorous functionalism and stylish Art Deco motifs. The interior was later used by Man Ray as the set for his film, Les Mystères du Château de Dé; Mallet-Stevens would design several sets throughout the 1920s. His most famous architectural work is the Villa Cavrois, made for Paul Cavrois in 1934, a wealthy textile manufacturer who wanted a bold, modern home. While not a strict functionalist like his contemporaries, Mallet-Stevens did employ modern sensibilities, but stripped them of their ideological underpinnings and curated with a bricolage style and great attention to detail. Instead of thinking of a building as a form or an idea, he thought of it as a presence in the environment, seductive and expressive.
Mallet-Stevens was also a prolific furniture designer, creating many custom pieces for his buildings and interiors. His approach in this field was more modernist, asserting that furniture should be "functional in terms of contemporary living, simple and suitable for mass production.” His most enduring design is a tubular, stacking metal chair, created in 1931 for the Paris Colonial Exposition. Influenced by the famous Thonet café chairs, they were celebrated for their elegance, durability, and, compared to his architectural work, an unexpected lack of decorative pretense. Mallet-Stevens passed away in Paris in 1945, before the widespread adoption of mass production design techniques. At the behest of his wishes, much of Mallet-Stevens’ archives and personal documents were destroyed after his death; this, along with his eclectic body of work, has caused this singular and expressive designer to receive less consideration than his more oft-celebrated contemporaries.