Ancient Meets Modern

The Innovation of Jean Dunnand

Fascinated by the mysterious beauty of Japanese lacquer, Jean Dunand sought out the master artist Seizo Sugawara to learn the craft, thereby becoming one of the first western artists to work in the ancient technique known as urushi. This traditional lacquer technique involves a delicate mixture of cinnabar and poisonous sap, which is applied in dozens of successive ultra-thin layers.  Each layer requires finer grades of polishing, ultimately creating an extraordinary surface with both rich depth and high sheen. In addition to this technique, Dunand’s pioneering use of coquille d’oeuf created a complex lacquer surface on the top with visually stunning craquelure giving the table a light texture and subtle patterning. Used on small objects the eggshell lacquer lends itself well to the graphic quality of the visual patterns, much like inlay.  In larger panels, the eggshell allows subtle patterns to appear through the natural craquelure and the quiet nuances of the eggshells, a quality important to a pure example of Art Deco design. The present lot, composed of simplified vertical and horizontal elements, relates to the then contemporary avant-garde movements of De Stijl and Russian Constructivism through its direct coloration and deliberate form.  But more so, it embodies the essential tenets of Japanese lacquer work, in that the character of the form should be enhanced, and not obscured by the use of lacquer. Transforming the ancient art of lacquer work by applying it to clean, precise, Art Deco forms, Dunand created an innovative expression of design that married ancient and modern. 

Jean Dunand 1877–1942

Jean Dunand was born in Lancy, Switzerland, in 1877. Beginning his formal training at the School of Industrial Arts in Geneva, Dunand excelled at creating decorative arts. Apprenticing at the workshop of noted sculptor Jean Damp in Paris, Dunand became accomplished in the arts of sculpture and carving. Inspired by Japanese art, Dunand developed his skills in repoussé metalworking, creating elegant bowls and vases of copper. To learn the Japanese art of lacquer, Dunand made a deal with Seizo Sugawara trading his skills in bronze for lessons in lacquer work skills. Following the First World War, Dunand created his own studio exclusively for making lacquered Art Deco furniture and interiors. Trying his hand at a new craft, Dunand extended his metalworking skills to jewelry, fashioning pieces deeply reminiscent of Cubist sculpture and African tribal art, and he exhibited his jewelry in a show alongside pieces by Elsa Schiaparelli and Jeanne Lanvin in 1924. Elected vice president of the metal display by his peers for the International Exhibit of Modern and Industrial and Decorative Art, Dunand was additionally asked to create a room representing the theme of “A French Embassy Abroad.” The elegant, black and red lacquered smoking room was a crowd favorite. An innovative craftsman in every sense of the word, Dunand combined the complex art of lacquer with the geometric and precise forms of Art Deco, creating an entirely new and groundbreaking style. Jean Dunand is recognized as one of the key figures in French design of the 20th century, the greatest lacquer artist of the Art Deco period and his work is held in the permanent collections of major museums around the world.

Auction Results Jean Dunand

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