What About Colonial Interiors?

The discourse on French colonialism focuses largely on economic and political policy. However, little emphasis has been placed on the day to day reality of colonial living, particularly the ever-changing environs influenced by these policies.

Similarly, within the last forty years, French Art Deco design, which was greatly inspired by the colonies, has become a popular area off research among Art Historians, beginning with the 1971 Minneapolis Institute of Arts exhibition World of Art Deco: An Exhibition, and most recently the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s publication French Art DecoHowever, little research has been conducted on how the contemporaneous policies and designs influenced one another- ultimately affecting the quotidian of French colonial life.

Scholars such as Jean-Louis Cohen and Gwendolyn Wright have begun to explore this area with their extensive work of French colonial architecture, but my interest lies within the walls. The following is an example of the rich interiors and innovation designs that have yet to be fully recognized and analyzed.

While many French Art Deco designers had the pieces they designed for the French market sold at galleries throughout the colonies, other designers created works specifically for colonial living. At the 1931 Colonial Exposition, the design firm Athélia, with artistic director Robert Block, created and displayed a “Part of small modern habitation conceived and set up for colonial life,” which one critic described as “Apart from form, new and decoratively seductive… easily transportable and without risk and small in size. For the colonials who are called upon to move often this is a considerable advantage.” [1] Decorator Nicolas Muratore also presented his work at the Colonial Exposition, but focused on climate rather than the transient lifestyle of a Frenchman living in the colonies. Muratore displayed a “bedroom/studio for a businessman” who lived in the tropics, specifically the coast of West Africa, an idea inspired by the critic, journalist and traveler Albert Flament. The space addressed the specific needs of someone who lived in such a region, by placing, for example, the feet of the bed in a liquid bath, in order to stop termites from crawling up and disturbing the sleeper, or by creating an alcove that ventilated cool air to counteract the sweltering heat, or by fitting a T.S.F. (the French wireless telegraphy “Transmission sans fil”) at the head of the bed to connect the inhabitant with his “patrie lointaine.”[2] 

It is unknown whether or not this interior was implemented in the region for which it was designed. However, its presence at the exhibition reflects the the practical issues of colonial living that French Art Deco designers were attempting to address.

H. Lewandowski, "C'est avec 76.900 hommes que la France..."

H. Lewandowski, “C’est avec 76.900 hommes que la France…”

[1] “partie de petite habitation moderne conçue et aménagée pour la vie coloniale… outre la forme, neuve et décorativement séduisante… d’un transport facile et sans aléas et d’un encombrement minimum. Avantage à considérer, pour des coloniaux qui sont appelés à se déplacer souvent.” Pierhal, “L’Art Décoratif à l’Exposition Coloniale,” 411.

[2] Ibid., 411.

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