Style | Swellboy

Swellboy on… candlesticks

These essays in sculptural simplicity have become part of our lives

Swellboy on… candlesticks

Image: Brijesh Patel

October 23 2011
Nick Foulkes

The other day I had the gratifying sensation of coming across one – well, two actually – of my possessions in a reference book. I was passing a few idle moments flicking through the pages of Les Décorateurs des Années 40 when I came across a pair of candlesticks fashioned from ammonites that were the twin of a pair that I am fortunate enough to own – essays in sculptural simplicity on wooden plinths with a bronze candle holder of medieval rusticity bolted onto the top. I came across them in an antiques market and my wife was kind enough to buy them for me for my birthday, and over the years they have gradually worked their way into the fabric of our lives, the sort of possessions that give fleeting moments of pleasure when we recognise them, but which are, on the whole, such a set point of our domestic geography as to have attained invisibility.

Les Décorateurs des Années 40, which was published to coincide with an exhibition in Boulogne-Billancourt at the end of the last century, is an agreeably obscure book which has since become something of a reference work, giving as it does potted biographies of some of the great mid-20th-century decorators, such as Emilio Terry, who wound up working more or less full time for the despotic dandy Charlie de Beistegui. While perhaps not as bestselling as the memoirs of Katie Price, nor as prurient as Benedikt Taschen’s forays into coffee table erotica, it is a valuable book, as it perpetuates the memory of creative works that are by their nature evanescent.

In those days, as today, only rich people hired decorators and the first thing that a rich person does on buying a property is to rip out the previous occupant’s decorative scheme and set their own stamp on the place – by which I mean the stamp of the decorator that they have hired.

Decorating is a branch of the minor arts that still seems not to get the recognition it deserves; indeed, “decorative” is a slightly pejorative adjective, and yet, as this book testifies, much work, study and thought went into the creations of these people.

Were people like Jacques Adnet and Jean-Michel Frank leading decorators, or were they important designer-artists? In France the distinction blurs into non-existence and only the quality of the work, whether a piece of furniture or a room, really matters.

Anyway, back to my ammonite candlesticks: apparently they were created in about 1936 by Bolette Natanson and Jean-Charles Moreux; and I know that it is really incredibly shallow and mildly pretentious, but I am pleased to the point of smugness to find that my own taste has been validated by a photograph in an obscure book, published to coincide with a long-closed exhibition in a suburb of Paris.