BROCADED SILK DESIGNED BY JEAN BEAUMONT FOR THE NORMANDIE OCEAN LINER
Heralded as the Versailles flottant by French reporters, the Normandie was the most publicized and inspirational ocean liner of the prewar Art Deco era. Built by the French Line company and underwritten in large part by the French government (which treated the ship as an opulent showcase for national art and design), the Normandie made its first crossing to New York in the spring of 1935. A staggering amount of money was spent on its completion, and no budgetary concerns hindered the lavish appointments of the Normandie’s interiors. Befitting its splendid surrounds, this stunning silk was but one component of the decorative scheme in the most majestic room of all, the Grand Salon.
Situated in the heart of the ship, the Grand Salon—a vast space of seven-hundred cubic meters—was the ideal location for dances and parties. The architects assigned to its décor, Bouwens de Boijen and Roger-Henri Expert, envisioned a dramatic room supported by soaring, gilded columns and gleaming with a sophisticated balance of coral-red, gold and neutral tones. Outfitting the Grand Salon was a multi-artisan effort, but one that was unified with respect to the defined color palette. Wall-relief panels of golden lacquer were supplied by Jean Dunand, as were crimson-lacquered gaming tables; enormous nautical-themed verre églomisé murals by Jean Dupas, tinted with luminous silver, gold and black, were also installed to magnificent effect. To amplify the richness, the architects chose furnishing fabrics that complemented, but did not compete with, the artworks. Emile Gaudissart designed oyster-colored Aubusson upholstery with lush floral motifs as well as a coordinating cover for the dance floor when not in use; plush gray carpeting was laid for the rest of the salon.
It is in Jean Beaumont’s contribution of silk window draperies, however, that the bold red accents in this interior came to life. Though not as well recognized as some of his contemporaries, Beaumont was a talented textile designer working in the Art Deco idiom. Woven by Établissements Cornille—a Parisian firm specializing in furnishing textiles—Beaumont’s lyrical design of meandering wisteria branches cascading with blooms is the epitome of extravagant simplicity. Imbued with luminosity, the silk’s surface is host to a dynamic interplay between creamy satin and the textured pattern rendered in two subtly different shades of red. Voluminous quantities of this silk were required as each of the multiple window treatments used over twenty yards of material. The restrained palette coupled with the sumptuous quality of weaving meant that Beaumont’s silk harmonized seamlessly with the other interior elements.
Successful in projecting a luxurious national image, the Normandie was not the commercial triumph the French had hoped for and only serviced passengers for four years. At the outbreak of war in 1939, the massive cruiser was docked in New York harbor for safety, never to sail again. In December 1941, shortly after the United States’ entry into the war, the Normandie was seized, stripped of its furnishings (many of which now reside in the Metropolitan Museum of Art) and renamed the U.S.S. Lafayette. Two months later, as the task of retrofitting the vessel to accommodate troops began, a fire erupted on board and effectively destroyed the ship. Sadly, in 1946 the grandest ocean liner of the twentieth century was declared surplus and sold for scrap.
This panel—acquired from the Établissements Cornille archive—is possibly the only surviving example of Beaumont’s extraordinary silk. It was featured in the exhibition Paquebot de Legende-Decor de Rêve at the Musée de la Marine, Paris, in 1991–92, catalogue #229. The original draperies in situ are illustrated in Louis-René Vian, Arts Décoratifs à bord des Paquebots Français, 1880–1960 (1992), pp. 196-7.
137" H x 47" W