A prominent member of the prestigious Société des Artistes Décorateurs, a group formed in 1901 to foreground French design, Chareau was nevertheless forced into exile by the Nazi Occupation, spending his final years in obscurity in New York.
Born in 1883 in Bordeaux, where his father was a wine merchant, Chareau started out as an apprentice tracer at the Paris outpost of Waring & Gillow, a British furniture and design firm, rising to become lead designer.
In 1924 he set up on his own, selling soft furnishings and his innovative furniture and lighting. His combinations of wood and metal, rough and subtle, French decorative arts opulence and industrial Modernism earned him the swift and fervent support of Paris’s upper middle class, several of whose apartment interiors he designed.
Chareau also designed for filmmakers and theatre, collaborating with the architect Robert Mallet-Stevens on furniture for director Marcel L’Herbier’s films, and stage sets for Merchant of Paris at the Comédie Française in 1929.
Together with his wife, Dollie, Chareau championed and collected modern art, hosting salons for artists, writers and musicians. He also sought out and worked with artisans, especially ironsmith Louis Dalbet, his co-collaborator on the Maison de Verre.
Commissioned in 1928 by Dr Jean Dalsace and his wife, Annie, the Maison was built into a three-story space carved underneath an existing 18th-century hotel particulier (the top-floor occupant refused to move). Its glass-block and steel façade concealed an ingenious interior of interlocking forms, such as sliding soundproof doors, rolling ladders and retractable staircases.
For the space, Chareau also designed chairs, stools and desks for the house, including the wood-and-metal desk MB405, a coat rack, a game table and a telephone booth with an automatic light. The Maison’s furniture and the Dalsaces’ art collection were sold at Christie’s Paris in October 2021.
Chareau's ascent came to an abrupt halt when he and Dollie fled Paris for New York in 1940. There, Chareau became friendly with artist Robert Motherwell, who commissioned him to design a radical home-cum-studio in East Hampton using surplus Quonset huts (a prefabricated portable structure designed to be shipped in pieces to military outposts) that Motherwell had acquired from the Navy. Showcased in Harper’s Bazaar, the house wasn’t favourably received.
Indeed, Chareau struggled to find work in America, and he and Dollie came to rely on giving cooking lessons to wealthy Americans and selling their art collection — including a Modigliani sculpture to the Museum of Modern Art. In 1950, though, a proposal Chareau pitched to them for a show of his works was rejected, and he died later that year, disappearing from architectural history until 1966, when Richard Rogers wrote about him for Domus magazine.
LAMPADAIRE 'RELIGIEUSE SN31', LE MODÈLE CRÉE EN 1923, CELUI-CI EXÉCUTÉ VERS 1927
BERGÈRE ‘MF 1002’, LE MODÈLE CRÉÉ VERS 1924-1927
BUREAU 'MT 876', DIT 'DACTYLO' OU 'BUREAU DE SECRÉTAIRE', PIÈCE UNIQUE, ET SON TABOURET ‘SN3’, VERS 1927