The antiques from the late ship Normandie are the Rembrandts for people interested in art deco collectibles.
It’s logical. The ship, its decor, and furniture reflected everything stylish, sophisticated, forward-thinking, and French when it was launched in the age of grand style, a decade after the successful exposition of modern design at the 1925 Paris exhibition. The Normandie, the pride of the French line, was a floating palace with no design detail missed.
Then, a tragedy added poignancy to the romance while also fuelling a future collecting frenzy. The Normandie was towed into New York Harbour on February 9, 1942, to be stripped and converted into a troop carrier. It capsised after being burned at Pier 88. Fortunately, many of her belongings, such as silver and china, gigantic glass paintings, chairs and tables, bronze doors, and statues, were already in storage. In 1944, a public auction of Normandie effects was held. From that sale, items have been passed down through generations of collectors.
Many artefacts from Normandie are still on show at museums. A waiter’s costume, a silver cigarette dispenser, presentation medals, and a souvenir candy box are the items on display. The Normandie was a floating art deco palace in the making. The most magnificent object retrieved is a sculpture demonstrating how much high Deco style owes to classical design and has been on display at the Fontainebleau Hilton hotel since 1954. It’s the enormous bronze sculpture of La Normandie, the personification of a Norman peasant girl, which used to stand at the top of the stairwell in the boat deck’s smoking room. It gives an excellent impression of Normandie’s public rooms’ size.
The graceful maiden is one of just two giant statues that have ever been mounted on the ship—the maquette for the third, which will be located on the sundecks. Carlo Sarrabezolles created this painting to represent the sea’s spirit. It was too heavy for the deck, and it now stands outside the Compagnie Generale Tratlantique (CGT) offices in Le Havre.
Other silver pieces were designed by Jean Puiforcat, one of the most renowned French silversmiths of the time, and the Christofle Firm, which supplied silverplate flatware and serving pieces to numerous French line ships. The Normandie was supplied with glassware by the Lalique business. The manufacturers of Haviland porcelain commissioned Suzanne Lalique, daughter of the company founder Rene, to design the dinnerware for several dining rooms.
French National Symbol
The oceanliner was a metal frame encasing elegance. It was a French national symbol that sailed into foreign ports carrying a diverse collection of people suspended in time and space for 5 to 8 days. It was enjoyable to cross the Atlantic. Music was played, and many waved streamers as his ship sailed. Unlike a modern cruise, where the ship is the primary destination, a classic line voyage is a serendipity, a means to an end that takes on a life of its own.
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Named after the International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts held in Paris in 1925, art deco can be seen as a successor to and a reaction against art nouveau. Seen in furniture, pottery, textiles, jewellery, glass etc. it was also a notable style of cinema and hotel architecture.
Ruhlmann used the same basic motif-a stylized Cedar of Lebanon tree set within an irregular circle-on this textile and related wallpaper (MMA 2005.334), though on the textile each motif is offset by an added circle of dots. The pattern was produced in alternate colorways.