Line Vautrin is a name I'd heard for years before realizing that it belonged to a) a person, not a company (I was confusing the name Line, pronounced LEEN, with the word Ligne, pronounced LEEN-ye); and b) a fascinating designer whose work warranted more exploration. Let's take a closer look at this underexposed, brilliant 20th century artist.
Line Vautrin was born in Paris in 1913 to a family of metalworkers (image 2). She began making her own pieces as a child, and produced a collection of gilt bronze costume jewelry when she was only 15. Bold and self-assured even in her youth, Vautrin worked as a greeter at Elsa Schiaparelli's Paris boutique, but lasted only four days, apparently unwilling to take orders even from the famous designer. Vautrin soon decided that her only path was to work for herself, so she devoted herself to honing her skills and developing her aesthetic.
When she was 20, she took her collection door-to-door, selling her unusual costume jewelry (bracelets "like big napkin rings," in her words) to the chic ladies of Paris. In 1937, she took a booth in the International Exposition in Paris, where she developed enough of a following to warrant renting a tiny showroom near the Champs Elysées. Just a few years later, she moved into a large atelier in the Marais and opened a boutique in the Faubourg St. Honoré. Her metal buttons and jewelry, ashtrays and cigarette cases tapped into a desire for luxury and whimsy that gripped Paris in the wartime and post-war years (images 3-4).
In the 1950s, Vautrin started experimenting with a new kind of resinous material called cellulose acetate, which she dubbed "Talosel," an acronym she derived from the French term for the material: aceTAte de celluLOSe ELaboré. She worked with Talosel the way she worked with metal, melting it down and forming it into unusual shapes and ornaments, yielding a result that was strangely primitive, like medieval objects in a church treasury, and yet totally unique and unusual.
It was around this time that Vautrin began producing her famous mirrors, ringed in bronze and Talosel in exuberant shapes (images 6,7, 9-15). These mirrors were inspired in part by the art of ancient Greece and Byzantium, by medieval and Renaissance art, natural forms, mythology and the occult. Vautrin was still designing and creating these pieces, but she had an atelier full of skilled artisans to help her, as well. The process of creating the mirrors had many stages, including making the mirrors, tinting them, molding the Talosel, and embedding smaller mirror fragments into it.
In 1967, Vautrin opened A.D.A.M., the Association for the Development of the Manual Arts, which was essentially a craft school based out of the building where she lived on the Left Bank. There she and her daughter taught metalworking and jewelry making, and sold raw materials, like mirror pieces and sheets of Talosel. The school was well attended, and Vautrin enjoyed teaching, but she never revealed the secret techniques she used in her own creations.
Vautrin gained notice outside of France in the 1980s. Since her 1997 death, auction prices for her work have reached tremendous heights. You can see Line Vautrin's influence in the current vogue for sunburst mirrors, but most of the knockoffs don't really approach the sense of surprise and luxury that her originals carried.
Sources: The best source for info and images on Line Vautrin is the official website, complete with personal photographs and a complete biography. They're not cheap, but you can find Line Vautrin originals on 1stdibs. I focused almost exclusively on mirrors and furnishing in my images, but if you want to see some of Vautrin's incredible jewelry (as well as more of her work in general), there are great images in the lot archives at Christie's and Sotheby's. If you find yourself in Paris (take me with you!) the Galerie Chastel-Maréchal has several amazing Vautrin pieces — I wandered in a few years ago and the gallerist was incredibly kind and informative, even while disappointing me with the astronomical prices of Vautrin originals.
Images: 1 laurapreshong.com; 2 Official Line Vautrin website; 3 Christie's; 4-6 line-vautrin.fr; 7 topsyturvystyle.com; 8 Pieter Estersohn for Elle Decor; 9 Vogue via Habitually Chic; 10-15 Galerie Chastel-Maréchal.