Serge Mouille (1922-1988) was a Parisian metalworker famous for his timeless mid-century lighting designs
The sculptural, modern lighting fixtures of Serge Mouille keep appearing in stylish interiors, and with good reason. Versatile and elegant, fresh and expressive, Mouille’s designs have not aged a day since they were first introduced in 1953. Let’s take a look at this iconic designer and his most famous designs.
Serge Mouille (pronounced Moo-EEy) was born in Paris in 1922. When he was 13 he enrolled in the École des Arts Appliqués (School of Applied Arts) where he trained to be a silver- and goldsmith. After apprenticing for many years alongside Gabriel Lacroix, a famous Parisian silversmith, Mouille opened his own practice, where he handmade silver flatware and other metalware.
By the early 1950s, Mouille had become the head of the silversmithing department at the School of Applied Arts, and was working in different metals and idioms as well. In 1952 or ‘53, the famous designer Jacques Adnet approached Mouille and asked him to design a modern floor lamp that would look good in the large open spaces of the homes of Adnet’s South American clients. Adnet and Mouille were both evidently disdainful of what they called the “too complicated” lighting designs coming out of Italy in the early ‘50s. In reaction, Mouille created his three-arm floor lamp (images 3 & 4).
With this lamp, Mouille established design precedents that remained consistent through the remainder of his career. Most prominent, of course, is the unique shape of the metal lamphead of most of Mouille’s lamps, which is oblong and organic-looking, and topped by what can only be described as (ahem) a nipple. What this nipple allowed was for the wiring and hardware of the light bulb to be recessed inside, maximizing the reflective surface of the inside of the lamp head (images 1-5). Other Mouille lampheads took different forms, including snails (image 6) or ovoid shapes (image 7).
Mouille’s most famous lighting fixtures were handmade in black-lacquered aluminum lampheads on tubular steel supports, and were assembled with distinctive 6-sided screws and brass ball-and-socket joints. Mouille's intent was that the brass would oxidize to a brown-bronze patina. The arms of Mouille’s lamps join elegantly to the main ‘trunk’ support, so the profile of even the largest lamps can be minimized. The legs of his floor and table lamps branch out, clawlike, into a three-legged support that gives the pieces a sense of personality and whimsy. These lamps have been described as "insect-like."
In the early 1960s, Mouille produced a new series of lamps. These “Colonnes,” lights were, as their name suggests, columns of anodized aluminum (image 8). Resembling skyscrapers lit from within, the Colonnes made use of new developments in tubular lighting. It was Mouille’s last public designs.
A longtime sufferer of tuberculosis, Mouille stopped producing his lighting and got intensive treatment. He devoted the rest of his life to teaching at the École des Arts Appliqués, and producing one-of-a-kind work like jewelry and decorative arts. He died in 1988.
Mouille’s work is very popular and there isn’t very much of it, so originals are very expensive. Lately, his family has begun making new editions of Mouille’s most famous designs, using the same materials, molds and tools as the originals. These are available through Guéridon in the United States.
The Brooklyn-based designer David Weeks makes a line of lighting fixtures (among many other gorgeous products) that clearly pay homage to Mouille (image 9). I could never tell the difference, but now that I take the time, I realize how distinct Weeks’ designs are from the Mouille classics. Instead of Mouille’s “nipple” shape, Weeks’ lampheads either have an almost avian feel, with a pointed end, or they have more regular geometric forms. Weeks’ standing lamps are also very different, with separate arms that are joined using hardware, instead of soldered together like Mouille’s. See the difference?
Images: 1 Simon Upton for Elle Decor; 2 Design Within Reach; 3 Solid Frog via From the Right Bank; 4 Melanie Acevedo for Domino, via Bride's; 5 Metropolitan Home via Dwell Studio's Blog; 6 & 7 sergemouilleusa.com; 8 Guéridon on 1st Dibs; 9 David Weeks Studio; 10 via Dwell Studio's Blog.
Sources: You can buy original Serge Mouille lighting — if you can find it, and if you can afford it (recent auction prices at Sotheby's were around $50,000 for lighting, $150,000 for Mouille's rare furniture). Or you can buy authorized editions of his original designs, made using the same materials, tools and molds. These are available through Guéridon. The most famous models are available at Design Within Reach, where there is a 15%-off lighting sale through November 9th.