Influential Interior: Christian Bérard's Decor for Guerlain

Influential Interior: Christian Bérard's Decor for Guerlain

Anna Hoffman
May 26, 2011

Occasionally, historical interiors have a power that extends far beyond their own walls. One such space is at the Institut Guerlain in Paris, a place that you probably haven't been to, but that has had a deep and abiding influence on interior design. Let's take a look at the space, its surprising use of materials, and some of the contemporary reflections of its impact.

Jean-Michel Frank is known for his simple, utilitarian furniture — we looked at his role in the development of the Parsons Table a few weeks ago. But emphasizing the spare forms of Frank's furniture obscures the luxurious, even surrealist whimsy that defined much of his work. Commissioned to design the interiors for the Institut Guerlain in 1939, Frank hired the painter Christian Bérard, to design trompe-l'oeil paneling.

Bérard was prolific, a frequent collaborator on Frank's interior designs, a fashion illustrator for Coco Chanel, Elsa Schiaparelli (who had Frank decorate both her home and showroom), and Nina Ricci (image 3). Bérard was also a renowned designer for the stage, creating sets and costumes for theater and ballet (image 4), as well as the stunning 1946 film version of La Belle et la Bête by Jean Cocteau. Incidentally, Bérard and his partner were among the very few openly gay men at the time.

For the Institut Guerlain, Bérard painted designs for faux panels and architectural details for the walls. He used white, black, mauve and grey to suggest shadows and light in three dimensions.

But then it got really crazy.

Working from Bérard's designs, a textile artist and frequent Frank collaborator named Margarita Classen-Smith cut appropriately-colored grosgrain to resemble Bérard's brushstrokes and actually appliquéd it onto yellow felt! The result (which is still extant, and I may have to make a pilgrimage) is a double-play, then, both a flat representation of three dimensions and a 3D 'sculpture' that resembles paint!

Whimsical and elegant, the design captures a certain pre-war innocence that we can imagine was quickly ebbing in Paris. It was also probably the last collaboration among the three artists, since Frank soon fled to Argentina and then committed suicide a couple years later.

Many designers and decorators have taken inspiration from this Guerlain interior, including the British wallpaper house Fromental, whose "Bérard" wallcovering is embroidered 'paneling' on a velvet ground (image 5).

If you have an artistic bent and a steady hand, whimsical trompe-l'oeil panels might even be a reasonable DIY project, especially if you like the style of Bérard's loose brushstrokes. Anyone want to undertake this project and send in some pix?

1 1939 Photo of the Guerlain showroom, via
2 The Guerlain mural, via Peak of Chic
3 An undated Christian Bérard illustration of Schiaparelli beachwear, via venetianred
4 Bérard's 1935 set design for Margot, via venetianred
5 Fromental's new Bérard wallcovering in embroidered velvet, via Peak of Chic. Not yet available from Fromental.
6 Temo Callahan's kitchen, photographed by Paul Costello for Domino, via Nick Olsen's blog
7 A Lichten Craig bedroom with white-on-white painted trompe-l'oeil paneling
8 Delightfully sketchy painted paneling in a John Barman interior, via Little House Well Done
9 Suzanne Rheinstein's boutique, Hollyhock, with trompe-l'oeil paneling and other architectural details by Paulin Paris
10 A Bel-Air interior painted by Paulin Paris

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