In 1924, Marcel L'Herbier, patron saint of French avant-garde silent films, enlisted architect Robert Mallet-Stevens to design a melodramatic abode for the wealthy backers of his futuristic film, L'Inhumaine. The film boasts a veritable who's-who of design elite: Pierre Chareau aided Mallet-Stevens, glassmaker René Lalique devised props, couturier Paul Poiret fashioned a Picasso-esque wardrobe for the cast, and artist-designer Fernand Léger was tasked with the crown jewel of the film—the scientific laboratory. L'Inhumaine's unwieldy plot and cringeworthy dialogue are redeemed by—what else?—a bona fide smorgasbord of auspicious experimentations from a set of designers on the precipice of greatness.
Groomed by directors like Man Ray, Mallet-Stevens' peculiar approach to design garnered him over twenty film credits. His philosophy was like no other: preaching vehemently that each space should be staged according to the specific psychological conditions of each character.
Marked by prismatic angles and warped geometries, the orthogonal home in L'humaine's was nothing short of otherworldly. The late Italian critic and architect Manfredo Tafuri aptly summarizes, "The house of the leading character is one of the finest examples of that scenographic and eclectic synthesis of Cubist, Neo-Plasticist, and Art Deco details of which Mallet-Stevens' architecture is compounded."
Mallet-Stevens, who is all too frequently compared to Le Corbusier, actually had very little in common with the bespectacled modernist. A disciple of the De Stijl movement and a champion of Piet Mondrian's Neo-plasticity, there was nothing austere about his work. Although we remember him largely as an architect, his eclectic career bristles at such a reductive notion.
Embracing his reputation as a "dandy modernist," Mallet-Stevens was deeply embroiled in French bohemian circles—enlisting the help of Eileen Gray on his home for art dealer Vicomte de Noailles, tapping Claude Debussy for the first issue of a self-published magazine, while summoning Charlotte Perriand and Jean Prouvé to his invite-only arts society. For a brief time, the world seemed to revolve around the charismatic Robert Mallet-Stevens.
From cubist follies for the wealthy to irreverent window displays, Mallet-Stevens leaves behind a complex legacy that was largely forgotten until an early aughts retrospective at the Centre Pompidou, when his work finally received a long overdue hat tip. However, the only one who can be blamed for that is, surprisingly, Robert Mallet-Stevens himself. After his death, the entirety of archives were incinerated at his behest. In an 2005 article, Domus also notes that he passed away "just before major postwar construction began to take place, not in time to leave behind a theoretical work to assure his place in the archives."
· Robert Mallet-Stevens and Fernand Léger, modernist set designs for L'Inhumaine (1924) [The Charnal House]
· London Festival Celebrates Role of Design in L'Herbier's Films [The New York Times]