Gilbert Poillerat

French ironwork of the 1920s, as exemplified in the work of Edgar Brandt, represented a pinnacle of technical achievement and aesthetic expression. Brandt exhibited a natural sense of composition and form which was abetted by his ability to combine artistic ideals with industrial concerns. His prodigious output of objects from fire screens to desk sets set the vogue for stylized evocations of Egyptian, Assyrian and neoclassical motifs. In the second decade of the 20th century, Brandt was the acknowledged master of ferronnier and a major participant in the Exposition des Art Décorotifs et Industriels Modernes of 1925.

In his design atelier, Brandt employed a small number of collaborators. Among them was Gilbert Poillerat, who was destined to take the mantle from Brandt and create an entirely new and refreshing aesthetic. While both men responded vigorously to the technological achievements of the time, Poillerat, who was 22 years younger than Brandt, had a very different set of creative impulses to bring to the art of wrought iron.

Gilbert Poillerat
Pair of armchairs with scalloped aprons, wrought iron, c. 1950. Courtesy: Sotheby’s, London

Gilbert Poillerat was born in 1902 in the small town of Mer, Loir et Cher to a family of millers, many of whom had a strong artistic bent. His father was a painter, and his uncle a calligrapher. His older brother, Maurice, was a Bohemian who became a music hall performer. Young Gilbert, wanting to emulate his father, began to draw at on early age. While he was still a young boy, the family moved to Paris to run a hotel in Passy on the rue Massenet.

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When he was 16 years old, Poillerat entered the Ecole Boulle on the rue de Ruilly, which was a training school for furniture and metal workers. Since Poillerat’s drawings for the entrance examination veered toward metal, a major in sculpture and engraving was chosen. All students took courses in design, theory, modeling, perspective, composition and decoration. For metal majors there were workshops in gold and silver smithing, chasing, engraving, jewelry making, steel engraving, bronze casting, repoussé, hub and die cutting and metal turning.

From 1918 until 1921 Poillerat learned his craft. Master’s diploma in hand, he found a job making gold elements for a jeweler-goldsmith on the rue de la Paix. He soon left for a position with Jeon Dunand, the master of dinanderie and lacquer work. Although Poillerat was well trained in copper work, he found the regime very demanding; Dunand exerted total control of his atelier.

A more favorable opportunity came quickly when Edgar Brandt inquired at the Ecole Boulle for graduates to work in his design atelier. For the next six years Gilbert Poillerat walked 20 minutes every day from his apartment to Brandt’s sumptuous offices, exhibition gallery and workshops on Boulevard Murat. Henri Favier, on Ecole des Beaux-Arts architect, headed the design studio. Pierre Lardin and Henri Martin, also of the Ecole Boulle, rounded out the design staff. Favier was about 20 years older than Poillerat and his co-workers. With his natural charm and classical spirit, the architect was able to temper the younger men’s ardor. In return the three designers helped him discover the avant-garde, cubism and Le Corbusier. Generally there were 20 to 30 welders, blacksmiths, cutters, drillers, chiselers and polishers working in Brandt’s establishment.

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Roses des Vents polished iron grille, Paris, 1929

Poillerat was content because he found that as an ornamentor-creator of ironwork he had the opportunity to design. Some createurs would do a small ironwork design to scale on paper, but Poillerat preferred to make a large drawing. Although he was trained to work the forge, he seldom used it. More frequently he chiseled or engraved something to show the workers the effects he wanted. For the Exposition des Arts Décoratifs et lndustriels Modernes of 1925, Henri Favier and André Ventre were responsible for the Porte d’Honneur. Poillerat designed the connecting central gate of the entrance and a huge chandelier with Sèvres porcelain for the Sèvres pavilion.

In 1927 Poillerat accepted an offer to head a small ferronnerie division for Baudet, Donon et Roussel, a manufacturer of large works such as bridges, power plants and steel girders for buildings. The owners had decided to establish a small ironwork atelier for the prestige it would add to the company. Brandt asked Poillerat to stay on to head his design atelier because Favier was leaving. Poillerat saw a greater advantage with B.D. & R., where he would have a staff of 12 men, complete artistic freedom and no financial worries. He stayed with them until after World War ll.

Poillerat’s first showing in the Solon d’Automne of 1928 was a grille that combined forceful polished steel zigzag bars with the softness of calligraphy-like scrolls. However, it was not until 1929, when Roses des Vents, a wrought iron grille, was exhibited at the Salon des Artistes Décoroteurs, that Poillerat was recognized as a serious designer. The polished iron bars, squiggles, spools and stars in Roses des Vents are humorous evocations of the machine orientation in a newly industrializing society.

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Poillerat’s work stood apart as it broke with the older traditions and style that had been so popular at the Exposition of 1925. Probably his exposure to the avant-garde artists of Montparnasse, the circle of Jean Cocteau, progressive writers such as Jean Giroudoux and André Gide, experimental musicians like Eric Satie, conversations at La Coupale and La Rotande, his friendships with Dora Maar and Charlotte Perriand and his awareness of Le Corbusier’s work led Poillerat to a new way of synthesizing his art. In place of the traditional small, tight C scrolls, he proffered elongated bars of iron that redefined the malleability quotient of wrought iron. Lace-like console tables defied their material. Linear bars of varying thicknesses were combined with geometric shapes and individual accents such as stars, spools and figures. Infused with a sense of movement and energy, Poillerat’s designs opened a new path for ferronnerie.

Since the 1925 Exposition, American department store buyers had been coming to Paris. By 1928 Poillerat was fulfilling orders from Macy’s and Wanamaker’s for fire dogs and other small works in wrought iron. Macy’s ordered his humorous andirons in the form of sailors. Another imaginative pair were mermaids with flying hair, whose art-nègre faces reflect the influence of le jazz hot, the American music that had enveloped Paris.

Mermaid andirons, wrought iron, 1928

At no time did Poillerat sign his ferronnerie with a stamp. He firmly believed that the work itself was a signature, showing as it did the style and quality of the designer. He followed the tradition of Far Eastern artists, who did not sign anything except for the American market, where a signature was expected. Since Edgar Brandt’s work was always being copied, even by his own workers, Brandt had a policy of stamping his objects. Poillerat was not upset when people copied him. He was too eager to move on to the next design.

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In the early days at Baudet, Donon et Roussel. Poillerat introduced a totally new element to wrought iron: calligraphy. A console table of 1929, a bannister (1930) and two radiator covers (1930), all made for the London home of the James Rothschilds, show the beauty of this expression. Poillerat himself traced these light and delicate designs to his early exposure to calligraphy. As a young boy, he had watched his uncle write evangelistic messages that he decorated elaborately and gave to friends to place under their beds for good luck.

To achieve what appeared to be endless curves of iron, Poillerat first drew a pattern in ink, then had a plaster mold of the design made. Next, a blacksmith would heat iron bars and apply them to the plaster so as to bend them to the correct angles; the gypsum would not burn. The bars were then joined by en taille, and the joints welded and polished to hide the seams from all but the expert eye. These lyrical poems in iron offered endless possibilities in the early 1930s.

The range of Poillerat’s commissions were quite varied. Houses of worship always needed such hand-forged items as altars, communion screens, candelabra and gates. Museums also offered commissions to specialists in ferronnerie. In 1932 Poillerat completed a stair railing for the Louvre called the Escalier Daru. It is interesting to note that 22 years earlier Edgar Brandt had completed his first major French commission, the Escalier Mollien, also in the Louvre. While Brandt’s work was steeped in the art nouveau and classical modes, Poillerat’s stairway provided a stark foil for the second century Greek marble Winged Victory, which stood at the top of the stairs. It was only the first of several works that he would make for the Louvre.

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Door for a nursery school, Maisons-Alfort, 1934

In 1934 Poillerat designed the first-class pool for the ill-fated ship Normandie. The room featured six bronze doors: two large doors and four smaller ones. On one side of the pool was a long bar with greenish bronze stools that were affixed to the floor so they could not fall into the pool. Poillerat had recently designed a silver service for Leo Hendrik Baekeland, the inventor of Bakelite plastic, so he wanted to use this material for the pool bar. When it turned out to be too costly, he switched to lacquered wood and settled for using block Bakelite telephones, ashtrays and other small objects. Poillerat also worked with his friend André Arbus on the first-class smoking room for the ship La France.

At the same time that the designer was working on the great ocean liner, he was involved in a charming entrance door for a nursery school in Maisons-Alfort, a town just outside Paris. Divided into eight panels of happy childhood scenes, the door displays Poillerat’s playful sense of humor as well as his command of repoussé. Each little figure has a paper cutout quality that produces sentiments similar to those evoked by children’s drawings. This one-of-a-kind example of ferronnerie shows the flexibility of the designer, his faculty for comprehending the appropriate elements of each commission.

In 1937 Poillerat was working on the Right Bank on the hill of the old Trocadero. There the Palais de Chaillot was being built by the architects Azema and Boileau across from the Eiffel Tower. Poillerat’s six pairs of entrance gates consist of rows of heavy bands of iron used horizontally and alternated with 18 protruding semicircles paired in threes. One is reminded of Louise Nevelson’s block box collages, in which the dramatic ploy of light is as striking as it is on these iron gates. The fact that the gates are freestanding must have been an important design consideration. By juxtaposing curved protrusions against horizontal bands, Poillerat achieved a three-dimensional effect. In much the some way that one walks completely around a piece of sculpture, one has the desire to swing open the doors and have a look at the other side.

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Beginning in 1937 and throughout the 1940s and early 1950s, Poillerat designed many aspects of the couture solon of his friend Jacques Heim on the rue Matignon near the Champs Elysées. His painted, gilded and patinated iron took the form of doorknobs, stair rails, boutique signs and fanciful planters. In later years Poillerat painted iron furniture white and achieved an airy foil for Heim’s full-skirted dresses. In 1950 he created a painted and gilded wrought iron boutique sign that epitomizes his unique style: a heart-shaped pair of feminine eyeglasses hanging from a star attached to a spool of thread. In addition, Poillerat designed several collections of jewelry for Jacques Heim’s boutique.

La Forêt, wrought iron and marble table made for a hunting lodge, 1942

The boutique sign can be linked to a surrealist tendency in the designer’s work during the previous decade. Perhaps the finest example of surrealism in ironwork can be seen in a large table called La Forêt. Poillerat utilized symbolic imagery in an untraditional collage that makes up the base of the table. The side supports incorporate animal skulls with fantastic antlers that are tied to scrolled stakes with thick coiled cord and tassels. Behind the skulls are hunting horns that pull the eye toward bare tree branches, the focal point of the central support.

After the war Poillerat started his own company, which operated in Montrouge, a suburb of Paris. Because Baudet, Donon et Roussel did very large works, Poillerat often used them to execute oversized commissions. Thus, after years of working for B.D. & R., he became their client.

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Always known for his innovative use of materials, Poillerat was the first to use stainless steel in his designs instead of wrought iron. He also liked to gild bronze or apply gold leaf to wrought iron and would combine polished steel and gilded bronze for a table or bed frame. Many pieces were patinated with a greenish hue, and candelabra were often made of a combination of polished iron and silvered iron.

In his work of the 1940s and 1950s, Poillerat used many motifs culled from his vast knowledge of historical architecture and design. Some favorites were rope (rococo, régence); tassels (directoire); globes and astrolabes (world symbols); flames (fire, light, warmth); sunbursts (Louis XIV); feathers (symbols of writing, art); and bows and arrows (symbols of strength and love). Poillerat employed half-circles, hearts, triangles, tassels, rope, acanthus cups and leaves, and spinning top shapes in countless combinations, never repeating the same design. In the late 1950s he incorporated real shells and ostrich eggs into lamps and other pieces, as had been done in the 18th century. By the end of the 1950s his work became more geometric; squares and rectangles were made of thinner rods of steel. Table bases were variations of H and double U forms.

It was after the war as well that Poillerat assumed another career challenge. In 1946 the minister of the Beaux-Arts offered him a post as professor of the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Art Decoratifs. He designed a program for teaching art history to future decorators and decorative artists. It emphasized antiquity but also included the present. Poillerat took his students to the studios of contemporary artists, which was a new idea at the time. He became one of the most popular teachers at the school, where he remained for 26 years. While carrying out his professorial duties, he continued to design jewelry, wrought iron, bronze and silver.

One of six pairs of gates, wrought iron, Palais de Chaillot, Paris, 1937. Photo: Joan Kahr

In addition to designing for such national monuments as the Louvre, the Biblio-thèque Nationale and the Palais de Chaillot, Poillerat worked on projects for the Archives Nationales, the Arts et Métiers, the Mobilier National, the Nacker Museum, the Salpêtrière, the Maison de la Radio, the Rouen theater, the Monument of the Deportées in Marseille and the Chamber of Commerce in Nantes. He also designed the Jeanne d’Arc bridge in Rouen and the Joinville Bridge. His characteristic style could be seen as well on guard roils for the Eiffel Tower.

Gilbert Poillerat saw the best of times for the art of ferronnerie. For half a century, from 1921 to 1971, he practiced his principal art form – designing for wrought iron and all its applications. He enriched every facet of the metal arts with humor, originality and passion for the medium. Somewhere in the south of France is a bronze tree filled with birds that he designed for the outside of a friend’s house. Although it is only one of thousands of objects that are part of the ferronnier’s legacy, the flourishing tree with visible strong roots seems a fitting remembrance for the nature-loving artist. Like the tree, Poillerat absorbed the fertile soil of his metier – its traditions and its technical advances. Like the tree, he moved toward the sunlight, growing in ability and spreading beauty.

Joan Kahr is a decorative arts historian based in Woodmore, NY, who focuses on the disciplines of blacksmithing and metalsmithing.