Jean-Michel Frank - Design London Thursday, May 12, 2022 | Phillips

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  • The Frank Light

    By Laurence Benaïm, Author of Jean-Michel Frank: Le Chercheur de Silence


    A block of rock crystal, simply connected by an electric thread. Ethereally useful and functionally luminous. For many years, the present table lamp by Jean-Michel Frank sat on his friend Alice Cerf’s piano in her hôtel particulier on rue de Babylone in Paris. Nearly a century after it was created, it still retains a remarkable aura. In ancient times, rock crystal was believed to be formed from frozen mountain water. With Frank, crystal becomes a talisman again. While his contemporaries reduced a lamp’s functionality to the rigour of pure linearity, Frank surpassed it; in seeking truth in sensation, raw emotion, in the silence of a meteor fallen from the sky.


    A burst of heavenly glory. 
    And from distant shores, harmonious chords 
    Reach us

    - Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass 


    This could be the reason why, beyond its function and decorative quality, this lamp haloes the present moment with a unique light. Minerals inspire contemplation, as they did at the beginning and at the end of time. Here, the stone becomes the skin of light, it is indestructible and yet trembles with fragility. It is almost as if, at the peak of civilisation, the Middle-Eastern belief of invisibility was made possible. This lamp is the sun of the night, the ‘Frank light’, a look that has since become a style. 


    A French interior featuring a similar example of the rock crystal table lamp
    Photo: Pierre-Emmanuel Martin-Vivier, Jean-Michel Frank: L’Étrange Luxe du Rien, Paris, 2006


    ‘Jean-Michel Frank and Alice Cerf were friends. They shared a meditative detachment, an aesthetic of disappearance and absolute, unfettered taste. When I was in her home, I physically felt surrounded by a haze of freedom’, recalls Alice Cerf’s great-nephew who is offering this extraordinary object at auction. It is the first example to appear on the market since 2018, preceded only by very few others in the history of auctions, including one in the Yves Saint Laurent collection sale (2009) and the Jacques Grange collection sale (2017). Its presence defies time, fashions, and the constraints of movements and schools.


    As the son of German Jews who settled in France before the First World War, Jean‐Michel Frank was part of the bourgeoisie that was integrated by the Third Republic. Studying in the renowned school of Janson-de-Sailly, he befriended René Crevel who introduced him to Drieu la Rochelle. Alongside these young writers in the making, Frank chose to pursue interior decoration. He soon invented his refined and stripped-down style which contrasted with the heavy aesthetic that had triumphed until then. Marie-Laure and Charles de Noailles called on him to transform the Salons of the hôtel particulier at no. 4, Place des États-Unis. A minimalist ahead of this time, he worked in new ways with straw marquetry, parchment, or gypsum. He stripped woodwork down, favoured stone, terracotta, bronze, and natural harmonies. With Jean‐Michel Frank, it is revolution of decorative art that is at play. 

    Personalities as diverse as Cole Porter, François Mauriac – who called him ‘doctor Frank’ – Elsa Schiaparelli or Nelson Rockefeller called upon his talent. His ‘partners in crime’ in his design circle were Francis Poulenc, Christian Bérard and Alberto Giacometti. Separately from other key figures of Art Déco, such as Jacques-Émile Ruhlmann, Jean-Michel Frank loosened the constraints of what constituted ‘good taste’ by sending all the Empire clocks, wedding gifts and family portraits to the attic. Instead, he reduced or condensed everything, until he extracted the elixir of taste from his motionless travels. An opulent bareness that further contrasted with the varnished surfaces of the other masters of Art Déco. Frank's creations, of an almost abstract and disembodied purity, sometimes evoke a dress yet to be worn. If Gabrielle Chanel made short haircuts and black dresses fashionable, it was Jean-Michel Frank who had stripped down interiors. ‘He has decorated my parents' apartment, rue Oswaldo Cruz’, further recalls Alice Cerf’s great-nephew, ‘I remember this water-based faux wood painting. He had an extraordinary culture, and this absolute sense of proportions; but knew how to free himself from it, time after time, to rediscover the essence of the world’.

    • Provenance

      Alice Cerf, Paris
      Thence by descent to the great-nephew of the above

    • Literature

      Waldemar George, 'Jean-Michel Frank', Art et Décoration, Paris, no. 65, March 1936, p. 93 for a similar example
      Pierre-Emmanuel Martin-Vivier, Jean-Michel Frank: L’Étrange Luxe du Rien, Paris, 2006, pp. 78, 129, 225, 279 for similar examples
      Pierre-Emmanuel Martin-Vivier, Jean-Michel Frank: Un Décorateur dans le Paris des Années 30, Paris, 2009, p. 83 for a similar example
      Léopold Diego Sanchez, Jean-Michel Frank, Paris, 2017, pp. 106, 126, 128, 129, 136, 210, 247, 285 for similar examples

    • Artist Biography

      Jean-Michel Frank

      French • 1895 - 1941

      Working in Paris, New York and Argentina, Jean-Michel Frank designed subtle, exquisitely proportioned furniture and lighting for sophisticated interiors. His elite roster of patrons included the vicomte Charles de Noailles, the businessman and politician Nelson A. Rockefeller, the couturier Elsa Schiaparelli and the perfumer Guerlain, among many others. Against the backdrop of the interwar period, Frank designed calm, subdued interiors that offered refuge from the chaotic world. His furniture, which was often clad in vellum, bleached leather or shagreen, featured clean lines and served to complement the art collections of his clients, which included works by Picasso, Léger and Matisse.

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Unique table lamp

circa 1929
Rock crystal, gilded bronze.
22.8 cm (8 7/8 in.) high
Together with a certificate of authenticity from the Comité Jean-Michel Frank.

Full Cataloguing

£150,000 - 250,000 Ω

Sold for £403,200

Contact Specialist

Antonia King

Head of Sale, Design
+44 20 7901 7944


London Auction 12 May 2022