I’d be bored living all in the eighteenth century. I’m a twentieth-century eclectic. –Henri Samuel
Although considered one of the most influential decorators of the last century and revered in his native France, Henri Samuel has been known to only a few on the North American continent. His natural discretion and a clientele that demanded privacy have ensured that the deserved recognition has eluded him. A new book is sure to change that.
Henri Samuel: Master of the French Interior by art historian Emily Evans Eerdmans provides a comprehensive view of Samuel’s life and oeuvre through the rooms he created for his clients and for his own homes. The book opens with forewords by designer Jacques Grange, who interned with Samuel for three years at the beginning of his career, and Eva Samuel, architect and niece of Henri, whose childhood reminiscences are poetically rendered and evocative.
Samuel’s early life prepared him to move with ease among his clientele. He enjoyed a privileged childhood in a family who were prosperous members of the Jewish bourgeoisie (although the family later lost its fortune). A grandmother who was an antique dealer exposed him to that world. His father was a banker, and at the age of 16, Henri embarked on a two-year banking internship in New York, where he perfected his English and returned to Paris knowing that he wanted to work in the field of interior decoration.
In 1925, he joined the legendary Paris-based Maison Jansen, considered the first interior design house with an international presence. There, he worked as assistant to the distinguished Stéphane Boudin (best known to Americans for coordinating with Jacqueline Kennedy on the restoration of the White House during the Kennedy administration). After World War II,, he worked for many years at the head of Alavoine until it closed its doors in 1966. In 1970, he opened his own shop in his home on the rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, where he remained until his retirement in 1986.
A Samuel interior was comfortable while often extravagantly glamorous, with elements such as a saturation of color and sumptuous fabrics. It is a decorative style that features the juxtaposition of contemporary design with 18th-century furniture and works of art. The seamless mixing of periods and genres is a counterpoint to today’s neutral, bare bones interiors. In the 1960’s, Samuel began to commission designers such as Philippe Hiquily, Guy de Rougemont, or Diego Giacometti to create furniture for his rooms. Samuel is considered a master of le goût Rothschild.
His client list was stellar and international — the couturier Valentino, socialites Jayne Wrightsman and Susan Gutfreund, a few Agnellis and a handful of Rothschilds. He was a natural choice for Marie-Hélêne de Rothschild for the restoration of Château de Ferrières and, in fact, she considered no other decorator. Such was his skill and knowledge of history that he was hired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art as a consultant for the installation of its period rooms. The Château de Versailles hired him twice as a consultant — for the restoration of the Empire Rooms and for that of the Grand Trianon.
Jacques Grange described the atmosphere in the office as structured and formal, a professional environment. It was, he said “the place where I really learned what quality is.”
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Emily Evans Eerdmans is the founder of Eerdmans Fine Art and the author of several books, including The World of Madeleine Castaing and Mario Buatta: Fifty Years of American Interior Design, as well as the catalogue raisonnée of furniture designer Wendell Castle. Jacques Grange has been one of the foremost French designers for more than four decades. Eva Samuel is a noted architect and the niece of Henri Samuel.
The book may be purchased here or support your local bookstore.
Image credits: © Henri Samuel: Master of the French Interior by Emily Evans Eerdmans, Rizzoli New York, 2018