A detailed and historically informative interview this week with designer and writer Maureen Footer, author of the new book, Dior and His Decorators: Victor Grandpierre, Georges Geffroy, and the New Look (Vendome). Meticulously researched and replete with glamorous illustration, it tells the story of how the fashion design legend, Christian Dior combined forces with two very different Parisian interior designers to create the iconic post-war 1950s New Look in both clothes and interiors.
We’ll get to the book but you’re not decorating anymore. Did you just decide you had had enough?
I am not decorating … it was really that the demands of the book are so unpredictable and there’s always a deadline. And I wasn’t just slapping together a monograph—there was research and real historic content. The Dior book required going to Paris at least once a month for research. I worked on trying to get an interview with Pierre Bergé [the long-time partner of Dior’s successor, Yves St Laurent] for months and when he said yes, it was like, “You name your date and I’ll be there!” And these research trips take weeks to set up. Everything is as tightly scheduled as possible. Then you come back and you have to write all the thank you notes. I just realized I couldn’t do everything.
How long were you working on the book?
It was about four years. Mainly it was the research. Once you have the story and you kind of have the structure you can get going … but I’m not good with the blank page!
What would you say the story is?
Well there are like four stories going on there. The primary story is that every dress and every room has a history and it connects you to a point in time. And it wasn’t surprising that given that Dior had this close relationship with these interior designers [Victor Grandpierre and Georges Geffroy]—Dior had wanted to be an architect—he was very sensitive to his interiors. There are these interiors that developed with the same sort of inspiration as his clothes. We’ve got these two mediums going in parallel—that was sort of the exploration, that synergy between couture and interiors.
What did you discover?
One of the things I really loved is that these three men, [Victor Grandpierre, Georges Geffroy and Dior] were all trained as modernists, Dior was a contemporary art gallerist and he studied musical composition; Victor Grandpierre had been a photo-journalist and Georges Geffroy had done set design and graphic design. They had broad culture and they had all developed a modern eye. They were looking at the past through a modernist lens and making things that were relevant to the moment.
How would you characterize that particular filter—how did recast say the 18th century or Empire furniture they were using, for example?
There were really two things going on, I think. One was simply that these fellows were all born at the turn of the twentieth century and they were adolescents during World War One, so their formative years were [filled with] all the exoticism of Bakst and Poiret and then the 1920s, which was all enchanted with aviation and technology and thinking this was a key to a better life, streamlined, pared down. Then came the crash, and then this pared-down baroque à la Cecil Beaton. So they kept on seeing different elements re-cast and pared down. They brought that “pared-down-ess”.
Can you suggest some examples?
Dior’s haute couture interiors with—in the book I used the Hôtel de Crillon Room at the Met as an example—the color has been drained out of it; the number of decorative elements are really judiciously stripped out and then perfectly put back but with much less surface decoration. If you look at say, Cecil Beaton and his faux-baroque thing, you see them working with that too. The other thing that is happening in post-war Paris, even though Paris was really challenged by World War Two in every way … it was still Paris. All these internationals with money were getting toeholds, if not primary residences, in Paris, and they were insisting on English bathrooms or American notions of comfort. They loved French things but they didn’t have this reverence that a French person has, where this goes with this. They broke the rules. So it was two things, the arc of the twentieth century and Internationalism coming to roost in design.
Do you think Dior and these decorators were conscious of trying to revive or even reassert French cultural superiority?
Well, I don’t think so. It wasn’t like the Chamber of Commerce … for Dior I don’t think he cared so much for reviving it but he realized that there were these craft industries, all this beading, the flowers, the boning, the techniques that came from Versailles and Worth or whatever. They had really disappeared in the corset-less, bias cut, flapper styles and if Dior hadn’t rescued them, who knows if they would have just completely atrophied and died?
So it seems that they were also reacting against the boxy clothes of the 1940s, and the drabness of the interiors too, perhaps, the whole drab post-war weariness.
Yes, in that boxy 1940s line you just see that whole militaristic spirit through it. It looks like a WAC uniform. But that was wartime design. The other thing interesting thing, very much Victor Grandpierre and Dior, they grew up in this haute bourgeois climate in Paris and they knew all of that optimism and graciousness of pre-war life. [However] Dior’s father went bankrupt with the [1930s] crash and Dior was “homeless”, diplomatically sleeping on friends’ sofas for years. So that [period prior to losing money] was always this golden age I think he was trying to create for himself.
How did he live then?
He believed in proper French cuisine. He set his table—kind of an austere but very correct, traditional French way. Chanel was truly more modern … as women tend to be when it comes to women’s clothes.
Do you see his style and what he wanted as escapist?
It was certainly dreamy. It was certainly romantic and I think that was part of the incredible success of the New Look. After deprivation and in this uncertainty when men were gone and now [they were back] and things were flirty and sexy and [his designs] suddenly signaled “the war is over.” I think everybody responded to it.
Did it trickle down to what we would now call “the high street”?
Absolutely. I was just talking to Harold Koda [formerly] from the Costume Institute and Dior’s biographer, Marie-France Pochna and they were saying the war had forced people to learn how to sew their own clothes and so everybody was suddenly refashioning New Look skirts. It took every level of society by storm.
The thing I thought was really fascinating and I’d never heard of was the way all the clothes were made in perfect miniature and displayed on dolls because they couldn’t send models overseas or anywhere.
Right, there was no room on boats because soldiers were being transported. They’re now displayed in a museum outside of Portland, called the Maryhill Museum of Art. Some collector bought the entire thing.
They’re in Oregon? That’s amazing! Now, what would you say that Dior was trying to get from each of these two interior designers?
I think he really felt that Grandpierre intuitively understood him, his vision, his inspiration. He created these perfect Dior couturier interiors that are modified but still recognizable as Grandpierre’s work to this day. He did neo-classical, grey-and-white, pared down, luminous, light-filled, the white Louis XVI chair—you still see them in Peter Marino’s interiors. He would put in his little modernist things too. He introduced caning, which became a motif and houndstooth, which Dior used in one of his first collections.
And the iconic houndstooth packaging of the perfume, of course.
The perfume itself was almost a unisex perfume—it was sandalwood and chypre—it was before its time. Also super-important was this noeud de fontange, which was the little bow with trailing ends. “Fontange” was a mistress of Louis XIV, I think, and the story was that when she was out hunting, she lost her hat and so tied a ribbon like that to cover her hair.
What about Geffroy?
Geffroy as a former couturier always loved these sensual, rich fabrics, as did Dior. A room was very sensual, color-infused and very comfortable. It’s the 18th century responding to the 1950s. There are the little side tables and Louis XVI chairs but there’s also this overarching sense of comfort, tufted upholstery, upholstered walls, which wasn’t typically an 18th century thing, and lots of velvet. Geffroy was more calculating—he had this nightly salon and part of the reason for the salon was, “What’s going in Paris and who should I be calling for lunch?”
And all the exoticism, the lions and tigers and so forth?
Both Geffroy and Grandpierre did that. It became a leitmotif of glamorous café society chic.
So these are the kinds of storied interior designers that are of an era that probably isn’t coming back?
Yes, they were the sort who said, “I don’t like the bouquet! Tear it down!” They don’t exist anymore. I think the clients then were people like Gloria Guinness and these Russians and they just so wanted to be chic and probably they didn’t have that confidence. You know, [they would say] “Oh Geffroy insists!”
I’m not sure people are that bothered about conveying sophistication anymore but back then, it was important, wasn’t it?
I think you’re so right. I just don’t think that’s an objective for anybody under forty-five. And the internet has democratized design. Don’t you think now it’s either owning a sports team or art that is how people establish their stature, not necessarily their interiors?
Yes, definitely. Was Dior one of the first people to really look at what he was doing with these decorators and then attempting to create a distinctive brand?
Regarding the brand, I think that was not a programmed, conscious thing. I think the brand only happened because of the way Grandpierre conveyed Dior.
What did you want to know from Pierre Bergé?
Everything! He was one of the only people who knew Grandpierre. I wanted to know what their dinners like together. What did Grandpierre read? What was his temperament like? Wasn’t his color sense phenomenal? And Bergé, ever protective of St. Laurent said, “Well Yves was a rather good colorist too.”
So having done all this research, what have learned about Christian Dior? What is your impression of him?
I adore Dior. His culture was so broad and that is something that is so rare. He studied musical composition, he was conversant in art, he worked in the theater. This I find so appealing. And he drew on all of this to create this romantic style. They say in French, “He was always the master of himself,” which means, soft-spoken, he never lost his temper and he was very charming but also very guarded.
What would you have liked to ask him yourself if you could sit down with him?
Oh what an interesting question! You know I’d be very interested in knowing if he had lived longer than 1957, where he would have sent his designs in the 60s and the 70s because he did have this modernist filter. The New Look was so successful because he had his finger on the pulse of the time and understood what everybody was dreaming of and gave voice to it in his clothes. I think it’s very possible that he would have completely understood what St. Laurent was doing with motorcycle jackets and safari jackets and smoking (tuxedo) … but we don’t know that because he stopped when we were still in elegant-land.