By David Smith
The Cincinnati Art Museum recently announced the acquisition of a clock by Jean Puiforcat. The c. 1930 desk clock, made of nickel-plated brass and rosewood, is to be installed in the museum’s Gallery 211 by the end of June 2014. The design is a tour-de-force of late Art Deco/Art Moderne aesthetic and in its relatively small size represents a microcosm of the movement. According to the CAM, “This clock is part of a small group of clocks—of which seven are currently known—that Puiforcat designed outside the family atelier for the French jeweler and clock designer Hour- Lavigne. All of Puiforcat’s clocks for Hour-Lavigne were one-of-a-kind, and of those known, this example is by far the most successful and most fully represents Puiforcat’s cumulative achievements in design.”
Jean Elysée Puiforcat (1897-1945) was a famed French silversmith and designer. He was the fourth generation in a family of cutlers whose company was founded in Paris in 1820. Named a master silversmith in 1920, Puiforcat’s career began in a time of significant artistic change—Art Deco, Modernism and Art Moderne—between the World Wars. He was a co-founder of the Union des Artistes Modernes in 1928. Using a sculptural approach he developed designs that adapted form to function. Characterized by smooth surfaces and forms dictated and informed by geometry and geometric series, Puiforcat worked with solid silver and other precious materials, including exotic woods and semi-precious stones. After a move to Mexico in 1941, Puiforcat began exhibiting his work in the United States.
Amy M. Dehan, the museum’s Curator of Decorative Arts and Design, is especially pleased with the addition of the Puiforcat clock to the museum’s collection. A European work of such significance is a welcome addition to the museum’s collection of Art Deco, which is heavily populated by American works. Dehan stated that the inclusion of the clock gives greater context to the museum’s other Art Deco holdings such as Paul Frankl’s Skyscraper bookcases, a 1925 René Lalique chandelier and lamps by Walter von Nessen, to name a few. Additionally it flushes out elements from the broader movements of the period in art and decorative arts which includes Cubism and early Modernism. The clock will be included in a forthcoming project focusing on the Art Deco period which will showcase the installation of an Art Deco bedroom, c. 1929, by Joseph Urban (1872-1933).
Jean Puiforcat’s work represents the pinnacle of elegant and bold silversmithing of the of Art Deco/Art Moderne period. He is regarded as one of the greatest twentieth century designers working in metals. While the work bridges the period from Art Deco to Art Moderne/Streamlined Modern, its strength and bold lines allow it to stand on its own merits. Puiforcat’s near reductivist emphasis of pure form and geometry broke further from the earlier, more florid motifs of Art Deco, and represents an American future where this aesthetic, influenced by speed and machinery, begins to dominate this field. The self-assured, controlled work exude a luxury of simple form and materials. Like many of his French design contemporaries such as Pierre Chareau, Robert Mallet-Stevens, and Maison Desny, Puiforcat was at the vanguard of the decorative arts in a period of rapid aesthetic and social change.