Due to a dearth of biographical information not written in French, this
write-up will focus on Guimard's work and his contributions to the field we
now call industrial design. Hopefully some intrepid noder will fill in the
details of his life for us.
Early Work (1888-1889)
Hector Guimard's first commission came in 1888, when he was asked to design
the interior of the Grand Neptune restaurant. His attention to the
integration of the
restaurant's furniture and fixtures into the the architecture of the building
was acute, to a degree not previously seen in Paris. In 1889, Guimard
designed the Pavilion of Electricity for the Universal Exposition, beginning
a commitment to designs for modern environments-- with modern materials-- that
would be reflected throughout the rest of his career.
Castel Beranger (1894-1897)
During 1894-1897, Guimard designed the Castel Béranger, a hotel situated on
the rue la Fontaine in Paris. The entrance1 to the Castel is of particular
note in regard to its innovation within the Art Nouveau style. An ironwork
gate is set back within a larger stone archway, incorporating the motion of
the people entering the building into the design of the entrance itself. The
gate itself reflects an intimacy with its material, which is exploited to
create curling tendrils-- a form to which heated iron lends itself, and which
thus evokes the heat and fluidity of the material during the gate's creation.
The greater innovation of the gate, however, is Guimard's introduction of
asymmetry-- the two sides do not match in any geometric way-- to for the first
time select the Art Nouveau focus on vitalism over its conflicting emphasis on
The architecture2 of the building itself is also of interest.
The building is narrow and stalk-like, and its windows are arranged in an
upward-sweeping stairstep pattern rather than in level rows. Guimard's work
very often emphasises upward, growing motion-- again a result of his focus on
representing natural vitality. His attention to staircases and entrances was
typical of Art Nouveau, as these architectural features lent themselves well
to the representation of motion.
Metro entrances (1903-1905)
One of Guimard's most famous and most visible works are the entrances he
designed for the Paris Metro over the course of two years, beginning in 1903.
These entrances are still standing and are still in use. Like the gate of the
Castel Beranger, these entrances fully exploit-- and evoke-- the properties of
the materials from which they are cast. Their structure is provided by
wrought iron, which is rendered as rising stalks and curling, interweaving
tendrils. Some of the stations have glass roofs3, which are
translucent so as to carry the light in the glass and impart the nature of
the glass, rather than simply allowing the light to pass through an invisible
ceiling. In the Cite station4, light is provided by two high-rising lamps,
presented as drooping floral blooms that emerge from iron stalks at the front of the
entrance. The seamless integration of the lamps and the structure of the
entrance is of note, as we will soon see.
Characteristics of His Work
As we noted in the Castel Beranger, Guimard largely discarded the notion of
symmetry and geometric idealization of nature in his work. Previously, Art
Nouveau designers had very meticulously harmonized elements of their designs,
and had attempted (per the exhortations of Siegfried Bing) to present a domesticated
version of nature. Bing's followers also made careful use of specific
botanical and natural references-- a sunflower, an elm tree-- whereas Guimard
abstracted the natural forms and presented them as wild and untamed. Often,
Guimard's work contains organic, flowing lines which are not in and of
themselves recognizable as references to plants, but which nevertheless seem to embody
the notion of a stem or a bending stalk.
Also important to Guimard was the scale of his work. All of Guimard's designs
were created on a very human scale; they are neither overly large and
dramatic, nor are they extravagant in their detail. This renders them very
accessible and appreciable, and avoids distancing the beholder from the work.
In his focus on the integration of his design elements, and in creating spaces
that are holistic in their design, Guimard reconciled the differences of
Parisian Art Nouveau with the School of Nancy. His attention to material
similarly bridged the gap between these two largest branches of the Art
Nouveau movement, and his commitment to modern materials provided a new
direction synthesized from their work.
Of special note is the way in which Guimard allowed his materials to affect
his style. When working in wood or iron, he was particularly fond of slender
forms, growing upward to evoke the tree or curling to present the flame and the
malleability of the metal. When working in glass, he ensured that the material
would carry the light and seem itself to glow, and in the case of a 1908
ceiling light he allowed the glass to seemingly drip and flow downward,
evincing its liquid nature.
Guimard's use of clean, abstracted lines, his use of modern materials, and
his commitment to advancing design principles such as the seamless reintegration
of structure and ornament provided a strong catalyst for the transition of the
design world from Art Nouveau to the Modernism of the early Twentieth Century.
In doing so, he limited the window of time in which his own work was in fashion--
rooted strongly as it was in Art Nouveau-- but sealed his fame as one of
history's greatest designers.
Sparke, Penny. A Century of Design: Design Pioneers of the 20th
Century. 1998, Barrons Educational Series.