Jean Puiforcat: French silversmith-sculptor extraordinaire
NEW YORK – Jean Puiforcat (1897-1945), the French silversmith, sculptor and designer with the quirky, adorable last name (it’s pronounced “pwee-for-KAH”), was once described by Miller’s Antiques Encyclopedia as “the most important French Art Deco silversmith.” His name, in fact, has become synonymous with Art Deco glamor. Even in his day, Puiforcat was renowned for the elegant, often mathematical simplicity of his geometric forms and the unexpected combination of flawless metalwork executed with brilliantly polished hardstones, semiprecious stones or glass.
Puiforcat didn’t simply emerge from obscurity to become the legendary silversmith that his legacy commands. He was born into the prominent silversmith family of Puiforcat and his brother-in-law was the modernist architect Luis Estevez. Puiforcat complemented his hereditary links to design by actively engaging with prominent designers, sculptors and architects of his era.
After serving in World War I, he apprenticed in Paris as a silversmith and designer under the Ecole des Beaux-Arts-educated sculptor Louis-Aime Lejeune. His silver work had fine smooth surfaces and was based on the geometric series. Ivory, onyx, lapis lazuli and rosewood were used to decorate pieces. He also used gilding.
Following his contribution to the 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris, Puiforcat’s status as a leading silversmith of 20th century design began to grow. In 1926, a tea service he designed was purchased for the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Puiforcat left Paris and moved to Saint-Jean-de-Luz around 1927 and he worked briefly in Havana, Cuba from 1928 through 1930. He started designing tableware and by 1934 also had designed liturgical silver. After he moved to Mexico in 1941, he started exhibiting in the United States. Puiforcat was a member of the Société des Artistes Decorateurs, which he left to become a founding member of the Union des Artistes Modernes.
Puiforcat’s work has appeared in countless periodicals and magazines, touting the designer’s bold creations and praising him as the preeminent silversmith of his day. His enduring legacy can be evidenced by a retrospective that took place in Paris in 1947, only two years after his death. Important artists of the 20th century like Andy Warhol were fervent collectors of his work. The Warhol collection is especially noteworthy because it was sold in its entirety at auction through Sotheby’s in 1988 for the staggering sum of $451,000. A single tureen brought $55,000. Warhol first began collecting Puiforcat silverware after acquiring some pieces in Paris in the 1970s.
“Jean Puiforcat’s designs were so striking because his pieces broke away from the complicated, naturalistic, and fussy patterns of the past and instead embraced sleek and simplified contemporary forms,” said Charlotte Taylor, director of Fine & Decorative Arts at Quinn’s Auction Galleries in Falls Church, Va. “He successfully married fine craftsmanship with modernism, exemplifying the faith in social and technological progress that dominated culture between the two world wars. His legacy still continues today as he is still widely considered to be one of the pillars upon which the European Art Deco movement and modern silversmithing were built.”
Nick Coombs, a specialist in the Fine Furniture, Decorative Arts & Silver department at Hindman in Chicago, said Jean Puiforcat emerged as the standard-bearer for Art Deco silversmiths, not through a strict adherence to the movement’s aesthetic, but rather by interpreting timeless questions about proportion, ornament and beauty through his work. “In doing so,” Coombs said, “Puiforcat’s work captivated his contemporaries and continues to command reverence among silver collectors in the 21st century.”
Coombs continued, “Puiforcat’s work is firmly grounded as a response to earlier movements’ reliance on ornamentation, relying on the belief that mathematical formulae could be the source of beauty in design. A proponent of the ‘golden ratio,’ Puiforcat sought methods of design that had been pioneered during the Renaissance in the 16th century to answer questions of style and beauty in the 20th century. His works, while speaking for the aesthetic of the age, still respond to questions that are timeless, thus allowing his work to remain relevant despite changes of taste.”
Many museums hold Puiforcat’s works in their collections, including the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the Cooper-Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum in New York. “Today his pieces are still collected and can sell well above their estimates,” Charlotte Taylor said. She pointed to his “Bayonne” flatware set, which hammered for $65,000 on an estimate of $30,000 – $40,000 at Phillips Auction house in 2018; and last year, when Rago Auction House sold a “Biarritz” patented flatware set for $42,500 on an estimate of $25,000-$35,000. “These numbers reflect a trend in the sale of his works that has gone on for decades,” she said.
Nick Coombs said that, despite a slight downturn in the market for Art Deco furniture and decorative arts in the auction community over the past decade, the works of Jean Puiforcat continue to be actively sought after for collectors of both silver and decorative arts. “This is likely because of the timeless quality of his design,” he said. “Puiforcat is not responding to a singular aesthetic movement in his works; rather, he is trying to answer fundamental questions regarding proportion, balance and design. This allows his work to communicate and harmonize with other aesthetic movements because it does not focus on the surface of the work alone.”
Coombs concluded, “Collectors and buyers of Puiforcat encompass a larger collecting category than strictly ‘silver collectors.’ People interested in modernism and design are also active buyers as well as prominent decorators who are always looking for a highlight work to anchor any room. They will always be able to find that in the works of Jean Puiforcat.”
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