Although many Guerlain lovers feel that the LVMH management is dismantling the brand's heritage, the new Guerlain Parfumeur boutique at the place Vendôme in Paris is proof that history lives on. The boutique preserves several visual elements by its original designer, Jean-Michel Frank, a French decorator.

In contrast to the exuberant Art Deco style that pervaded Europe and the US in the interwar period, Jean-Michel Frank aimed to strip furniture and spaces from their superfluous adornments, presenting a minimalist elegance with dominant white and beige tones, light woods, and straw marquetry. His style was defined as the "luxury of the nothing", which made Jean Cocteau say, when he met the designer in his apartment: "A charming young man; a shame robbers took everything from him."

Jean-Michel Frank had no talent for drawing or cabinetmaking, and he occasionally had to take weeks off while detoxing in sanatoriums from cocaine and opium abuse. But he had the good sense to partner with a skilled craftsman named Adolphe Chanaux. By 1930, Frank had been named artistic director of Chanaux & Co., with a boutique on the ritzy rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré. For Guerlain, he designed the place Vendôme boutique and Jean-Pierre Guerlain's private apartment (1935), the Coque d'Or box (1937), and the Champs-Elysées beauty institute (1939). The 2013 renovation of Maison Guerlain also celebrated the Jean-Michel Frank style.

Frank had heard from his German relatives (he was the cousin of diarist Anne Frank) that the Nazis were especially vicious toward Jews and homosexuals. Just before Paris fell in June 1940, he escaped to Buenos Aires and set up a shop at an elegant hotel. It's unclear why he moved to New York in January 1941, perhaps to meet up with his former boyfriend, a 26-year-old American cameraman named Thad Lovett. Two months later, at the age of 46, he committed suicide by throwing himself from a high window of a Manhattan building. Reportedly, his unhappy love affair had been adding to his despair over the horror of the times.

Jean-Michel Frank remained largely unknown until Art Deco collectors, among them Andy Warhol, rediscovered his works in the 1970s. Today, design objects bearing his signature fetch astronomical prices. "Unfortunately the value’s high enough now that it’s worth faking, even in the costly materials like sharkskin and ivory," says design specialist Carina Villinger at Christie's in New York.
(November 2017)

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