The Longest Gangplank
Or how the Normandie set sail for the 1939 World's Fair—a tale told at the Museum of the City of New York
Donald Albrecht, Amy Azzarito, and Liora Cobin -- Interior Design, 9/1/2008 12:00:00 AM
In April 1939, 98 French chefs, waiters, wine stewards, and others from the best Parisian restaurants sailed from Le Havre on the great ocean liner Normandie. The men's destination was the restaurant in the French pavilion at the New York World's Fair, where they intended to serve Parisian food to fairgoers. Although New York had French restaurants before the World's Fair, this would be the city's first truly authentic one on such a large scale. Henri Soulé and the other masters behind it would go on to redefine haute cuisine in Manhattan—one of many examples of the interwar dialogue explored in "Paris/New York: Design Fashion Culture 1925-1940." The exhibition opens October 3 in the Museum of the City of New York's new James G. Dinan and Elizabeth R. Miller gallery by Polshek Partnership Architects.
Connected by cuisine, the Normandie and the fair's French pavilion were also linked by their interiors. The pavilion was designed in a collaboration between the architectural firms of Roger Expert and Pierre Patout. A few years earlier, the pair had been responsible for many of the elegant public spaces on the Normandie.
The ship's three-deck-high first-class dining room was the showpiece. While it had no windows, it was lit by 12 of René Lalique's enormous glowing art deco columns, which helped earn the Normandie the moniker the Ship of Light. Walls here were covered by bas-reliefs of Normandy's landscape, with topographical features molded in gold on a red marble background. (Another 1930's sculpture by the same artist, Alfred Auguste Janniot, still decorates over-doors at the Maison Française in Rockefeller Center.) Setting the standard for magnificence, public spaces extended the length of the ship. Entertainment facilities included a swimming pool, a gym, a library, a shooting gallery, a nightclub, a chapel, a children's playroom, and, inspired by Rockefeller Center, a shopping promenade and the first ocean-going movie theater. Luxurious staterooms were by such major figures as Jules Leleu and Louis Süe.
Widely heralded as the ambassador of French tastes, the Normandie made its maiden voyage to New York in 1935—and was advertised in American Vogue as an immediate link to Paris, "France Afloat." All a New Yorker had to do was walk up the gangplank. A promotional photograph superimposed an image of the ship onto Manhattan streets, emphasizing its size while showing off the unique design.
That was all very well for those who could afford it. However, what truly brought French design to the masses was the distinctive pavilion at the World's Fair. Expert and Patout's glass-walled structure, with curving cantilevered forms evoking a hull and smokestacks and a partially enclosed dining terrace serving as a landlocked deck, was a much closer link to New York. The similarities couldn't be more apparent in a suite of glamorous gouache-and-watercolor depictions of both interiors, complete with a coterie of tuxedoed men and bejeweled women.
On the pavilion's main floor, Expert and Patout's central rotunda featured a grand stairway similar to the one Expert and another Normandie designer, Richard Bouwens van der Boijen, had designed for its smoking room. The ship's stairs were flanked by a pair of monumental tiered light fixtures, while classical statuary lined the pavilion's stairs. They led up to a colonnaded mezzanine devoted to "Art, Luxury and Fashion in Modern France," an exhibition that showed off such leading national factories as Aubusson, represented on the Normandie by a handwoven rug that remains the world's largest on record.
Like the Normandie's grand salon by Expert and Van der Boijen, the pavilion's Hall of Splendors by Expert and Patout adhered to the precepts of a new neoclassicism. Earlier in the 1930's, Leleu and André Arbus, among others, had picked up the mantle of Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann, who died in 1933, and created an aesthetic of subtle symmetrical curves, majestic proportions, and sumptuous materials—an aesthetic in full flower on the Normandie. While the pavilion's Hall of Splendors area devoted to Sèvres porcelain featured a mural of dancing entertainers, the Normandie's grand salon housed perhaps the ship's most celebrated treasure, a set of back-painted, gilded glass wall panels by Jean Dupas illustrating classical mythology: The Rape of Europa, The Chariot of Thetis, and The Chariot of Poseidon.
The pavilion was designed to take maximum visual advantage of a prominent site on the Lagoon of Nations, where nightly spectacles encompassed fireworks, colored drum lamps, giant spotlights, gas jets, and 3,000 water nozzles, all choreographed to amplified music played by a live symphony orchestra. Symbols of international harmony, the shows masked rising fears of war on both sides of the Atlantic, but hopes for peace were suddenly shattered in September 1939, when the Nazis invaded Poland.
By August 1940, Paris was in Nazi hands, and its close links to New York were severed. The Normandie was a casualty as well. Berthed in New York Harbor, the ship was seized by the U.S. government days after Pearl Harbor and, within a few months, caught fire. Images of the destroyed, partially submerged wonder that had brought the best of contemporary French decorative arts to New York were published around the world as a poignant symbol of an occupied France. By the time World War II concluded, New York—with Paris as inspiration and catalyst—had become the capital of a new world power.