‘Every reader, as he reads, is actually the reader of himself. The writer's work is only a kind of optical instrument he provides the reader so he can discern what he might never have seen in himself without this book.’ Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time, vol.7, Finding Time Again.
When it comes to this story, it is best to think of Marcel Proust’s novel In Search of Lost Time as ‘the research.’ For this is a story of a research process experienced in a mirrored situation: on the one hand by the novel’s narrator, and on the other hand by the designer Anthony Guerrée.
The scene: Monday 11 February, 8am, Café Floréal, Paris.
Our protagonist: Anthony Guerrée, a 32-year-old French furniture designer trained at the École Boulle, currently designer at Delcourt Collection after five years at Studio Andrée Putman. His first piece of furniture, Saint-Loup: a stepladder/chair edited by Collection Particulière, unveiled at Milan Design Week 2018. The second one, Charlus & Jupien: an ottoman armchair, launched in January 2019 in Paris. They are both inspired and named after Proust’s novel In Search of Lost Time.
Preface / Experiencing Proust
‘An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory – this new sensation having had the effect, which love has, of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me, it was me.’ Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time, vol.1 The Way by Swann’s*
To him, no book could better explain human being and its social structure. But, first and foremost, discovering Proust’s writing was to him a striking experience and a source of a great pleasure. From morning to evening, from home to work, filling every spare moment of time, Guerrée kept reading greedily; creating bonds with Proust’s imaginary world and its characters, page after page, chapter after chapter until he finishes, six months later, the seven volume novel.
Nature Morte photo by Alexis Leclercq
However, it wasn’t an end but the beginning of Guerrée’s own story.
One of his main interests in Proust’s writing was the amount of interior descriptions and the link with decorative arts. He was amazed by how the ‘object could be seen as a sociological factor of social origin and education’, as well as initiating different forms of behaviours. In the same manner that Pierre Bourdieu or Roland Barthes, for instance, had shown that furnishings are social in the same way that language is social, or just as Jean Baudrillard mapped out correlations between the social system and the system of home furnishing.
If furnishing could tell us as much about social construct and behaviour, why not go the reverse way – define a piece of furniture from a social character.
From this assumption Guerrée started to transpose his favourite characters from the novel into furniture sketches. He chose 10 of them (Robert de Saint-Loup, Baron de Charlus, the Duchesse de Guermantes and Charles Swann, among others), mapping and highlighting through quotes and fragments what was making each of them special and individual.
From the observation of their status within Proust’s narration to its own apprehension of our contemporary times, Guerrée developed a design vocabulary. In the same way that a stage director translates a written script to a performing situation, he used the format of the chair as his way to initiate behaviours and attitudes, deconstructing Proust’s story to embrace it as its own.
Marcel Proust, Time found, Research leaf _ BNF, Manuscripts N. a. fr. 16727, f.124
Anthony Guerrée, Saint-Loup, Research Notebook
Chapter 1: From Saint-Loup to the stepladder/chair
Robert de Saint-Loup is the best friend of the narrator – and to Guerrée he is the dream best friend. Coming from the prestigious lineage of the Guermantes family, he is a graceful and slender military man, a magnetic and charismatic character. He has no class prejudices and strives to offer a better place to the narrator in high society. In a famous extract from The Guermantes Way, Saint-Loup rises on the benches of a restaurant, passing nimbly over a chair in a spectacular vaulting exercise to bring the narrator his coat:
‘And when Saint-Loup, who needed to pass behind his friends, climbed on to the back of their bench and moved along it in a balancing act, muffled applause broke out from the body of the room.’ Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time, vol.3, The Guermantes Way
Inspired by Saint-Loup’s funambulesque feat at the restaurant, Guerrée imagined a stepladder/chair. Made from black-brushed spruce wood, appreciated for its lively and sharp venous texture, its humble appearance nonetheless carries the elegance of traditional woodcraft joints details. Saint-Loup stepladder/chair is at the same the trustful support that can carry you higher and the pommel horse to imitate Saint-Loup’s chivalrous stunt.
Photo by Alexis Leclercq , Saint-Loup Stepladder-chair Edition : COLLECTION PARTICULIERE / Brushed spruce - Made in France
Chapter 2: From Charlus & Jupien to the armchair and its ottoman
Baron de Charlus is Saint-Loup’s uncle and a very prominent aristocrat in Parisian high society. Although he is a cultivated man with refined tastes and a great reader of Balzac, he is also a little exuberant and a sensitive epicurean. The torment of his attraction to men in a time when homosexuality is not well perceived, confronted with the expression of his deep taste for the pleasures of the flesh, will make his character the emblem of the fourth volume, Sodom and Gomorrah.
© Duchesse brisée, Louis XV, stamped M. Cresson (18th century) Sotheby’s, “From one to another“ 2018.
In the first pages, the narrator surprises Charlus’ amorous intercourse with Jupien, the waistcoat-maker. Inspired by the glance of virile intimacy caught in the act, Guerrée envisioned for this sensual duet the design of an armchair and its ottoman. It is influenced by the 18th century lounge chair the Broken Duchess, whose name already evokes the Baron’s tragic decline. Made of two distinct and separable parts, it highlights the difference of social status between the Baron Charlus, and the tailor Jupien.
However, while the lounge chair reflects on the luxury of spending time relaxing and reading in the living room. The cognac-coloured natural polished leather cushions make echo to the underlying erotic picture of two robust bodies of soft and bare flesh interacting with each other.
‘ Jupien... at once shedding the humble, kindly expression I had always seen him wear, had – in perfect symmetry with the Baron – drawn back his head, set his torso at an advantageous angle, placed his fist on his hip with a grotesque impertinence, and made his behind stick out, striking poses with the coquettishness that the orchid might have had for the providential advent of the bumblebee.’ Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time, vol.4, Sodom and Gomorrah
© Portrait of Baron de Charlus by Jean Cocteau circa 1921-1923. Jacques Guérin (sale, May 20th 1992, lot 84, Sotheby’s)
© Charlus armchair - Jupien ottoman / Edition : COLLECTION PARTICULIERE / Brushed oak - Made in France
Time Regained: From Proust to Guerrée (1927 – 2019)
One of the core themes of Proust’s novel is the discovery of the involuntary memory. He evokes – from a misstep caused by an irregular paving stone to the famous episode of the madeleine taste – how unexpected sensory experiences of our daily surrounding can unveil forgotten memories that constitute our true self.
This approach of an unpredictable and capricious – yet fascinating – memory has been a conductive thread to Guerrée’s creative process, attempting to remember and capture the very singular feelings he had experienced while reading Proust to initiate an aesthetic of his own signature. In the same way, this reminiscence is something he wishes his furniture could provoke in its users, by thinking of them as sensory experiences through the choice of expressive materials, shapes and textures.
The names of the furniture pieces play in that sense a significative role in this attempt, as Proust also titled the last part of his first book Place-Names: The Name. Describing how names of cities or persons can trigger a curiosity unlocking the arbitrary delights of the imagination.
‘The name of Parma, one of the towns that I most longed to visit, after reading the Chartreuse, seeming to me compact and glossy, violet-tinted, soft […]’ Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time, vol.1, The Way by Swann’s
Therefore it isn’t surprising to note that from all of them, Guerrée did not chose the narrator as a character to personify, as it is a never-named character. However it is interesting to note the similarity of their path and questionings, as The Research of Lost Time is also a movement toward the future of a vocation. While it ends when the narrator, aiming to become a novelist, starts writing the book that the reader has just finished, Guerrée unfolds his own creative voice through design making, designing his first edited pieces of furniture.
If both of them had the wish to see their entire work published at once, unfragmented, we will have to wait, to see the hatching of Guerrée’s remaining sketches from literature to design.
However, what could differentiate Guerrée to Proust’s narrator is that Guerrée hasn’t lost much time so far. Still at a very early stage of his career, we are eager to see what his growth, experiences and future as designer and author will bring to the design scene.
‘There are perhaps no days of our childhood we lived so fully as those we believe we left without having lived them, those we spent with a favourite book.’ Marcel Proust, Days of Reading
by Fiona du Mesnildot
*all quotes from Proust’s In Search of Lost Time come from the Penguin Classics 2003 versions, which are under the general editorship of Professor Christopher Prendergast.