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Jacques Viénot and the « Esthétique industrielle » in France (1920-1960)

Article paru dans la revue Design Issues, Volume XXII, Number 1, Winter 2006, P. 46-60.


The circumstances leading to the emergence of French industrial design, have remained overshadowed by the general history of modernity. The privileged stance of the furniture creator/designer and the frequent use of the word design when referring to a style, reflects a cultural tradition which attaches little importance to the mode of production and to the execution of a project.  Indeed, French industrial design has long suffered from a lack of recognition because it was not acknowledged as a clearly defined professional activity.

In the fifties one did not speak of industrial design but of industrial aesthetics, a confusing term which was subject to much controversy. When misunderstood, the term could relegate design to the role of a lesser sub-category of fine arts.  Nevertheless, even though the question of aesthetics comprises a fundamental aspect of industrial design, it belongs to a separate, distinct field of study. Confronted with the principles of mass production and the consumer society, it becomes inseparable from the notion of usage. Subject to social and economic forces, aesthetics implies a collective knowhow and effort. The aesthetic families that emerged, carrying the values and belief systems of the time, belonged, as Jacques Viénot claimed to “an art form dependent on neither fine arts, nor decorative arts, nor on pure technique alone ”(1).Jacques Viénot has been one of the most important mediators in this collective effort. His moral and philosophical engagement in humanizing technology has contributed to creating the industrial framework for a whole new profession.

Jacques Viénot created the Institute of Industrial Aesthetics (2) , the first trade union of the profession, a magazine which was the union’s voice for more than twenty years, and the first international liaison committee (which later became the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design). He was the instigator of the first specific teachings in the discipline and he also ran one of the foremost agencies of the fifties, “Technès”. The chronological study presented here analyzes his professional choices and offers insight into his commitment to the founding theories of modernity and the historical events of the time. The underlying question is that of the significance of the industrial aesthetics project during the re-construction period after the Second World War, and how it links with projects in other industrialized countries, as well as how it differs from those in other countries.

Jacques Viénot in the 1930s
Jacques Viénot in the 1930s from Henri Viénot’s family photo albums

During a speech in Prague (3)  in 1929, Jacques Viénot evoked the following question: “ How  will we live tomorrow; that is what must determine all our research”. The “law of finality” which he had included in the Industrial Aesthetic chart written in 1953 (4) , permitted the projection of the notion of beauty and good that was attached to objects, onto a wider social context. The aim was “to help mankind progress”. But what was the role of the designer in this endeavor and how could he negotiate this role? Tackling the history of industrial design from the point of view of the circumstances in which it emerged and the programmes which shaped the artefacts of the era, involves bringing to light the complex relationships governing the work of the different protagonists, be they industrialists, theorists or aesthetic industrialists ; and regardless of whether they were or were not confronted with the question of distinct creative interpretations.

The impact of design on the environment and the challenge of innovation for companies and for end-users, always raise a number of questions for professional practices which must constantly be looking for the best compromise between different outlooks. A historical view, which sheds light on the maneuvers of the different actors, could nourish an understanding of present practices in the profession.  This requires putting into perspective each actor’s role in the processes and objectives of creation and thereby one may more accurately determine the role of design.

This vast study remains to be undertaken. In the framework of the present article, I have retained the essential conclusions of my monographic work on Jacques Viénot !5) . The period prior to the 1950s is only sketched out here, although it could, in itself, constitute a whole field of study.

The decorative arts to the defence of Industrial Aesthetics

By the time Jacques Viénot became the figure head of Industrial Aestetics after the Second World War, he had already acquired substantial experience in the decorative arts field. During his time as head of DIM (6) , a leading decoration company in Paris during the 1920s, Jacques Viénot met  many artists and personalities from various countries.

Model of the bedroom for the Queen of Afghanistan, DIM, Ce Temps-ci 2 (1928).
Model of the bedroom for the Queen of Afghanistan, DIM, Ce Temps-ci 2 (1928).
Lamps by Le Chevalier, Ce Temps-ci, " (1928).
Lamps by Le Chevalier, Ce Temps-ci,  » (1928).
"Dame de coeur" rug by Joubert and Petit for DIM catalogue (between 1925 and 1930), from Henri Viénot's private archives. René Joubert and Philippe Petit were two artist/decorators employed by DIM. They often received awards and distinctions at the Salon de la Société des Artistes décorateurs in the 1920's.
« Dame de coeur » rug by Joubert and Petit for DIM catalogue (between 1925 and 1930), from Henri Viénot’s private archives. René Joubert and Philippe Petit were two artist/decorators employed by DIM. They often received awards and distinctions at the Salon de la Société des Artistes décorateurs in the 1920’s.

He was in charge of a team of “Artistes décorateurs” and not a creator himself. Due to his charismatic personality and untiring efforts, he constantly was coming to the defence of the avant-garde movement alongside his friends from L’Union des Artistes modernes “The Union for Modern Artists” (7) , as well as working for Porza. With the international success  of DIM (8) came a more cosmopolitan awareness, which was showcased by the creation of a French branch of the international organization founded in 1928 by the German painter Werneralvo von Alvensleben. Porza is mentioned in the very first editon of a revue entitled Ce temps ci “Our epoch” (9) which Jacques Viénot created in the same year. He hoped to foster in France the same enthousiasm as existed in other countries for developing  “these havens of intelligence and art where creators can meet and exchange for the good of culture and international comprehension.” He helped to set up one such haven at L’abbaye de Pontigny in 1931 along with Paul Desjardins (10)  who, over a period of 30 years, had assembled intellectuals, men of letters, journalists and politicians with a view to defending European humanism. The Abbey was a particularly fertile ground for those who aimed to defend Enlightenment thoughts in the face of totalitarian perils.

The Porza adventure began at the same time as the economic crisis of 1929 was hitting the DIM company. Viénot undertook many overseas trips to try to combat the problem of its ever-dwindling clientele (11) .  After a meeting with Raymond Loewy in New York in 1929 (12) , Jacques Viénot began thinking about starting up an advisory committee for industrial aesthetics. He talks about this idea in an article published in Esthétique Industrielle in 1952  in which he outlines how he had clashed at the time with closed- minded industrials jealously guarding their prerogatives (13) . The advisory committee was never created and DIM gradually ceased activities. A small publicity spot in a liaison bulletin for members of Porza called Nouvelles Brèves (14)  which Jacques Viénot had started in 1932 and which his wife, Henrietta Brunet (15)  ran, shows that DIM still existed in 1933. However, on the 1st August of the same year, Jacques Viénot was hired by the Grands Magasins du Printemps (16)  where he completes his commercial experience as  conseiller du commerce extérieur ou intérieur, advisor on external or internal commerce (17) . He resigned in 1943 and created his own company.

Projects for metal and glass tables by DIM, Ce Temps-ci 7 (1930).
Projects for metal and glass tables by DIM, Ce Temps-ci 7 (1930).
Jacques Viénot's country house, built in 1928 in Senlisse, Yvelines (outside Paris), from Henri'sViénot's family photo albums
Jacques Viénot’s country house, built in 1928 in Senlisse, Yvelines (outside Paris), from Henri’sViénot’s family photo albums
Jacques Viénot's country house, built in 1928 in Senlisse, Yvelines (outside view in the 1930's), from Henri Viénot's family photo albums
Jacques Viénot’s country house, built in 1928 in Senlisse, Yvelines (outside view in the 1930’s), from Henri Viénot’s family photo albums

After having tried his hand at editing art books (18)  and after having prolonged pluridisciplinary exchanges with Porza within the revue Art Présent, he felt ready to set into motion the ideas set out in a book he had finished writing in 1939; La République des Arts (19) where he outlines a framework for a specific action plan; l’”Art du machinisme”.

"Les Beautés de la technique", cover page, Art présent 7-8 (1948).
« Les Beautés de la technique », cover page, Art présent 7-8 (1948).

Industrial Aesthetics and « an aesthetics dear to philosophers »

An article appearing in Technica (20)  in 1965, which highly praised Jacques Viénot’s work, expressed the feeling that the term “industrial aesthetics” was somehow clumsy. According to the author of this article, the term was too reminiscent of the philosopher’s concept of aesthetics. On the contrary, I would like to stress that aesthetics as a philosophical discipline, was the keystone to the thought process of this pioneer in industrial design. We are not referring to Kant’s model of the aesthetics of “finality without end”, but rather to the idea of defending “useful beauty” as defined by Paul Souriau (21)  whose sources are to be found in ancient tradition. Also encompassed in this vision of aesthetics is the medieval concept, so dear to the pioneers of modernity, which was expressed as follows by Saint Thomas Aquinas :

Ce qui confère cette spécificité du beau, c’est donc sa mise en rapport avec un regard connaissant par laquelle la chose apparaît belle. Et ce determine l’assentiment du sujet et le plaisir qui en résulte, ce sont les caractéristiques objectives de la chose (22) .

The question of  “educated eye” leads directly to that of judgement of taste. The problem of defining the criteria for objective beauty is compounded by the problem of what constitutes an accurate judgement of beauty. The questions lead us directly to the classic conflict of reasoning versus heart and truth versus feeling.

La République des Arts, a book published in 1941, opens a vast debate on all these subjects which the theorists of modernity were well versed in. Indeed this philopophical basis supported the defence of a form of beauty arising from industry. The photographic reports in an article entitled « the beauty of technique” (23) pay hommage to the beauty of the “machine society” which Le Corbusier, amongst others, supported. These ideas conflicted with any desire to copy from the past. They merged with the artistic research of the beginning of the  twentieth century which sought new tools for representing the world. Both major and minor art forms could join forces in their quest to construct a modern society. Progress for all would henceforth be unseparable from a material environment, the quality of which would be guaranteed by artists who would bring a new know-how to industry – a know-how emanating from a synthesis of technical competence and an ability to capture the beauty in industry.

Esthétique industrielle 2, cover page, (1951) : "You have also demonstrated that the plastic arts could find healthy and fruitful inspiration in the 'machinery' world. We, the upholders of industrial beauty, needed just such a demonstration, and this exemple, nobly given by you, must now be followed, firstly, by ourselves, and then by all those with a feel for man at grips with life to whom you have revealed a truth" (letter by Jacques Viénot to Fernand Léger, Esthétique industrielle, 2 (1951).
Esthétique industrielle 2, cover page, (1951) : « You have also demonstrated that the plastic arts could find healthy and fruitful inspiration in the ‘machinery’ world. We, the upholders of industrial beauty, needed just such a demonstration, and this exemple, nobly given by you, must now be followed, firstly, by ourselves, and then by all those with a feel for man at grips with life to whom you have revealed a truth » (letter by Jacques Viénot to Fernand Léger, Esthétique industrielle, 2 (1951).

Industrial Aesthetics and Functional Ethics

The charter of industrial aesthetics drawn up on the initiative of Jacques Viénot, by a committee from L’Institut and published in 1952 in their revue Esthétique Industrielle (24) , stems directly from the philosophy of “useful beauty” mentioned earlier. Despite the fact that a certain number of the charter’s rules concorded with the ideals of functionalism, it was contested amongst the functionalist movement of the time. Max Bill, a member of the Central Committee of the Schweizerischer Werbund and rector of the Hochschule für Gestaltung of Ulm, in his address to the first international conference on Industrial Aesthetics, organised by the Institut in Paris in 1953, stressed the danger of using the expression “aesthetic” in the context of a functionalistic morale. He questioned the significance of choosing to place the conference under the aegis of the sign “I” as in Industry, encircled by a serpent symbolising aesthetics. His comment is particularly interesting in that it allows to nuance the question of ornamentation, whose rejection, is always associated with functionalism. Indeed the ornament can be retained if it is not a superficial addition, but  an integral part of the coherence of the whole object. Max Bill pointed out that certain decorations do not “cheat” and that the serpent around the “I” somehow commited the conference to the “symbol which denotes that aesthetics adorns industry”:

It is a starting point, but I do not believe it is one shared by all conference members, especially not by those who are here to represent idealist associations, such as, if I may say so, the Swiss Werkbund or the German Werkbund. (…) what interests us most is not industry but man. (…)
Neither form nor function. The basis is need; the needs of man. The fuctions which are taking shape will be destined to meet the needs of man and in order to fulfill these needs, there must be unity between the functions which emerge (25) .

Esthétique industrielle 10-11-12, special edition, Congrès de Paris, 1953.
Esthétique industrielle 10-11-12, special edition, Congrès de Paris, 1953.
Report of the Congrès de l'Esthétique industrielle, Paris, 1953, cover page.
Report of the Congrès de l’Esthétique industrielle, Paris, 1953, cover page.

The danger which was felt at the time was that the artist may begin to help “industrialists to decorate their objects and to begin to shape them without the guarantee that unity of function be achieved”.

The numerous writings of Jacques Viénot and the energy he put into defending the notion of industrial aesthetics against the Anglo-Saxons at the time of the formation of the ICSID, an international organisation launched on his initiative during the Paris congress in 1953, have shown his distrust of those who have made “of beauty, a tactic”(26) . In fact, he was particularly distrustful of Americans, but, he never hid his admiration for the American sense of commerce. Industrial aesthetics must not be reduced to simply a marketing element (to use modern terminology), but it is an element of marketing. Jacques Viénot shared with Raymond Loewy a certitude that “good taste” does exist and that a specialist in industrial aesthetics would lead mankind “towards a material, intellectual and spiritual life”(27) . However, as Denis Huisman and Georges Patrix upheld, in response to the “enemies within” represented by André Hermant, there is no reason to begrudge the commercialisation of aesthetics.

(…) Yes, industrial aesthetics does lead to publicity, public relations, productivity, sales figures: in other words, to commerce in its most venal form. But, what is wrong with that ? As long as the undeniable, positive, aesthetic qualities of a car, a plane, a telephone or a hydro-electric dam are not the result of piled-on ornamentation, (…) suffice that the qualities be directly inherent to the object, suffice that the object be successful and accomplished, perfect in its genre and that the shape and form be excellent, well-adapted to, and expressive of, the function (28) .

Tomás Maldonado, co-director of the Hoschschule für Gestaltung of Ulm, expressed similar ideas in a lecture to the “Liaison Committee for Industrial Design in the European Common Market” (29)  in 1963. He stressed the link between the economic value and the cultural value of the industrial product, reiterating some of the arguments put forward at the international conference in Aspen organised in 1956, about the advantage of competition based on an honest practice of design which would not limit itself to “formal novelty” but which would integrate “formal, structural and functional novelty” (30).

Industrial Aesthetics and Fine Arts

An exhibition on the theme of the object (31) , which was held at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris in 1962, is mentioned  in a bulletin issued by l’Institut d’Esthétique Industrielle, where an international conference to be held at UNESCO in June 1963 was announced. Georges Combet, director of Gaz de France and president of the Institut, regrets, in this bulletin, that “modern-minded artists” are so far removed from the “ realities of our industrial civilisation”. This remark highlights another misunderstanding concerning the notion of industrial aesthetics. Fueled by philosophical ideas which laid emphasis on the spiritual dimension of artistic creation and the quest to understand the forces at work in the emergence of styles, industrial aesthetics also sought its theoretical bases in a certain history of art as represented by René Huyghe (32)  and Henri Focillon (33). The involvement of artistic movements, whose formal research work met with the functionalist ethic, also wove links between art and technique which could lead one to believe that common ground could be found between aesthetic propositions from both the artistic and industrial worlds. Despite Jacques Viénot’s claims that industrial aesthetics is an art form “which does not depend on fine arts”, as is common when a misunderstanding persists, artists (and here the artists referred to are those who had recently been labled “the new realists” by the art critic Pierre Restany) were reproached for not “servicing a society whose economic and social imperatives they scorned”. This reproach should not have had any founding or reason to be from the point of view of Jacques Viénot’s vision of industrial aesthetics. In an article written in 1945, Viénot showed clearly that action taken by some artistic movements, in particular Surrealism, exposed “a constant aspect of humanistic preoccupations devoid of insipidness or nonsense” but there was nothing “in this school, which, as we were expecting, could help art to resolve the main problems of the time” (34).

Industrial Aesthetics and Industrial Design

In his hommage to Jacques Viénot (35), the American Peter Muller-Munk, an old friend with whom Viénot worked on the founding of the ICSID, wrote that they both shared a common idea of industrial design as being, not just a profession, but a “discipline of reflection”. But Muller-Munk also alluded to a disagreement on the question of methods. This disagreement appears as early as the Paris Congress on Industrial Aesthetics in 1953. An article by Muller-Munk published in the Acts of Congress clearly states the fact that he and his colleagues from the Society of Industrial Designers, were not interested in the aesthetic construction of a project,

“ (…) nor that a specialist approves of our taste. What concerns us most of all is that we have been able to resolve the particular problems of our clients, that we have been able to meet the demands of the product and that we have evaluated the receptiveness of the market accurately. Besides, as you know, we are the market, it is the work staff of our industrial clients, the specialists and tradesmen who operate the machines that produce the enormous quantities of our products. We, in our Society, are content with putting into practice the techniques and the finely tuned sensitivities which enable us to get close to the desired sales results. Beauty is indispensable – that is accepted – but what does beauty matter to us if all our production lines are unemployed just so that we can congratulate ourselves on our fine artistic taste (36) .

The humanism that the American claimed to be attached to, evoking, as did his French colleague, the Renaissance ideal of “universal man”, detached itself from a philosophy linked to value judgement which only an elite minority would hold the key to. The official definition of design which was finally adopted by the ICSID, maintained the principle of coherence of form, stemming from a global consideration of an ensemble of constraints inherent to the object, but also dependant on the producer and the consumer:

Industrial design is a creative activity whose aim is to determine the formal qualities of objects produced by industry. These formal qualities concern not only external aspects, but refer mainly to structural and functional elements which impart a coherent unity to the system from the viewpoint of both the producer and the user.
Industrial design embraces all aspects of human reality which are conditioned by industrial production.
(Tomas Maldonado, ICSID, London 1959)

This wording has, as its basis, the idea of “honesty” inherent to industrial aesthetics, but it opens out towards other methods of evaluating aesthetic value. The concept of beauty soon would be replaced by interpretation charts conceived by sign theorists using, in a philosophical context, models coming from linguistic studies (37)  better suited to the development of the consumer society where information and communication are omnipresent.

The shift from industrial aesthetics to industrial design marks the end of the domination of a philosophy which was meant to guarantee the improvement of the conditions of life for mankind. Functionalism was reproached with having forgotten that objects not only had a use value but also a sign value. It was also reproached for somehow having diminished the notion of human need. This reproach, however, could not apply to industrial aesthetics in that everything was subject to a fundamental requirement – that of beauty. But the references to semantics which have invaded discussions on design are faced with the same difficulties that aesthetics faced with its word play ambiguities on apparent beauty or implied beauty. On a wider scale, a social science role in design conception implies the need for an understanding of what their input to the project is, as one must always be able to clearly distinguish between “cheating effects” and “applied discussions”.

Industrial Aesthetics and the creation of models for the engineer

The field of action before us is immense (38)

In an article entitled les arts impliqués “implied arts”, Jacques Viénot wrote : « If the supporters of Decorative arts and Applied arts wish to retain appelations which no longer really correspond to their concerns, then let them” (39) . This remark reveals a certain irritation due to endless discussions on the respective roles of industrial creation and applied arts, which he participated in and which he recounts in his République des Arts. The enthousiasm of the mobilisation for the defence of “constructive art for tomorrow’s France” as well as the enormous need for equipment of all sorts, gave him the opportunity to commit himself on a pathway that was much less hindered by values attached to the past. Industrial Aesthetics must orient itself towards the  creation of models for the engineer. The article in Technica, mentioned previously, highlights this French specificity which involves placing enormous importance on the value of constructed models in the field of mechanical production. However, Viénot regretted that other “sectors of design (glass blowing, plaster mouldings, furniture, textile) seemed to be “second relations”. Jacques Viénot had a different point of view: he considered that industries already had their model makers. There were those who continued to defend “the artistic trade”, in keeping with a decorative arts esprit and there were the “modernists” who were for the Formes Utiles “Useful Forms”(40) . The aim was to concentrate efforts where they were needed most. This procedure corresponded to an evolution within the teaching of applied arts which had been placed under the auspices of “Technical Education”. It was under this educational body that the industrial aesthetics course was created in 1956. Jacques Viénot’s desire for a well defined industrial aesthetics territory as well as the difficulty in setting up a recognised tertiary course within the engineering sector, contributed to placing French industrial aestheticians in an uncomfortable situation. The founder of industrial aesthetics had, nevertheless, other ambitions. He never abandoned the idea that all forms of industrial creation could somehow come together within the Institut. The situation was a temporary one and a very high level of education was envisaged for he who dreamed of one day forming an inter-European pedagogical commission and of restoring to France la parole que le monde écoutait jadis “the dominant world position it once had” (41).

The stand for Label Beauté France at the Paris fair, Esthétique industrielle 8 (1953). In keeping with the desire to promote French products, l'Institut created a French industrial aesthetics award in 1953 entitled Label Beauté France. this award was officialy ratified on November 13, 1953, by Raymond Boisdé, the then, Secretary of State for Commerce. This award still exists today under the name Janus de l'industrie. L'institut français d'Esthétique industrielle became l'Institut français du design in 1984. The Institute's current president is Anne-Marie Sargueil.
The stand for Label Beauté France at the Paris fair, Esthétique industrielle 8 (1953). In keeping with the desire to promote French products, l’Institut created a French industrial aesthetics award in 1953 entitled Label Beauté France. this award was officialy ratified on November 13, 1953, by Raymond Boisdé, the then Secretary of State for Commerce. This award still exists today under the name Janus de l’industrie. L’institut français d’Esthétique industrielle became l’Institut français du design in 1984. The Institute’s current president is Anne-Marie Sargueil.
"Physiographies", document coming from the revue Photography, (New York), Esthétique industrielle 3, (1951).
« Physiographies », document coming from the revue Photography, (New York), Esthétique industrielle 3, (1951).
Esthétique industrielle 14, Apparatus for mobile handling and moving of materials, Technès for the Salev Company.
Esthétique industrielle 14, Apparatus for mobile handling and moving of materials, Technès for the Salev Company.

The French rooster preens his feathers

« En prévision du Marché commun, le coq gaulois hérisse ses plumes », « l’Avenir passe par les formes », l’Express (27 nov-3 déc.1967), 89.

Under a title worthy of Jacques Viénot l’Avenir passe par les formes “Forms are the Future”, the November/December 1967 issue of l’Express highlighted how the French lagged behind other European Common Market countries. French products were considered as “ugly” and “old-fashioned” when compared to Italian, German, Dutch and British products and were perceived as not being able to confront the economic competition.

Advertisement for Technès, Art présent, 7-8 (1948).
Advertisement for Technès, Art présent, 7-8 (1948).

When Jacques Viénot came to the defence of French industrial aesthetics within the arena of the International Liaison Organisation (the organisation he had launched at the Paris conference in 1953), he naturally used the supplement d’âme “intangible extra” that the Charter’s propositions offered. He was also, of course, defending France’s position on the world stage. The convictions he had forged within the intellectual environment of Porza were based on humanist values open onto the world and France had to play its role of enlightened leader on the world scene in order to spread the values it upheld. Despite declaring, when l’Institut was founded, that it was to be even more effective than its English model, the Council of Industrial Design, because it was in the hands of private initiatives, Viénot never ceased to call on and remind the French state authorities of their responsibility toward defending a French reknown and quality through industrial aesthetics. One of the essay subjects Viénot gave to his students in 1958 was mobilisation du beau au service de la nation  “mobilisation of beauty to the service of the nation”(42) . The essay correction he proposed after having thought of all the possible services that could be rendered to a nation that was open to such a mission, ended bitterly as follows:

The fall back to reality is severe.
We are in France where, in the domain dear to us, the powers that be apply the famous adage: we don’t care!
And yet…

During a visit from the Director of Mechanical and Electrical Industries at the Ministry for Industry and Energy, Viénot says to him:

When my friends and I founded, in 1951, l’Institut d’Esthétique Industrielle, it was with the thought that once we had proven ourselves, the French administration would, like has happened overseas, hurry to recognise, encourage and subsidise us (43) .

Despite the enthusiasm and support of famous State personalities after the war and the involvement of several industrialists, a report by UNESCO, some extracts of which were published in the issue of l’Express mentioned earlier, shows a rather pessimistic situation in the 1960s.

(…) the public has remained indifferent to design because industrialists propose very few good examples (…) and public powers see no need to address the problem. It is symptomatic that the 5th plan, not only does not offer any subsidies for design, but does not even mention the activity. One may also note that there is no design section within the National Scientific Research Centre (…). The State offers no subsidies to help present quality French productions at international exhibitions.
In general, French industrialists do not clearly understand what this discipline can offer them. They tend to confuse design with publicity and thereby to expect from it an immediate return. This conception renders long term studies practically impossible.
In all fairness, one must judge the professionals severely.  It is their duty to educate the industrialists and to make them understand that design brings that something extra and something more noble than just immediate sales increases.

The article in l’Express shows that the report reproaches the profession for being disorganised and regrets a lack of teaching. Despite un noyau solide d’industriels à l’esprit ouvert “a solid core of open-minded industrialists” it is still the temps du mépris “time of contempt” (44) . Some pioneers are cited, Henri Viénot who had taken over the agency Technès, the designers Roger Tallon, Claude Ternat, Denis Fayolle and Harold Barnett. Technès is deemed une des seules agences françaises dignes de ce nom “one of the only French agencies worthy of the name”. The author of the article adds:

(…) even before their profession becomes official, it is questioned. They are accused of being the mercenaries and the “daddies” of industry. Used only to renew “brand images” and worried only about increasing the need for consumption. (Raymond Loewy, who so often explained how design could sell, would not be a stranger to this judgement).

Jacques Viénot's apartment, rue Michel-Ange in Paris, the original location of the Technès offices in the 1950s, from Henri Viénot's family photo albums.
Jacques Viénot’s apartment, rue Michel-Ange in Paris, the original location of the Technès offices in the 1950s, from Henri Viénot’s family photo albums.
Esthétique industrielle, 3 (1951), Photos 1 and 2 show a car designed by M. Paul Arzens, industrial stylist. Photo 3 (bottom) shows Diagnodyne 4B control stand for radiology apparatus, Technès for the Massiot Company, Courbevoie. Winner of the Label Beauté France award in 1953.
Esthétique industrielle, 3 (1951), Photos 1 and 2 show a car designed by M. Paul Arzens, industrial stylist. Photo 3 (bottom) shows Diagnodyne 4B control stand for radiology apparatus, Technès for the Massiot Company, Courbevoie. Winner of the Label Beauté France award in 1953.
Esthétique industrielle, 15 (1955). Drilling machine Micox, Technès for the Gendron Frères Company, Villeurbanne. This product received the Label Beauté France award in 1953.
Esthétique industrielle, 15 (1955). Drilling machine Micox, Technès for the Gendron Frères Company, Villeurbanne. This product received the Label Beauté France award in 1953.

The criticism of the consumer society also comes through in the form of  “anti-functionalism”. Fuctionalism was accused of not taking into account the emotional expectations of the users and also of wanting to hide its sell out to economic interests, incompatible with the humanism it tried to display, under the cover of a morale of beauty and good. But, not only was industrial aesthetics considered to be too submissive to market forces within the general protest movement of the 60s, it was also attacked by avant-garde art (such as Pop Art with its references to supermarket culture, comic strips and publicity), which flouted modernist aesthetes and their attachment to the canons of abstract beauty. Whether the reference be industrial aesthetics such as Jacques Viénot defined it, or functionalism, all of the stress placed on formal and ideological problems have contributed to obscuring the comprehension of design as a creative, methodical procedure upheld by professionals.

Jocelyne Le Bœuf

Notes :

1 – Esthétique industrielle no. 1 (1er trimestre, 1951).

2 – L’Institut d’Esthétique Industrielle “The Institute of Industrial Aesthetics” was created in 1951. Members included several industrialists and representatives of public national establishments. Georges Combet, President of Gaz de France, Claudius-Petit, Minister for Reconstruction and Urbanism, Raymond Boisdé, Secretary of State to Commerce, Paul Gambin, Director of an important company that manufactured machines and tools as well as many others. These people along with Jacques Viénot, were the organisers of an international conference on industrial aesthetics in Paris 1953, held under the auspices of l’Institut. The Institute was also the instigator of the Label Beauté-France in 1953 which later became the label Janus of Industry under the responsibility of Anne-Marie Sargueil, current Director of l’Institut Français du Design (new name given to l’Institut d’Esthétique Industrielle in 1984).

3  – Henri Viénot (Jacques’son), archives, Paris.

4 – Under the Presidency of Jacques Viénot, the members of l’Institut d’Esthétique Industrielle were asked to establish a Charter of Industrial Aesthetics. The main rules of this Charter were published in volume no.7 of the Esthétique Industrielle revue (2nd trimester, 1952).

5 – I’ve devoted my monographic research to Jacques Viénot (DEA in research, “Histoire et critique des arts”, Université de Rennes 2, 2004). The research largely has applied on documents from private archives, Jacques Viénot’s many writings and numerous interviews with Jacques’ son, Henri Viénot. The systematic study of the magazines he founded, in particular Art present  (13 issues between 1945 and 1950) and Esthétique Industrielle (37 issues between 1951 and his death in 1959) have been precious sources of information.

6 – DIM stands for Décoration Intérieure Moderne “Modern Interior Decoration” and also for Décore-Installe-Meuble “Décor-Installation-Furniture”. This company undertook only prestigious orders. An article appearing in Le décor d’aujourd’hui “Décor Today” in 1953 mentioned that DIM had undertaken the interior decoration for the Queen of Roumania, the Queen of Greece, the Prince of Wales and the King of Afghanistan. The 2nd volume of the revue Ce Temps-ci “Our Epoch” (created in 1928 by Jacques Viénot of which 12 volumes would appear between this date and 1931), presented the model of a bedroom for the Queen of Afghanistan which was reminiscent of the sumptuous décors for the film l’Inhumaine by Marcel l’Herbier (1923). The décor for this film was carried out partly by the architect Robert Mallet-Stevens and the artist Fernand Léger. The film was a manifesto for modern decorative art.

7 – In the first part of the monograph, I have outlined the engagements undertaken by Jacques Viénot and the functioning of his company within the context of the creation of the Union for Modern Artists in 1929 and also in the context of the ideological debates that were occuring within the Society of Artists and Decorators. These debates were particularly virulent at the time of the grand International Exhibition of Decorative and Industrial arts in 1925 in Paris.

8 – DIM’s commercial catalogue shows a waxed mahogany buffet which won a gold medal at the Amsterdam exhibition. Another photo shows a sculpted oak dining suite exhibited at Wiesbaden in 1921. Henri Viénot mentions an exhibition in London in 1928 that Jacques Viénot attended in person with his wife Henriette. There are no traces left of all this in documents from the time. However, a later article by Jacques Viénot mentions a trip to London in 1927 where, “for the first time, he sees antique furniture made to look recent” by “sandblasting by an antiquarian (…) concerned with new ideas”. After having seen this Viénot concluded that it is not only modern furniture that can benefit from the whiteness of its wood. “Out of yesterday’s decorative arts let us find those of tomorrow”, Art Présent, “Present Art” no. 1 (1st trimester, 1945).

9 – This is the name of an international association whose aim is to create, in European countries, establishments called: Porza Houses. These houses will offer an agreable place of sojourn and all necessary work commodities to all intellectual creators linked to the association. It runs on donations and sollicites the generosity of all those interested in its aims” chronicle by Jacques Viénot in “Our Epoch” no. 1 (1928), 20.

10 – Concerning the role of Paul Desjardins, see François Chaubet, Paul Desjardins et les Décades de Pontigny, ed. Presses Universitaires du Septentrion (Villeneuve-d’Asq, 1999).

11 – Henri Viénot mentions his parents’ voyages in 1929 to Prague and Berlin where they met Jacques’ brothers, Pierre and Henry Viénot. The year before Jacques Viénot had travelled to Venice, Bucarest and Vienna. Henri Viénot says that his mother could not accompany her husband on these trips because she was to give birth to their third child, Marc in November that year. In 1930 there is a trip to Portugal “ with the perspective of an important deal”. Henriette at this time writes to her husband saying “you should not overdo your nervous fatigue and you are living at a rhythm which is difficult to keep up”. The absence of documents unfortunately does not allow for an understanding of exactly what Jacques Viénot’s occupations were during these trips. All this information comes from Henri Viénot’s memories and letters he kept from his parents’letters.

12 – « After contacting Raymond Loewy in 1929 in New York, and once I had returned to France, I was taken to thinking that many French industrialists could take advantage of advice from competent men, who could help them to do better », Jacques Viénot, « Esthétique des formes », CNOF, monthly revue of organisation (15 et 16 May, 1950), 35.

13 – Jacques Viénot, « Applications pratiques des recherches d’esthétique à l’industrie », Esthétique industrielle, ed. Presses universitaires de France (Paris, 1952), 101.

14 – Nouvelles Brèves, 1932-1938, private archives. I was lucky to find these collections which constitute theonly traces permitting to reconstruct the history of Porza, whose momentum was broken by the Second World War. Many of Porza’s archives were burnt during the war.

15 – Henriette closely supported her husband in his commitments. She was a modern woman, who spoke several languages, loved sport, attended classes at L’Ecole du Louvre, extolled the values of tolerance and despised “bourgeois conventions”; from family archives. Henriette Brunet died at the beginning of the Second World War.

16 – A dossier compiled when Jacques Viénot was hired by le Printemps specifying that the candidate came from “an honourable family with good relations, with one family member being in Parliament. Having an excellent reputation”. The file also stated that Jacques Viénot spoke English and German fluently. Printemps archives, file no. 45248.

17 – In my study on Jacques Viénot we have been able to bring to light the important role he played in the development of the Primavera workshop for Printemps. This workshop forged his reputation as someone commited to “the democratizing of modern decorative arts” and to the introduction of novelty in the department store’s traditional furniture range, defending the introduction of quality, low price modular furniture.

18 – He founded the Clermont editions in 1945. These editions published the book he wrote on Leonetto Cappiello, whose daughter he had married in 1943. Apart from 2 other monographs on painters; Edouard Goerg by Gaston Diehl (1947) and Moïse Kisling by Georges Charensol (1948), these editions concentrated on the publication of the Art présent revue (1945) which in 1951 became Esthétique Industrielle.

19 – Jacques Viénot, La République des arts, ed. Horizons de France (Paris,1941).

20 – Technica, revue edited by l’Association des Anciens Elèves de l’Ecole centrale lyonnaise Old Scholars’ Association, no.308, (September, 1965).

21 – Paul Souriau, La beauté rationnelle, ed. Félix Alcan, Bibliothèque de philosophie contemporaine (Paris, 1904).

22 – Umberto Eco, Art et Beauté dans l’esthétique médiévale, references made to diverse texts by Thomas Aquinas, (La Somme 1, 67,1 ; I-II, 77, 5 à 3)), (Milan, 1987), ed. Grasset (Paris, 1997), 151-152.

23 – Art présent no 7-8, (1948).

24 – No. 7. In this volume of l’Esthétique industrielle, Jacques Viénot presents all those who contributed to the Charter; the architect Bauer, member of the Administrative council of l’Institut; Boutteville, Vice-President of the Société alsacienne de construction métalliques “Alsacian metallic construction company”; Combet, President of the Congrès international d’Esthétique industrielle and Director of Gaz de France; Desroches, President, commission des bancs d’essai “trials commission” of l’Institut and Assistant Director, research and development of the Compagnie Française Thomson-Houston; Jacques Dumond, President, exhibition commission, member of the Administrative council of l’Institut and Vice-President of SAD; Fourastié, member of the patronage committee of the Institut and professor at the CNAM, Centre National des Arts et Métiers, “National Arts and Trades Centre”; Fournier, Director of the department Temeg at the  Merlin and Gerin Establishments; Friedmann, member of the patronage committee of the Institut and Professor at the CNAM; Gamin,  Treasurer of the Institut and Director of the establishments Gambin and Co.; Gourdon, President of the Institut and delegate director of the establishment Equipements et Travaux à la Compagnie Electro-mécanique “Electro-mecanic Works and Equipment Company”; François Le Lionnais, engineer; Levantal, secretary for the 1953 Industrial Aesthetics conference and Director of the Company for the Develpment of Industry for Gaz de France; Souriau, philosopher, member of the patronage committee of the Institut, Director of l’Institut d’art et d’archéologie “Institute for Art and Archaeology” and Professor at the Sorbonne; Pierre Vago, architect and member of the Institut council.

25 – « Base et but de l’esthétique au temps du machinisme », Esthétique industrielle no. 9, (2ème trimestre, 1953), 60-63.

26 – Conférence de Liège 1954, Esthétique industrielle no. 15 (avril-mai, 1955).

27 – See the book written by Raymond Loewy in 1952 “Never leave well enough alone”, French translation La laideur se vend mal, ed. Gallimard, coll. Tel, (Paris, 1990).

28 – Georges Patrix, Denis Huisman, L’Esthétique industrielle (1ère publication 1961), ed. PUF, coll. Que sais-je ?, (Paris, 1971), 51-52.

29 – Association created at the initiative of Belguim in February, 1961.

30 – Bulletin of l’Institut d’esthétique industrielle, volume dedicated to the Comité de liaison pour l’Industrial Design dans les pays du Marché commun “Liaison Committee for Industrial Design in the common market countries” Bibliothèque des Arts décoratifs, (Paris, 1963).

31 – Antagonismes 2, l’Objet, catalogue, Musée des Arts décoratifs, (Paris, 1962).

32 – During a meeting at l’Institut d’Esthétique industrielle, René Huyghes spoke of “uniting again, and not just in a superficially affected way, the positive conquests which machines afford and the moral conquests which beauty afford”. He added “it would mean putting humanity in a position of having to choose between its material loss or is spiritual loss” and he congratulated the Institut members for “ having assigned themselves the task of reconciling the two”, Esthétique industrielle, no. 7, (1952), 17.

33 – Jacques Viénot often refers to La vie des formes “The life of forms” by Henri Focillon _(1943), ed. PUF, (Paris, 1970).

34 – « Des tendances de l’art décoratif d’hier, dégageons celles de demain », Art présent no. 1, (1945).

35 – Esthétique industrielle no. 39, (Mars-avril, 1959).

36 – « L’esthétique industrielle aux Etats-Unis », Esthétique industrielle, no. spécial 10-11-12, (1954), 73.

37 – See the chapter, « Design et sémiotique » : 287-339, Danielle Quarante, Éléments de Design industriel (1984), Nouvelle édition Polytechnica, Économica, (Paris, 2001).

38 – « Des tendances de l’art décoratif d’hier, dégageons celles de demain », op. cit.

39 – « Les Arts impliqués », Esthétique industrielle no 8, (1er trimestre, 1953), 22.

40 – The Association Formes utiles “Useful Forms” was created within the framework of UAM in 1949. While the UAM venture ended at the end of the 1950s without having ever regained the energy it mustered prior to the war, “Useful Forms” begins to play, at this same time, an important role in the diverse domains of home equipment.

41 – Open letter to the National Ministry for Education, Esthétique industrielle no 14, (janv.fev., 1955).

42 – Esthétique industrielle no 35, (sept-oct., 1958).

43 – Esthétique industrielle no 21, (avril-mai, 1956).

44 – Expression which the journalist attributes to Georges Patrix, an  industrial aesthete, and co-author with Denis Huisman of Que sais-je, l’Esthétique industrielle, 1961.

8 réponses à “Jacques Viénot and the « Esthétique industrielle » in France (1920-1960)

  1. I knew Werner von Alvensleben who toghether with Mario Bernasconi(my father) and Arthur Bryks founded the Porza Association in 1923.
    It is so difficult to find out more about the Porza, since documents were burnt during the war. I have some magazines from the Porza and some documents which I preserve at the mario bernasconi museum in 6912 Pazzallo Switzerland. Please let me know where I can find out more about the Porza.
    Best regards
    Claudia (museum curator)

  2. I am a design historian in Toronto researching the role of Raymond Loewy and the Compagnie de I’Esthetique Industrielle. I am particularly anxious to find any information on the participation of Loewy and CEI in Russia during the Cold War – there was a most unique tractor that I am desperately trying to get information on. Any help or advise would be most welcome (and any images would be just superb).

  3. Une biographie de la journaliste Laura Cordin, « Raymond Loewy » (éditions Flammarion 2003) comporte un chapitre sur les aventures de Raymond Loewy en URSS (P. 311-322). Quelques citations d’extraits de journaux et le renvoi à certains témoignages montrent des contacts avec le VNIITE (Institut de Recherche d’Esthétique d’URSS) et son animateur Youri Soloviev, dès 1961. Loewy aurait eu aussi des contacts avec Nikolaevich Smelyakov, du Ministère du Commerce extérieur aboutissant à un contrat pour 13 produits (mai 1973) dont une voiture (La Moskvich qui aurait donné lieu à une maquette présentée à la presse en juillet 1974). Les représentants de la CEI sur cette affaire étaient David Butler, vice-président et responsable du design des produits et Evert Endt, directeur artistique. Apparemment rien n’a abouti de tous ces projets.
    Je reporte ci-dessous le communiqué de presse (23 Novembre 1973), tel que mentionné dans la biographie mais les sources seraient à vérifier :
    « Coopération Franco-Soviétique, dans la profession d’Esthétique industrielle :
    Licensintory, avec la participation de l’Institut de recherche d’Esthétique industrielle (VNIITE), a mené des négociations avec l’une des sociétés de design industriel les plus renommées d’Europe, la Compagnie d’Esthétique Industrielle (CEI) fondée par Raymond Loewy en 1953.
    Cette coopération concerne le développement de projets de design d’un certain nombre de produits industriels majeurs. la CEI était représentée pendant les négociations par Raymond Loewy lui-même, l’un des spécialistes les plus remarquables dans le domaine de l’esthétique industrielle. L’étendue de ses activités créatrices couvre une gamme allant de produits manufacturés de grande consommation, au traitement extérieur et à l’équipement intérieur du Concorde d’Air France. Les négociations entre Licensintory et la Compagnie d’Esthétique Industrielle ont abouti à un contrat de longue durée. C’est la première expérience de collaboration internationale de l’URSS dans le design scientifique et technologique. Les fruits de ce contrat doivent permettre à nos industries d’utiliser la créativité et l’expérience professionnelle de la CEI basée sur ses études et les prévisions à long terme des besoins des consommateurs dans un monde de plus en plus compétitif ».

    A propos de la Moskvitch, l’auteure cite une phrase attribuée à Raymond Loewy dans la revue « Paris Match » du 12 octobre 1974 (à vérifier) :
    « Je rêve d’une Moskvich massive, bien plantée, mais élégante et aérienne. Une sorte de Noureev haltérophile ».
    Autre citation à vérifier (Revue « Jour de France – 2-8 décembre 1974) :
    « Il n’est pas dit un jour que je ne dessinerai pas leurs futures cabines spatiales, comme je l’ai fait pour la NASA ».

    Dans les produits prévus par le contrat, il est question de réfrigérateurs, montres, hydroglisseurs, appareils photo, tracteurs…

    Il faudrait voir les archives de la CEI…

  4. Hello, I live in Lisbon, Portugal, and I’m a 28 years old fellow research designer.

    I recently received a scholarship to work on a research project titled
    « Design in Portugal (1960-1974): the actions, actors and repercussions of
    the Art, Industrial Architecture and Industrial Design Nuclei of the
    National Institute of Industrial Research (I.N.I.I.) ».
    In 1965, the Nucleus organized the Ist Fortnight of Industrial Aesthetics,
    in Lisbon, with the realization of a series of conferences, lectured by
    several European experts, on industrial design like Henri Viénot, who was also a
    former president of ICSID between 1971-1973. Unfortunately, we can’t find
    any information and biography, would you, by any chance, know where we could find more information about him?
    Is is him in that first portrait photo?

    Thank you in advance.

    Best regards,

    Sarah CB

  5. Bonjour
    travaillant sur l’oeuvre de mon père , un premier travail a été fait ,collaborateur chez Technes , peintre ,prototypiste,designer ,je recherche toujours des documents et Témoignages , d’ éventuelle collaboration avec des chercheurs des étudiants des institutions . Bonne visite dans l’attente de vous lire Cordialement Nicolas Barray

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