Design expert Guillaume Cuiry remembers the man whose talent and vision transformed the palaces and hotels of the Middle East
Jean Royère (1902-1981) may be known as the “Décorateur à Paris” but his oeuvre influenced many creative industries. His penchant for sensory confidence came to fruition in thousands of drawings, developing iconic pieces such as the L’Ours Polaire (Polar Bear) sofa and his Elephant chair. Describing the “cramped feeling” of the typical bourgeois interior after the Second World War, Royère fanned out abroad to set up shops throughout Europe, the Middle East and South America, calling it a “great excuse for travelling.” From Cairo, to Beirut, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Iran, Royère dressed the noble halls of shahs, princesses and presidents in the 1950s.
It is probably because he travelled from his childhood to many countries and mastered English well that Royère chose to develop his activities outside France. While most French designers respond to orders from abroad, few chose to settle overseas. Jean-Henri Jansen once had an agency in Cairo. Mathieu Matégot opened an office in London and set up a factory in Casablanca. Royère directed up to seven branches abroad, spread over three continents – the Near East, Latin America and Europe. Beginning in 1945, when he made his first regular stays in Egypt, his professional activities outside France occupied him several months each year. By the end of his career he had travelled all over Europe, visited all of the Middle East and crossed the two Americas.
His participation in the exhibition of the French Decorative Arts in Cairo in 1938 led to a decoration project for the villa of the President of the Bourse, who decided to set up in Egypt. During this journey, where Royère attended the marriage of King Farouk, he met the principal personalities of Cairo and Alexandria. In 1946 he opened a gallery in the most beautiful part of Cairo, adjacent to the bookstore run by one of his French friends, Nelly Vaucher-Zanari.
Inaugurated on December 6, 1946, by the Minister of Public Instruction, in the presence of the French ambassador, this gallery was a great success and attracted all the high society of Egypt, included King Farouk, whom he regularly saw at the events given in his honour by the Europeans, but especially at fashionable nightclubs such as the Auberge des Pyramides. Royère was charged with decorating the king’s private apartments at the palace. According to Royère, it was traditional in the East for the sovereign to have a suite at his disposal in the poshest hotel. He also designed two mythical palaces, the Shepherds and the Semiramis, whose success ensured that he soon had the largest hotels in the Middle East in line for his decorating skills. His clients included high-profile celebrities, such as Boutros Boutros-Ghali, art-world celebrities and, above all, leaders of companies dependent on French interests.
In 1948, in order to welcome Royère’s achievements in taking French art abroad, the state entrusted him with the fitting-out of the reception rooms of the Consulate-General of Alexandria. For this official place he imagined a luxurious ensemble, without superfluous fantasy, from rich materials such as sycamore and bronze. In the vestibule, he applied his Eiffel Tower motif to the design of a console and a pair of stools. His extravagance extended to the carpet of the dining room, with woven tufts of wool, and to the light fixtures, in particular the huge Hedgehog chandelier in the big living room.
At the French Cultural Centre in Cairo, he furnished a living room in which one of the walls is decorated with a fresco that was painted by Jean Cocteau while he was accompanying Jean Marais on a theatrical tour in the Middle East.
The Kasr-el-Nil street gallery closed in 1952, when the fall of King Farouk deprived Royère of a part of his clientele, but the Egyptian enthusiasm for Royère’s creations quickly found an echo in other Middle Eastern countries. In 1947, the year following the opening of the Cairo gallery, the architect Nadim Majdalani proposed that Royère settle in Beirut.
In 1955, Majdalani had the Galerie L’Atelier built in the Avenue Sleiman-Boustani, where the works of Royère were permanently exhibited. His success in Lebanon, where he stayed several times a year and which was undoubtedly the country that most seduced him, resulted from his perfect understanding with Majdalani. Thanks to his many contacts, Majdalani introduced Royère to the Beirut community and made him the most sought-after decorator in Lebanon.
As he had in Egypt, he decorated several prominent hotels in Beirut, including the Bristol, the Saint Georges and the Capitol. For the latter’s 120 rooms, Royère settled upon a sober style of furnishing, in surroundings decorated in pink, blue and pale green. His style was subtler in the reception rooms, lounges, hall, bar, dance floor, library and the two dining room. The floor was covered with Italian marble slabs whose design – chevrons, clovers, crosses or crenellations – was different in each room. The walls, painted in shimmering colours, were adorned with straw and bamboo. Furniture and decorative elements were entirely made by the artisans of Beirut. But this delicate ensemble did not resist the bombs that ravaged the country in the ’80s. The same was true of the Bristol and the Saint Georges.
Since then, Royère has responded to orders from Jordanian and Syrian customers, such as the Arab Bank in Baghdad, for which he collaborated with the ironworker Raymond Subes, or the restaurant of the Ambassador Hotel in Jerusalem.
In 1955, on the occasion of his marriage with Princess Dina, the young King Hussein of Jordan commissioned Royère to decorate his private palace on the shores of the Dead Sea.
Attempting to open galleries in more remote regions, Royère began his first trips to Iran in the early 1950s. He recalled his visit to Isfahan in a report, published in Le Décor d’aujourd’hui, on the treasures of the architecture of the city and more particularly the decorations of bricks and mirrors. In 1954, during an exhibition of his drawings at the Faculty of Fine Arts of Tehran, where he gave a lecture on interior architecture, he met Mohsen Foroughi. A Francophone trained at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris and signatory in 1949 of the Manifesto of the Union of Modern Artists (UAM), Foroughi was the personal architect of the Shah of Iran. Married to a French woman, he came from one of the oldest families in Iran. His father, a former prime minister, was even entitled to a national funeral.
Thanks to Foroughi, Royère was introduced to the court. The Shah, his daughter Shahnaz and his two sisters Chams and Ashraff, ordered the development of their private apartments in the family residence of Sa’ad Abad. On the occasion of the Shah’s wedding to Farah Diba in 1958, Royère created a private lounge, a boudoir, a winter garden, and a cinema with a bar. For Princess Shahnaz, daughter of the Shah and Queen Fawzieh, sister of King Farouk, he made an amusing garden with furniture whose seats were covered with Paule Marrot’s fabrics and topped with a canopy.
The models of these achievements were presented in his gallery in Paris and at the Memorial Union Ballroom in New York in 1963. Thanks to these prestigious orders, which allowed him to open in Tehran what was no longer an agency, but a real branch, Royère acquired an international reputation.
In 1959, the decoration of the Béharéstan Palace, the Iranian Senate, consecrated his career in the Middle East. Built in Tehran by Mohsen Foroughi and Heydar Ghiai, this building, one of the most important constructions in the region, needed to accommodate the 900 senators sitting in the chamber. Aside from André Bloc, who created two monumental sculptures 25 metres high on both sides of entry, and Gilbert Poillerat, who drew all the ironworks, Royère realised the whole of the interior decoration, installing seats in gilded aluminium trimmed with grenai leather in the Shah’s office. At this time Royère was at the peak of his success and creativity.
To answer his orders abroad, Royère had his furniture made on site. Manufacturing in France would have increased delivery times and hindered the smooth running of construction sites. Moreover, he found skilled and cheap labor that in the countries in which he was established.
In an article entitled “The Madness of French Prices”, Royère protested against the exorbitant costs in France, reporting that manufacturing was 30 to 40 percent cheaper in Beirut at the end of the war and that this gap had doubled by 1953. In Egypt, where he worked with a company headed by his representative Gabriel Chamma, all the furniture for the villas in Alexandria and Cairo was manufactured locally. The same went for Lebanon, where he trained craftsmen capable of meeting his standards.
“From the point of view of work,” he says, “I have found here carpenters whom I have endeavoured to make into cabinet makers, and I must admit that I have met, in addition to the best will, real collaborators.”
All furniture for the Middle East was created in Beirut. It was Lebanese craftsmen who made the furniture for King Saud, Prince Faisal, King Hussein of Jordan and the Arab Bank of Baghdad.
Some journalists saw in these prestigious orders the renaissance of the Lebanese handicraft tradition. Several names have come down to us, like those of the carpenter Mitri Daher or the upholsterer Raouf Samara, who made the furniture for the Capitol.
The commercial success of Jean Royère in Lebanon inspired a few craftsmen, who took up certain characteristics of his style and went so far as to produce near-identical models that only certain finishing details betray. Installed in apartments or villas that have been fitted out, they were carried out without endorsement by their suppliers, such as the furniture workshop Harem, which offered furniture imitating the style of the master.
In this period Royère’s name was cited more than 500 times in more than 400 titles spread over 34 countries on the five continents. Without doubt, his work and creations realised in the Near and Middle East greatly contributed to Royère’s fame on an international level. What would have happened without the contribution of this region, which, better than anyone else, understood the extent and power of his talent?
By Guillaume Cuiry
A version of this article appeared in print in Selections, The Biennial & Museum Acquisitions #41, pages 140-143.