To hear Maureen Footer tell it, Paris in the late 1940s mirrors America of late. “Society was polarized, people felt like they were losing their identities, and outside influences threatened what was considered the French way of life,” the style historian says on the eve of publishing her new book, Dior and His Decorators: Victor Grandpierre, Georges Geffroy, and the New Look (The Vendome Press, $60). But instead of snarking on Twitter, she continues, couturier Christian Dior and two friends—the charming Grandpierre, a former photographer; the melancholic Geffroy, an ex–fashion designer—went about making French classicism great again, though they stirred in English furniture, Finnish carpets, and Middle Eastern bronzes. The modish result was revolutionary, Footer says, “in a streamlined but cosmopolitan manner that answered, as design often can, the big questions of the time: Who are we? Where are we now? Where are we going?”
Smoldering from war and lean from rationing, Paris was thunderstruck when Dior made his haute couture debut in 1947. Tight bodices made bosoms the voluptuous center of attention, while corseted waists gave way to yards of costly silk. (A textile manufacturer underwrote Dior’s business.) Skirts “spread like an open tulip,” a reporter observed of the Corolle collection, a.k.a. the New Look. Actually, the romantic silhouette, echoing billowing ancien régime garb, wasn’t new at all, nor were the historicist decors of Dior’s fashion house, then as now at 30 avenue Montaigne. But the rooms’ fuss-free execution made them au courant.
“While the prefabricated housing of Jean Prouvé and the space-saving sliding doors of Charlotte Perriand represented one form of modernity,” Footer argues in her book, “Grandpierre offered an alternative vision.” In his hands, neoclassicism met modern clarity at Dior, “radiant, pared down, and thoughtfully reconsidered.” The maison de couture was a pearl-gray paradise—upholstery, curtains, portières—relieved by white paneled walls and the white frames of Louis XV–style sofas and chairs. It remains Dior’s template today, though the charming Grandpierre would update some of the boutiques in the 1970s with stainless-steel accents. He also decorated the couturier’s home in uneasy concert with Geffroy.
© Alain Lonchampt
Dior’s commissions “pretty much eclipse what Grandpierre did on the residential side,” Footer explains. Geffroy, on the other hand, has become a cult hero. The frenemies had notably high-caliber clients, but Geffroy’s roster swaggered, from chic malicieuse Daisy Fellowes to the deep-pocketed ménage à trois composed of guano heir Arturo Lopez-Willshaw, his wife, Patricia, and his lover, Baron Alexis de Redé—all of whom flocked to Geffroy for gleaming mahogany antiques, walls upholstered with silk velvet, plasterwork paneling that resembled canework on steroids, and those unexpected Nordic carpets. Reverence for the past aside, Geffroy and Grandpierre each insisted that “design had to respond to how we live,” Footer says. “Not to mention that it should be beautiful, glamorous, and sensuous, too.”