By Rosalind Pepall
Magazine Issue: Spring/Summer 2015
The desk had a tubular steel frame upon which was posed a rectangular sheet of thick clear glass. On one side were two small glass shelves on tubular steel supports. Simplicity itself. Made in Canada in 1932, it was modelled after the furniture designs of the great Bauhaus architect Marcel Breuer, who had been inspired by the curved metal handle bars of his bicycle to develop hollow metal tubes as a framework for chairs and tables.
By the late 1920s and early 1930s, this basic idea exploded into designs for lightweight, industrially produced, tubular metal furniture by the most progressive creators of the period, such as Breuer, Mies van der Rohe, and Le Corbusier in collaboration with Charlotte Perriand.
At this time in Canada, homes were still being decorated with wooden furniture in an eclectic array of styles: moderately priced versions of Arts and Crafts “mission oak” furniture, or, more often, reproduction English Georgian, mahogany pieces, and sometimes the most fashionable “art moderne” or art deco models revealing impressive wood grains. For Canadian design, a tubular steel and glass desk was rare, and this one had been designed by Jeannette Meunier Biéler (19001990), one of Canada’s first female professional interior decorators.
I came across the name of Meunier Biéler in 1988 when I was working on an exhibition, The 1920s: Age of the Metropolis, for the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. The show focused on three great metropolises: Berlin, Paris, and New York. I wanted to include something about Canada, as both Montreal and Toronto had good examples of art deco architecture and interiors—notably the dining rooms for the T. Eaton Company’s department stores in both cities. Jeannette Meunier, a native of Ste-Anne-de-Sabrevois, south of Montreal, had worked in the Montreal Eaton’s store after her graduation from the École des beaux-arts de Montréal in 1928. Her work at the art school had attracted the eye of the head of Eaton’s display department in Montreal, Emile Lemieux, and he hired Meunier to help him set up a series of art deco showrooms, featuring jazzy wallpaper, recessed lighting, geometrically shaped furniture, and lots of black, gold, and silver tones.
By the early 1930s, Meunier was working as an interior decorator and had moved on in her interests, taking note of the most current European trends in interior design, especially the German interiors illustrated in publications such as Innen Dekoration. The cold, chromed-metal and glass furniture coming out of Germany and France probably looked too industrial and austere for Canadian taste, but Meunier was attracted to its clean, simple lines, and tried to encourage her clients to include tubular steel furniture in their homes.
In April 1931, she married André Biéler (1896-1989), a well-known Canadian artist of Swiss origin, and continued to work in Montreal. Then, in 1936, the couple moved to Kingston, as André had been asked to run the art department at Queen’s University. Four children arrived soon after, and so Jeannette had little time for her career; however, she did carry out a few commissions for the university; for example, a collaboration with André on the interior decoration for a music/concert room, and the conversion of a large house into a women’s residence.
In 1988, I decided to visit the Biélers in Kingston to find out more about Jeannette’s work. It was unusual to find a Canadian designer, as early as 1931-1932, who was so ready to promote tubular steel furniture for domestic interiors. When I arrived at their apartment, I was met by a gregarious André at the door. Jeannette was standing in the background, as she was losing her sight at age eighty-eight. Slight in physique and very elegant, she had large eyes which I recognized from the early photographs of her in stylish 1930s hats. She spoke softly, in stark contrast to her husband, who was rather deaf and invited me inside with a vigorous, hearty voice.
A bridge table had been set up in the middle of the living room, so that we could look together at some of Jeannette’s drawings and vintage photographs from the 1930s. André announced that we would proceed by going through the drawings one by one. He would act as Jeannette’s eyes and describe the images for her, and I could ask whatever questions I wished. He then produced what looked like the top of a large, old RCA Victor gramophone horn and stuck the small end of it close to his ear, directing the wide circular end, like a megaphone, in my direction. So there I sat between the two Biélers—he was her eyes, and she was his ears—as we pored over the images.
Jeannette’s drawings of remarkably minimalist interiors in cool rose and beige tones featured chairs, dressing tables, and tall standing lamps in tubular steel. Her desk showed up in one of the photographs of the apartment she and André had rented on Peel Street in Montreal, shortly after their marriage. Who had made it, I asked? She told me how difficult it had been to find someone to produce the tubular steel framework from her design, and finally she had turned to a Montreal aircraft manufacturing company, but she couldn’t remember the name. Nor was she sure where she had obtained the two cantilevered metal chairs in the photograph, which were not stock
European models. Hanging on the wall in this Peel Street sitting-room was a painting by André of a handcrafted, early Quebec wooden chair in a rural French-Canadian house. It posed a striking contrast to Jeannette’s industrial steel ensemble. The juxtaposition may have been deliberate, as Jeannette told me with a laugh that when they were first married, she had banished André’s collection of heritage Quebec furniture to storage.
Around the Biélers’ Kingston apartment were examples of Jeannette’s later, light wood furniture, the most notable being a tall cupboard in plywood on short tubular steel legs, with a set of glass shelves like small boxes attached to one side. Made in the 1940s, it was very much Jeannette’s own unique design.
Sadly, almost two years after my visit, Jeannette died in 1990, her husband having passed away the year before. As it turned out, there was no room for a display of Canadian work in the Montreal show I was working on, as the exhibits from Germany, France, and the United States overflowed the galleries. However, ten years later, thanks to the generosity of her family, Jeannette Meunier Biéler’s tubular steel desk found its place in the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts collection, where it is permanently exhibited alongside international works in the decorative arts and design galleries.
Rosalind Pepall, an art historian and former Senior Curator of Decorative Arts at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.