dancing with architecture: Robert Mallet Stevens' Villa Cavrois, Croix, France

After visiting a collection of early modern houses designed by Robert Mallet-Stevens on (ahem) Rue Robert Mallet-Stevens in Paris, I googled the Mallet to answer a question the bride had. Amidst the googling, I realized that Mallet-Stevens' pinnacle architectural achievement, Villa Cavrois, was just outside of Lille, the next stop on our trip about Europe. "Let's go!" I yelped.

At the turn of the 18th century, European industrialists tended to live in apartments at their factories. However, in the early 1900s, it became fashionable for the titans of industry to live off-site, out in the country, in a mansion. Paul Cavrois, a wealthy textile manufacturer, joined this trend and, after buying a large property north of Lille, France, sought to build his large family a country mansion.

Initially, Cavrois marched down the same path of his contemporaries, commissioning an architect to design the standard, if not boring, French chateau. However, while showing his latest textiles at the 1925 International Exhibition of Decorative Arts, he saw Cubist trees designed by the French architect Robert Mallet-Stevens (along with Jan and Joel Martel) draw the attention of passersby and the press (who called the trees 'a scandal'). The cubist trees drew press attention to Mallet-Stevens previous built works. Shortly after Cavrois toured Rue Mallet-Stevens in 1929, Mallet-Stevens began design work on a Modern mansion for him.
Cubist trees at the 1925 International Exhibition of Decorative Arts

Born in Paris to Belgian art collectors, Robert Mallet-Stevens began his career as an architect in 1907, a perfect time to enter the field as proto-Modernists began developing and implementing Modernist theories and right before Frank Lloyd Wright published his influential Wasmuth portfolio in 1910. Mallet-Stevens was influenced by Josef Hoffman and the Viennese Secession and was interested in Frank Lloyd Wright, the Bauhaus, and the de Stijl movement. His first almost-built Modern design was the 1921-23 Cubist Villa Poiret south of Paris (almost built because Poiret ran out of money after the shell was completed; it was 'finished' in 1932 after a new owner 'updated' the house to Art Deco with a different architect).

Mallet-Stevens followed with Villa Noailles near Nice in 1923-38 (since modified) and five houses on Rue Mallet-Stevens in 1927. Mallet-Stevens did a lot of set design for early movies where he became interested in light as a material. Man Ray even made a film inspired by Villa Noailles. Mallet-Stevens created the Union des Artistes Moderne (1929) and the journal L'architecture d'aujourd'hui. At the turn of the 1930s, he and Le Corbusier were the prominent Modern architects of France.
Robert Mallet-Stevens, waiting for his cocktail.

Designed and built between 1929 and 1932, Villa Cavrois catches Mallet-Stevens at the peak of his design career, and Cavrois was the perfect client, giving the architect complete control of the project and unlimited access to his bank account. The villa was the architect's last private commission.

Although Mallet-Stevens' previous work was in the smooth whites preferred by the International Stylists, the architect, after a taking Cavrois on a trip to see William Dudok's town hall for Hilversum in Holland, chose a warm brick veneer for the villa. Its Modern facade was matched by a thoroughly Modern interior with central heating, an elevator, sophisticated indirect lighting, central sound, wireless radio in each room, and a clothes press and dryer (drying closet) in the basement. Rooms were themed with different Modern styles, and Mallet-Stevens designed most of the furniture as well as the landscaping.
The house opened to a wedding for Cavrois' daughter (how's that for construction deadline pressure?).

German troops occupied the villa between 1940 and 1944, converting the house into barracks for 200 troops and slicing up and burying the reflecting pool since it could be seen by allied bombers. After the war, the Cavrois's subdivided parts of the house into two apartments for their now adult sons. The family lived in the villa until 1985 when it was sold to real estate developers with plans to raze the villa and subdivide the property. As a consequence, the property was abandoned and thoroughly looted and vandalized. France bought the property in 2001 and began restoring it, first revealing it to the public in 2015.

The abandoned villa (images from here).

After Robert Mallet-Stevens' death in 1945, his work fell into obscurity, in large part because he requested that his papers be destroyed and also because he was generally ignored by Modernism's make-or-break-your-career cognoscenti at the time, Philip Johnson and Henry-Russell Hitchcock. I suspect the burning of his papers reflects the bitterness of this rejection. (Hitchcock mentions Mallet-Stevens several times in his 1927 book Modern Architecture, but dismisses him as "publicist talent" and because of his non-uniform and, at times, frou-frou interiors and "less intelligent" than his contemporaries because of his subtle use of geometry as ornamentation.)

A retrospective at the Pompidou in 2005 brought Robert Mallet-Stevens back into the limelight, and today's books on Modern architecture will often show several Mallet-Stevens. Mallet-Stevens may not be, by some eyes, a pure Modernist, but he was certainly one of the earliest innovators to leave an architectural footprint on the trail to Modernism.

'This place is beautiful!" I exclaimed to a docent. "You are correct," she replied.

If you go:

The villa is well worth a visit: It's an absolutely stunning remodel of an absolutely stunning structure.

Official site of the Villa. Photos allowed. Almost the entire structure is available for gawking at your own pace.

All photos are by me unless otherwise noted.

Approach to the front of the house via the drive.

There's the front entry.

If you drive clear around the circular drive, here's the view from the opposite side.

Presumably, during large shin-digs, folks would park in the grassy circle and walk this approach to the front door.

Detail of the glass in the portico.

Detail of the spherical light sunk into the portico.

Groundfloor plan.

View from the entryway (#1 in the above floorplan) through the salon hall into the back grounds. Critics call this approach "cinematic" and influenced by Mallet-Stevens work in set design. This entryway design appears in one of the movies he worked on.

Inside the double-height salon hall (#2) with a solid view of the grounds. 

A corner of the salon hall (#2).

Salon hall (#2): Mallet-Stevens designed several types of Modern covers for hydronic radiators in the house. Although not frou-frou in and of themselves, the lack of consistent design dialog through the house is something that would have bothered Hitchcock--each room chatters at you in its own language. While not ideal from a pure mouthing of Modernism, it makes for a much more interested tour to see how the architect could approach the same problem in different ways. Note the floor: That's wood grouted into a geometric pattern.

Salon hall (#2): Fireplace and seating area (echos of Frank Lloyd Wright?). This is a big room with places for intamacy.

Salon hall (#2): looking towards the parents' dining room (#3). Note the three large black circles above the large sliding door. During the tour, I thought those were registers for central heat. Learned later that those are loudspeakers that are part of the central sound system. The Cavrois' could put an old record on and pipe it throughout the house.

Parents' dining room (#3): looking out towards the patio. The large windows in the villa allow a glorius amount of natural light to enter the structure: an unusual feature of houses at the time.

Parents' dining room (#3): The "chandelier" above the dining room table. Mallet-Stevens used a lighting designer to develop creative ways to indirectly light rooms and activities.

Children's dining room (#4).

Kitchen (#5a): Huge kitchen with massive amounts of natural light.

More kitchen.

Window mechanism in the kitchen.

The lighting fixture in the kitchen.

Hallway looking towards #1.

Corner of Paul Cavrois' office (#6b). You can see the indirect lighting on the opposite wall in the mirrors.

Smoking room (#6a): Cuban mahogany lined (how appropriate!) with a lower, cozier ceiling height. This is where the locker room talk occurred.

Son's bedroom #7a, which is also the de Stijl room. Probably another chink in Mallet-Stevens' architectural armor is that he seemed to see architectural movements as styles rather than theories and employed them as such. Still: What a gorgeous room! 

Note the loudspeaker in the upper right. The ceiling is painted a gloss black such that it is super reflective.

De Stijl desk in the corner. The room is single height; the glossy black ceiling reflects so well that the room appears to be double height. The enormous ceiling fixture is sunk into the ceiling, but here it appears to be hanging from a higher level.

Missing from the house is this excellent de Stijl nightstand. A future furniture project for my pal, Dan Coulbury?

Bathroom for bedroom #7a.

Boy's bedroom #7b. Loudspeaker above entrance.

Slide out bidet in the bathroom for #7b.

Let's head upstairs!

Plan for the second floor.

Looking down into the salon-hall (#2).

An example of what the interior of the house looked like before it was restored (one of the #10's).

The parents' bedroom (#9b).

The boudoir (#9c).

The master bathroom (#9a). The shower in the left corner has seven showerheads in it! To the left of the shower (not shown) is a built-into-the-floor scale to weigh yourself.

Room 10a: Children's playroom.


Clothes dryer (drying closet) #12a.

Furnace (#12b).

Wine cellar (#12c). I counted 99 of these square inserts for holding bottles of wine. That's a lot of wine!

This is where the special (reserve) wines were kept. 

Up on the rooftop.

Looking down on the circular drive and path.

Looking down on the caretaker's house. It alone is a fantastic place.

And now for a stroll out back, the side, and out...

No diving board for the pool...

Some sort of on-site display made with shipping containers.

Caretaker's house.


Interestingly, these bricks are veneer (1-inch deep) installed over standard red brick. The vertical joints are flush while the horizontal joints are raked and painted black.