Co-founder Stephane Danant discusses the story behind Joseph-André Motte’s Senior Civil Servant's Desk, 1967, one of the most important desks in modern French design history.
Stainless steel, a material of our time, a material that we know well and which, from architecture to interior design, wall decoration, furniture and sculpture, is perfectly in tune with contemporary aesthetic ideas. A noble, docile and demanding material, stainless steel, well understood and used carefully for its durability, quite naturally takes a prominent position in the thousand and one uses in contemporary life.
The meeting between Joseph-André Motte and the director of steel producer Ugine Gueugnon led to the creation of a range of furniture in the style of the international design movement of the time. In 1963, Motte designed a series of stainless-steel wire seats for the City of Paris, in the tradition of Harry Bertoia, Verner Panton, and Warren Platner. That year, he created a steel armchair composed of folded metal ribbon, which was shown at the Salon des Artistes Décorateurs (SAD), 1963. Its presentation did not meet great success and sadly this model was never manufactured. However, the desk in stainless steel and Macassar ebony that he designed for the Mobilier National and which was shown for the first time at the 1967 SAD had much greater impact. This work is now considered to be the most beautiful desk made in France during the second half of the 20th century, and the crowning achievement of Joseph-André Motte.
With its peculiarly French elegant simplicity, the GMC 21 desk and the GMC 26 hexagonal coffee table that accompanied it, displayed all the aesthetic qualities and luxurious aspects of this new material.
Motte developed the concept of the steel desk towards the end of 1966, as he filed the patent in October. He was contractually bound to submit plans and studies of his project to the Mobilier National before March 28, 1967. The prototypes must have been completed in the spring of 1967. It was at the 1967 SAD in October, at which the Mobilier National was participating for the first time, that the range of “furniture for high-ranking officials” by Motte was presented to the public.
The full range of this furniture designed by Motte – desk, coffee table, desk chair and visitor chairs – was installed the following year, 1968, in the office of the Prefect of Val d’Oise. This was without doubt the most ambitious and most successful public commission of his prolific career. Motte’s steel desk and table were then put into production by MD; only a few examples were made and mainly to order.
The Mobilier National was charged with furnishing the French Pavilion at the Montreal World Fair (Expo 67) in 1967. It was responsible for creating the Salon d’Honneur, which was furnished by Olivier Mourgue, but also for equipping all the offices for the General Committee, the City of Paris, Foreign Trade, and the Office de Radio-diffusion Television Française (ORTF), notably with office furniture designed by Philippon and Lecoq. The avant-garde of French design was duty-bound to be present in Montreal to illustrate a particular idea of French modernity. Included were numerous commissions by the Mobilier National that were sent by plane for the opening of Expo 67. The desk by Motte, which was still at prototype stage, was apparently part of that shipment. We have not yet found documentation confirming its presence in the French Pavilion or where it was exhibited in Expo 67. However, we do know that it was there, as it was picked up by one of the Canadian organizers of the fair, and never returned to France. Considering that the 1967 SAD opened in October and that our desk was present at the opening of Expo 67 in April of the same year, we deduct that our model is most probably the very first prototype made by the ARC.
Motte’s work represents the intersection of beauty and functionality in the face of an industrial society - it is in the collection of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris; Musée du Louvre, Paris; and several public forums including the Hôtel de Ville, Grenoble, France, 1968 and the Council of Europe’s building, Strasbourg, France, 1973. Motte earned the René Gabriel Prize in 1957, the Grand Prize of the International Exposition, Brussels, 1958, and was honored as a Commandeur des Arts et des Lettres, the highest distinction awarded by the French Ministry of Culture.