All About Yves

French forties furniture has never been hotter—sweet vindication for dealer Yves Gastou, for whom it has been a lifelong passion

The big moment of revelation in Yves Gastou's early life came when he was only 18 years old, just before he left his hometown of Carcassonne, in southwest France, to begin military service. That epiphany involved a château, a Louis XVI chest of drawers, a marquise, and—before you get any funny ideas—a crusty antiques dealer of a certain age named Joseph Thomas, for whom Gastou worked as a shopboy.

As Gastou tells it, this period, the mid-sixties, was the golden age of the French antiques business. "In those days a merchant could still buy, at one stroke, the entire contents of a château," he recalls. "As a kid I was dazzled by getting into so many places and seeing such valuable things. In 1968 French priests lost the right to dispose of works of art, but before then provincial curés were permitted to sell them for certain purposes—to repair a church, for instance. Old charitable institutions and hospices, some dating back to Louis XIV, were emptying their attics and cellars. It was frightful, a sort of madness—rings were literally pulled off the hands of dying people.

"Monsieur Thomas and I would ring at the châteaux of indigent noble families. The portals would open a crack and the owners would call out, 'Show us your money!' Well, one day Monsieur Thomas was in the midst of buying a Louis XVI chest of drawers from this marquise, and I felt bold enough to offer her a few francs for a Gallé lamp that happened to be sitting on that chest. Monsieur Thomas was quite appalled, mortified that I had even noticed such a thing; he apologized to the marquise for my bad taste.

"You see, the best antiques, like major pieces in the Louis styles, went to Paris—or perhaps to America—by the trainload. The next-best material went to the antiques dealers on the Côte d'Azur. What was left over—including Art Nouveau stuff, such as that Gallé lamp—went to the local bigwigs. I made a mental note of this setup and right then and there said to myself, 'When I start trading I'm only going to deal in what all the other dealers find worthless.' That's the way it's been ever since."

Today, after a number of incarnations (as a furniture dealer in Carcassonne and Toulouse, and also at the St.-Ouen flea market in Paris), Yves Gastou is the leading dealer in French pieces made from 1937 to 1955, the last years in which a substantial quantity of French decorative furniture was hand-produced by master cabinetmakers, carvers, glassblowers, and metalsmiths. He calls this period "le style Quarante," or, as we might say, "French forties." Having rescued the style from oblivion, Gastou has contributed to its physical restoration and won it a handsome, though not prohibitive, value in the marketplace. Roger Prigent, of Malmaison Antiques in New York, credits Gastou with "almost reinventing [forties] style, because he was the first to appreciate it, because he went for the best, and because his taste was extremely light." And Bruce Newman, of Newel Art Galleries, another New York dealer stocking a large quantity of French forties material, notes that "Yves has an extraordinary eye, simply the best in Paris, for the kind of thing he sells and also for what can be successfully restored."

Gastou describes himself, modestly, as a chineur (a "picker") or a brocanteur (a used-goods dealer). He is utterly unassuming—a beaming, energetic figure in black jeans and rolled-up shirtsleeves shrewdly attuned to the comic side of life. At any hour in front of his shop a van may appear, piloted by one of his burly brocanteur friends from the provinces and laden with splendid or dubious furniture. Tables and chairs pile up on the sidewalk as the dealer makes his pitch, asking 10,000 francs here, 20,000 there; soon hilarious disputes erupt, with both hagglers dissolving in mirth. When it is all over, Gastou recalls the days he could purchase masterpieces by the major figures of his period (André Arbus, Jacques Adnet, Gilbert Poillerat, and Raymond Subes) for "peanuts." He still claims, without apology, that their work outranks the most beautiful creations of the 18th century.

Among Gastou's clients are tastemakers such as Karl Lagerfeld and Catherine Deneuve, so it may amaze us that French forties items once were, and in some quarters still are, discounted or despised. Fondly mimicking traditional styles and delighting in streamlined ornaments and shallow curves, this sort of furniture ran afoul of two irresistible currents in postwar design. One was doctrinaire modernism, which insisted on the elimination of ornament and purely functional role of domestic furnishings. The other was the tidal wave of handsome, mass-produced pieces emanating mostly from the United States, in particular, from Knoll International. By the mid-fifties it had become virtually impossible for traditional artisan-designers like André Arbus, a prewar recipient of important government contracts, to buck these two trends.

"There's a huge element of surrealism in all this," Gastou explains, gesturing at the things on display in his white skylit shop, the facade of which was designed by Ettore Sottsass, founder of the Memphis group. I see massive bronze girandoles by Subes; a couple of subtle, airy canapés that Marc du Plantier produced for the couturier Jacques Heim; two delicately shaped gilded-metal chairs by René Drouet; some monumental veneered furniture by Arbus with wrought-iron underbraces by Poillerat. All the pieces nod offhandedly to period styles. Beneath tables of contemporary severity the ironwork of Poillerat or Subes traces a swash of neo-Renaissance calligraphy; du Plantier's breezy wrought-iron canapés sinuously replicate the skeletal substructure of rococo furniture—what you'd find if you removed the quilted upholstery from a buttoned-up Louis XV loveseat.

It would be a mistake, however, to suppose that Gastou's inventory was originally produced for folks who wished to pretend they were living in the ancien régime. It consists, rather, of stage props raised to the level of art: pieces that come across as willfully poetic, even strangely fictional, as though forming a backdrop to some yet-to-be-lived drama. Visual metaphors are central here, as in a Cocteau movie or a great deal of postwar Parisian scenography and window dressing. The contours or adjuncts of a conventional design may be quoted in summary fashion to evoke a period; and elements usually carved or molded may be playfully "drawn" with looping ironwork or surface decor. Belonging to the same cultural landscape as Christian Dior's 1947 New Look, Christian Bérard's stage sets, the earlier work of the Giacometti brothers, and the paintings of Jean Hélion and Balthus, French forties furniture is allusive, figurative—as opposed to the great abstract pieces of designers like Le Corbusier, Robert Mallet-Stevens, and René Herbst.

Despite their form-vocabulary, French forties pieces go amazingly well with modernist ones. Somehow they manage to evoke the past in a dignified way, avoiding the kitschiness and plain bad proportions of so much postmodernist furniture. This quality, along with their relative affordability, may explain why over the last 15 years French forties pieces have grown so popular with designers like Thierry Despont and Peter Marino. California furniture designer Barbara Barry credits Arbus and Adnet with a strong influence on her own work. Their pieces, she says, have "a certain feminine line I connect to, so they seem somehow intimate and familiar."

You can see the way French forties furniture harmonizes with other periods in a hôtel particulier off the Rue de Varenne that Gastou filled with style-Quarante furniture over a six-year period. The rooms have 19-foot-high ceilings and Directoire boiseries. What's so striking here is the playful way the pieces by Arbus, du Plantier, Poillerat, and others rhyme with the curves and shapes of the existent moldings and mantelpieces. Yet the apartment is not a retro indulgence; nor is it a display of decadent affections. A primitive art collection fits in perfectly, and a superb cast-iron lamp by Alberto Giacometti serves as a succinct tie-in, demonstrating unsuspected visual parallels between the archaic, the neoclassical, and the surrealist.

"I was born with it," Gastou says—by which he means his feel for bygone craftsmanship. "From the age of five I was interested in nothing but churches and châteaux; I spent all my Sundays and holidays in junk shops and attics. I remember being quite unhappy that the French monarchy, with its flair for the decorative arts, had come to an end. I also remember being entranced by the Latin Mass, by the religious processions in Carcassonne—the statues paraded in the streets, the ostrich plumes, the votive candles, the gold brocades. Later, when I had grown up, my mother told me that I'd always been very eager to kiss the bishop's hand, but only because I was so enthralled by his big amethyst ring. By the age of ten or twelve I'd gone to sleep mentally at school, and my mother, who had good sense, looked around for an antiques dealer who'd take me on as a trainee. Well, she found old Monsieur Thomas, and I have wonderful memories of his house, which was full of dusty pistols and morocco-bound tomes and chests and bureaus that it was my duty to polish and to cart around."

Gastou insists that his only advantage was a sympathetic eye, "open to the marvels of the past. Nothing is more wonderful than the brocanteur's trade," he likes to say, "but all its drama lies in discovery."

Despite his expanded working capital, he still declines to make a practice of acquiring pieces by established 20th-century names like Emile Ruhlmann or Süe and Mare, which would fetch enormous prices. This, he feels, would mark a mental retreat—it would deprive him of the fun of scouting ahead, of being the first to see. Gastou believes that not only he but also the everyday shopper can still find reasonably priced pieces at the flea market or at the Paris auction house Hôtel Drouot; but he warns that the buyer must have an "oeil en alerte," an eye alerted to what constitutes quality in forties furniture.

To date the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris is one of the few museums that extensively collect pieces from this period. Yvonne Brunhammer, its former curator and the author of several invaluable books on 20th-century French design, including the major opus on Arbus, has been largely responsible for this initiative. But this museum is unlikely to remain alone in acquiring French forties pieces. Some American dealers, such as R. Louis Bofferding, a New Yorker who admires Gastou's taste and has himself sold important examples of postwar French design, strongly suspect that other public galleries will soon try to build topnotch samplings of Arbus, Adnet, and company. At that moment the prices, which are already edging up progressively, will surely jump.

A recent sign of broadening commercial interest in French forties furniture was a big furniture show which ended in January at the Centre Culturel in the Parisian suburb of Boulogne-Billancourt. The exhibition featured works by the major creators of Gastou's beloved period as well as lectures by critics and art historians, including Brunhammer. Clearly the days when you could pick up some neglected ironwork by Poillerat for "peanuts" are over.

In the last few years alone Paris has seen about 10 "revival" shows dedicated to the leading design figures of the 1940s. (The main dealers involved, aside from Gastou, were Galerie Eric Philippe, Galerie du Passage, and Arc en Seine.) Naturally, contemporary designers have taken note of this parade of shapes and materials, whose influence, though perhaps subliminal, is everywhere. Gastou is quick to observe that the work of designers like Adnet, the later du Plantier, and the wild cards Emilio Terry and Jean Royère have helped inspire such popular current designers as Garouste and Bonetti. Other experts have perceived that some of Philippe Starck's forms are cousins to those of René Prou—a master of shaped wood and metal tubing. And the trademark matings of André Dubreuil—the novel mixtures of wood, metal, and fabric—may well reflect the rediscovery of people like Poillerat and René Drouet, an inventor of hybrid furniture active from the '20s to the late '60s.

In a week of hanging out with Gastou I learned that he has not only discovered masses of '40s furniture but also befriended the human beings who made it—deeply cultivated, forgotten, saddened old men who were once the pride of France's artisan class. Might these friendships account, at least in part, for his passionate personal commitment to the work he shows? I watched him in the flea market and at the Hôtel Drouot as he made his way through the feverish patrons and wisecracking antiques dealers, throngs of pickers whispering into cellular phones, and commissaires-priseurs (the counterparts of our auctioneers) peering owlishly over their spectacles.

Now and again Gastou would home in on a piece of forties furniture, but nothing met his standards. "Çà, c'est du meuble meublant!" he'd say, meaning furniture you can only furnish with, stuff that can't take your breath away. Or, "Çà, c'est trop sage, c'est bourgeois—petit-bourgeois," meaning too tame, too petty, too fussy. In time I came to understand what a huge labor not only of discovery but also selection he has carried out in the past 25 years. Yves Gastou has ensured that nothing he judges small-minded or ill-proportioned will ever dim the luster of an era he treasures and has virtually resurrected.