Designing the French Interior
Designing the French Interior

Anca I. Lasc

Anca I. Lasc is Assistant Professor of history and theory of design at Pratt Institute, New York City, USA. Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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, Georgina Downey

Georgina Downey is an independent scholar and Visiting Fellow in the graduate art history program at the University of Adelaide, Australia. Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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and Mark Taylor

Mark Taylor is Professor of architecture at The University of Newcastle, Australia. Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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Bloomsbury Academic, 2015


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Book chapter

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Intimate Vibrations: Inventing the Dream Bedroom

DOI: 10.5040/9781474254991.ch-003
Page Range: 29–46

Ours is a society racked ceaselessly by nervous erythrism. We are sickened by our industrial progress, by science; we live in a fever, and we like to dig deeper into our sores …. Everything suffers and complains in the works of our time. Nature herself is linked to our suffering, and being tears itself apart, exposes itself in its nudity. (Zola 1896: 546; Silverman 1992: 80)

Owing to the abrasiveness of the modernized city, the invasiveness of new technologies, and sensory overstimulation by the mass media, by 1896 Émile Zola regarded the modern subject as subsumed by fever (1896). Even before this time France had become, according to Italian criminologist Cesare Lombroso, the most degenerate of all Western nations, his study of Criminal Man revealing that it had the highest rate of criminals in any European state (1876).[1] The 385 percent increase in suicide documented by Émile Durkheim (1897), together with the rapid rise in hysteria, neurasthenia, epilepsy, and alcoholism—the French being the greatest consumers in Europe devouring 27 liters of pure alcohol every year including copious amounts of “the green fairy”–was correlated by Valentin Magnan, as well as Zola, to the increasing prevalence of nervous disorders (Magnan 1871). In a series of articles published in Revue Scientifique, Charles Richet, followed by Marie Manacéïne, identified overexertion of the nervous system in the metropolis as one of the chief sources of suicide, hysteria, neurasthenia, and national devitalization (Manacéïne 1890; Richet 1919). The mounting fear of rampant degeneration, escalating depopulation, and devolution to the point of extinction generated a national psychopathology of paranoia, a “queasy, sickening feeling that all was not right, that things were in decay and that one could not fit into one’s own surroundings” (Hirst 2004: 24).

“We are afraid,” confessed the writer Guy de Maupassant in 1889. “We are afraid of everybody, and everybody is afraid under this regime …. Fear of cities, fear of disease, fear of degeneration, fear of corruption, fear of the electors, fear of majorities, and fear of newspapers and the opinions they voiced” (de Maupassant 1889: 388). Without stable boundaries, modern subjects were in danger of being transformed, according to Georges Valbert, into “agitated” and weary “neuropaths.”[2] Within the discourses of neuropsychiatry and la psychologie nouvelle, both the sensory overstimulation of the “poisonous city” and the artificiality of mass media were inscribed as agents of degeneration, devitalization, hysteria, and neurasthenia with an impact upon the febrile nervous system equivalent to what Walter Benjamin calls “a shattering of the interior” (1935: 38). Bombarded by mass advertising and overwhelmed with the physiological stress and psychological strains of the city, such “new psychologists” as Maurice Rollinat pointed out that both males and females sought an escape from their overwrought nerves and the danger of contracting what Jean-Martin Charcot called les maladies nerveuses (Rollinat 1883). Consistent with Henri Bergson’s doctoral thesis, Time and Free Will, they longed for a sanctuary safe from the feverish pace and fracturing flux of metropolitan life in which intimate relationships, psychological intuition, imagination, and “felt experiences” triggered by memory and empathy could be embraced (Bergson 1889).

With the “sick city” identified by theorists and sensationalized by the mass media as an agent of alcoholism, criminality, suicide, cholera, tuberculosis, syphilis, hysteria, and neurasthenia, by the fin-de-siècle the French interior was transformed into a refuge able to fortify the physiology of city dwellers and to nurture their psychology. Following la psychologie nouvelle, their psychology was revealed as sensitive, nervous, susceptible to exhaustion and prone to imagistic suggestion and projection. To be able to nurture their psychological interiority, particularly their phantasies and dreams, the French interior became inscribed as a domestic haven of peace and security, imagination and relaxation able to foster the intimacy of close personal and sexual relationships. Within this haven, the French bedroom became valorized as the most precious place for relaxing the body, releasing the unconscious, exploring creativity, enhancing dreams and achieving intimacy, as epitomized by its sanctification by Marcel Proust (1909–1922).[3] Within la psychologie nouvelle, the boudoir for woman and the chambre à coucher with its lit conjugal took on new roles as a soothing anesthetizer not just of a citizen’s overwrought nerves but that of the conjugal couple. Reconceived as a metaphor for the mind itself, what Jules Bois called a “chambre mentale” (1900: 29), the interior space of the boudoir and the chambre à coucher also became inscribed within Neo-Lamarckian evolutionary theory as a recuperative place to recharge the cerebral and psychological energy required for “creative evolution” in order to attain what Bergson termed l’élan vital: “The vital life force” (1907: 88–99). Not only could French citizens seek refuge from the sensory barrage of the metropolis within this “chambre mentale” but they could also find intimate vibratory reanimation, as this chapter will reveal, particularly through a dynamic and intimate interaction between interior decoration and their psychological exploration. No more intimate refuge and energizing space existed for this to ensue than the fin-de-siècle bedroom.

Reconceived within the interdiscursivity of Symbolist Decadence, la psychologie nouvelle and Neuropsychiatry as the site of dreams, memories, felt experiences, and intimate relationships, as well as organic reunification, the fin-de-siècle bedroom became the locus for exploration by artists, architects, and interior decorators associated with the Nabis, École de Nancy, L’Art dans tous, and L’Art Nouveau. This is demonstrated not only by the prevalence of paintings of the intimate interior from Pierre Bonnard to Félix Vallotton but also by the spate of new bed designs ranging from Louis Majorelle’s 1900 chambre à coucher with its Lit et table de chevet (Janneau 1966: 30), Georges Rémon’s 1900 Projet de chambre à coucher, Émile André’s 1902 Lit de bout à décor de tulipe, Émile Gallé’s 1904 Lit Aube et Crépuscule, André Vallin’s 1907 Chambre à coucher, Henri Bellery Desfontaines’s 1907 Lit et Psyche, the chamber à coucher designed by Charles Plumet and Tony Selmersheim, Frank Brangwyn’s chambre à coucher commissioned for Mr. and Mrs. Davis, as well as the twin beds designed by Claude Delvincourt for l’Art Nouveau Bing in Turin in 1902. Yet, as this chapter will reveal, no more vivid reconception of its new role as the arbor of organic regeneration and the cocoon of unconscious vivification was created for the 1900 Exposition Universelle than Eugène Gaillard’s chambre à coucher commissioned by Siegfried Bing for his Pavillon de l’Art Nouveau (Figure 2.1). Only in Gaillard’s “dream bedroom” could the psychological interior and physiological exterior become indissolubly fused, reintegrated with nature, reconnected with living species, and reenergized by the intimate embrace of its regenerative forms from plant-life to the growth of wood.

Figure 2.1. Eugène Gaillard, Double bed and wardrobe, Chambre à coucher, Pavillon de l’Art Nouveau, Exposition Universelle, 1900, pearwood with ash paneling, Bibliothèque des arts décoratifs, Paris (no 253 Lit Exposition par E. Gaillard).

Organic reunification and ineluctable evolution: Gaillard’s regenerative bedroom

By comparison to France’s wrought-iron monuments to engineering, industrialism, and virility at the 1889 Exposition Universelle, the 1900 Exposition Universelle represented what Debora Silverman calls a “retreat to an ornamental fantasy in the organicized private interior” (1992: 85). Replacing the public iron monument with the private organic ornament, domestic ensembles of nature and interiority were celebrated in Art Nouveau. Interiors with decorations infused with plants, insects, and animals in the process of seasonal renewal were seminal in instilling the Neo-Lamarckian concept of evolutionary regeneration. Termed Transformism, after Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, evolutionary regeneration was pursued by many zoologists, one of the most influential being Edmond Perrier. Appointed Director of the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle in 1900, Perrier was instrumental in revealing ways in which interspecies interrelationships, lost with industrialization, could be reanimated to revivify the physiology and psychology of the modern subject (1888). These animalized interiors were also integral to the anti-anthropocentricism of modernists who rejected the binaristic demarcation of Homo sapiens and animals in favor of the inseparability of human subjects from nature (Brauer 2009; 2015). As geographer, Elisée Reclus explained:

Man does not only live upon the surface of the soil, he has also sprung from it; he is its son, as we learn from the mythologies of all nations. We are an arrangement of dust, water and air. (Reclus 1868: 434)

Not until the last minute does Bing appear to have been officially invited to construct a pavilion with such interiors, which may explain why it did not appear in any of the official catalogs. Yet, with the Porte Binet and other installations embodying the evolutionary aesthetic of Transformism, it seemed serendipitous to construct Art Nouveau Bing. Early in 1900, Bing and his assistant Louis Bonnier drew up plans for this pavilion comprising six model interiors in a modern house or apartment on the French side of the Esplanade for the Exposition Universelle (Picard 1903: 273; Brauer 2013: 255).[4] Having already hired Gaillard as the first new architect-designer for his workshops in 1897, Bing commissioned him to design its salle à manger, vestibule, and chambre à coucher with the assistance of Georges de Feure and Edouard Colonna, on the understanding that everything in the pavilion was to be originally manufactured (Vandam 1985). While de Feure was commissioned to do the boudoir and dressing room, as well as the exterior glass panels featuring la femme nouvelle, Colonna was responsible for the drawing room colored in golds and blues. This new house was designed to be, as Julius Meier-Graefe surmized, “neither a museum nor a department store but a place of peace for the eye and the nerves … and an intimate space in which to live, work, think and to dream” (1900: 206–212). With “dream-like” rooms accentuated by the use of colored-glass panels, commissioned from de Feure, Art Nouveau Pavillon Bing was commended for evoking thought, memory and dreams. Yet, no place within Bing’s “new house” captured this more so than Gaillard’s chambre à coucher, created in collaboration with de Feure. There, buds, flowers, stems, roots, and vegetables seemed to flourish and intertwine in a profusion of glowing colors and phantasmagorical configurations.

Reunification with nature invigorated with the new methods of hygiene became seminal to designing the healthy domestic interior, particularly the new bedroom, capable of regenerating the nation. As Alfred Fouillée explained: “France needs … better physical hygiene, capable of counterbalancing the affect of our intellectual overexertion … and a vigorous reaction against our abandonment of the countryside for the city” (Fouillée 1892: 143–144). Design of the domestic interior then became invested with nourishing the physiological and psychological health of French citizens and regenerating the French nation. This is most clearly demonstrated by Henry Havard’s Art in the House, first published in 1884 and circulated by the government through schools and teaching training centers in 1891 as the Manuel for interior design (Havard 1884; 1891; Brauer 2013: 197–208).

Owing to fear of infection from toxic domestic interiors, as much as from the pre-industrial city infested by plague, in his treatise, Havard highlighted the problems that had been generated by a generation of paranoid hygienists who had insisted upon reducing design, particularly that of the bedroom, to its bare essentials:

A bedroom had to be absolutely naked without hangings, paperless with white washed walls and floors painted in oil, painted and washed with plenty of water at least once a week. The bed, according to these doctors, had to be reduced to a simple couchette, made of metal, with no curtains, and garnished with a mattress topped by horsehair. As for furniture [these doctors] would barely admit a vase or two—only accepting the most indispensable table and chair and that is all. Why this bareness? Fear of miasma. (Havard 1884: 383)

Yet, paradoxically, this Spartan bedroom had proven no more hygienic than any other, particularly as Havard pointed out that the common cold had managed to kill more people than the plague (1884: 385). At the same time, he was aware that his colleague, Gabriel Mourey, regarded the chambres à coucher modern style, designed by those obsessed with modern hygiene—L’Art dans tout chambre à coucher of Charles Plumet and Tony Selmersheim—as not much better, being likened to torture chambers of the Inquisition (1900: 268). Historically, Havard traced the rupture and transformation in this design to the exploration of emotional sensations during the Baroque and “the birth of intimacy” when a distinction became clearly drawn between design of the chambre à coucher, boudoir, and cabinet de travail (Havard 1884; Cheng 2011).

From the advent of technologized modernity, Havard considered how the boudoir had increasingly become an “essentially feminine” psychological space for female self-fashioning and an emblematic room for women to be alone, to dream and enhance their imagination (Havard 1884: 411; 417; Delon 1999). The cabinet de travail for men acted more as “a place where one loves to be locked-in, to meditate, to reflect, a kind of intimate refuge, a blessed port which allowed us to gain possession of ourselves” (Havard 1884: 431). Yet, like others, Havard was aware that, as the culture of intimacy between married couples had changed, so had the articulation of their conjugal bedroom and the significance assigned to what he called the “lit d’anges:” The marital “bed of angels” (1884: 399). Although he detected that many husbands and wives had slept apart at the beginning of the nineteenth century, by the end of it, as Odile Nouvel-Kammerer points out, they were strongly encouraged to sleep in the same bed granting increasing significance to le lit conjugal and to the chambre à coucher (1995: 102). This was not just symptomatic of the vigorous campaign fought by French theologians against what they called l’onanisme conjugal, according to Alain Corbin, but of the French depopulation crisis (2008: 270–276).[5]

With France’s escalating depopulation constantly exposed by demographers from inception of the Third Republic to the fin-de-siècle, the need for French couples to sleep together in order to procreate regularly was constantly emphasized by State demographer Jacques Bertillon, and by the natalist lobby spearheaded by such Neo-Lamarckian obstetricians and eugenicists as Adolphe Pinard (Brauer 2008). Since depopulation was, in light of Charles Darwin’s The Descent of Man, aligned with devolution and encroaching extinction, repopulation become such a crucial Republican quest that the single femme nouvelle and Le bachelier became stigmatized as selfish, decadent, and unpatriotic (Brauer 2005). The most licit site for repopulation, the conjugal chambre à coucher thus became the locus of national attention, although rarely did Havard spell out its imbrication within procreation so explicitly. By contrast to his discrete allusion to its sexual role as “an asylum of mysterious actions, of great and small secrets” (1884: 400), Havard openly stressed its importance in relation to imagination, contemplation, and its function as “the refuge of memories:”

It is … a sanctuary, and also the fatal place where the most powerful to the most humble find they are alone with themselves, where truth so often betrayed, cutthroat, banned, appears suddenly in its deshabillé, sometimes unflattering … where during the night the mind welcomes the vagabond of imagination, reliving the past, evoking vanished images, calculates, speculates, tries to predict, combine, arrange, decide and finally prepare for the future. (Havard 1884: 400–401)

When furnishing their chambre à coucher, Havard recommended that the conjugal couple not hesitate to adorn it with paintings, statues, ceramics, and enamels, particularly given “the fortunate influence that art exercises on our imagination and our senses … the contemplation of these beautiful artworks delighting the eyes, lifting the spirit and ennobling our thoughts” (1884: 431). To stimulate the unconscious and to generate healthy energies, Havard also recommended that it be adorned with flowers, particularly a profusion of roses, Japanese and Chinese porcelain, silks and brocaded silks, satins and lacquered woods (1884: 418). “First and foremost,” he stressed, “adornment of the chambre à coucher must be intimate and contemplative” (1884: 401). These criteria seem to have been heeded by Gaillard when Bing commissioned him in 1899 to design the “dream bedroom.”

Directly behind Gaillard’s bedhead, a floor-to-ceiling panel was inserted on the wall. Appearing like a bed canopy appropriated and modernized from Rococo designs, it was printed and embroidered with a garland of deep and pale crimson roses (Figure 2.2). Seeming to burst into bloom, this garland echoes the shape of the main bedhead and seems to frame the bed as if it were a bed of roses. Not just appliquéd onto the curtains, but embroidered by Madame Anaïs Favre, as can be glimpsed in the wardrobe mirror of Figure 2.1, these roses were continued onto the chair at the left side of the bed, as can be seen in Figure 2.2, where they appear in a small rosebud pattern printed on velveteen. These roses seeming to burst into full bloom also appear on the tapestry of the armchair on the other side of the bed, as can be seen clearly in Figure 2.3, where they seem to be entwined on both sides of the backrest, as well as across the headrest. As they also appear to have been interwoven into the garland design of the wallpaper, as can be seen in Figure 2.2, le lit conjugal seems to be enmeshed in roses. Yet, instead of being literally represented, following Gaillard’s emphasis upon the need to be inspired by evocations of flowers, plants, and vegetables found in nature, they are suggested (1900: 107). Rather than rarefying particular flowers, earthworms, algae, insects, dragonflies, or irises and thistles as the essential steps of modern evolution and treating them in the École de Nancy manner as emotive objects, Gaillard stressed the importance of transcending them and transfiguring nature into “haunting” new constellations able to permeate the unconscious (1900: 107; 1906: 34). This transfiguration entailed, in his words:

Figure 2.2. Eugène Gaillard, Double bed, Chambre à coucher: Pavillon de l’Art Nouveau, Exposition Universelle, 1900, pearwood bed-frame with ash panelling, mignonette green silk bed coverlet embroidered with plant stems and vegetable forms, and flat bed canopy on the wall embroidered with a garland of roses, from The Art Journal feature on The Paris Exhibition of 1900, London, England, 1901, Photo © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
Figure 2.3. Eugène Gaillard, Chair “Delvincourt” (front view), Chambre à coucher: Pavillon de l’Art Nouveau, Exposition Universelle, 1900, Bibliothèque des arts décoratifs, Paris.

To see forever the same flower in wood, never faded, the same animal—fixed in wood —always in its familiar pose; the insect without a pin in its back, poised there in place so securely that not even a metal disk could dislodge it: By incorporating such realities, our familiar furniture immediately becomes haunting. (Gaillard 1906: 60)

Yet, despite Gaillard’s stress upon both capturing and transcending nature by working in wood, particularly by being able to transfix the essence of a flower, animal, or insect, the writer Gustave Soulier pointed out that Gaillard did not necessarily practice what he preached. His innumerable studies of various parts of plants, particularly of stems, leaves, vegetables, and flowers, were rendered so minutely, according to Soulier, that they seemed to be viewed through a microscope (1902: 25). Readily Gaillard admitted to deploying a microscope, although he also confessed to the frustration of discovering with its help so many thousands of diverse elements intertwined in nature, that he could never satisfactorily fathom exactly where they led (1906: 63).

Attuned to Gaillard’s concern with tracing organic interrelationships rather than representing organic species, Soulier examined how Gaillard’s in-depth scrutiny of vegetable structures revealed their “constant communion” with one another and their interdependence (1902: 26). In being able to discover the movements of what Soulier called “spontaneous grace” alongside the “splaying of nervous forms,” he considered Gaillard’s studies had proven infinitely precious: the fibers that Gaillard was able to reveal, observed Soulier, “deliver all the richness hidden at the heart of the material. The memories, flames, speckles, pearlescent agents, gems and waves seem to succeed one another by very clear lines that have been smoothed into satin by his tool” (1902: 27). At the same time, Soulier considered that Gaillard never seemed to forget how the diverse elements of a tree and plant growing normally are intimately part of the same organic “body” and “seamlessly attached to one another” (1902: 27). Not only does this seamless growth appear in the carved arms-rests of Gaillard’s armchair, as can be seen in Figure 2.3, but also in its legs and feet, as can be seen in Figure 2.4. It is continued not only in the framing, legs, and handles of the wardrobe, as can be seen in Figure 2.5, but also in the carved bedheads in which four main vegetable fibers seem to flow out from a central stem and seamlessly coil around one another with two of the coils meeting around the center.

Figure 2.4. Eugène Gaillard, Chair, “Delvincourt” (profile), Chambre à coucher: Pavillon de l’Art Nouveau, Exposition Universelle, 1900, Bibliothèque des arts décoratifs, Paris.
Figure 2.5. Eugène Gaillard, Wardrobe, Chambre à coucher: Pavillon de l’Art Nouveau, Exposition Universelle, 1900, Bibliothèque des arts décoratifs, Paris.

Soulier also considered how what he called Gaillard’s “naturalistic style” and “skeletal model,” emanating from the study of vegetable forms, was illustrated by the way in which the leaves fanned out from the rods at the foot of the bed (Figure 2.2) (1902: 27). For Gaillard, this was seminal to his vision of “L’Évolution inéluctable” (1906: 63). By immersing the conjugal couple within this profusion of evolving forms in nature, Gaillard presumed that they would feel not only unified with nature but also vivified by its “ineluctable” energies of regeneration. At this optimum moment, following the Transformist dimension of Gaillard’s chambre à coucher, they would be ready to perform what Pinard called “procréation rationnelle”—sex conducted in a rejuvenated state of mind and body to produce the healthiest possible progeny (Brauer 2008: 117–120). Since internal protoplasm was, following Neo-Lamarckian obstetrics, considered to interact with external parasites during conception of the embryo, the “ineluctable evolution” inherent to Gaillard’s design of the chambre à coucher may then be ultimately aligned with the Radical Republican policy of repopulation and national regeneration (Giard 1876; 1888). Drawing upon la nouvelle psychologie, Gaillard’s chambre à coucher was also meant to regenerate the unconscious by functioning as a “dream bedroom,” as highlighted by critics and the art media.

Suggestion, hypnosis, and la nouvelle psychologie: The dream bedroom

For the Symbolists, as Silverman succinctly surmises, “the interior was no longer a refuge from but a replacement for the external world” (1992: 77). The house was reconceived as not merely, in her words, “a passive receiver of imported technologies but an active producer of new instruments of psychospatial intervention” (1992: 77). Yet, for this production to be able to happen, an understanding of the relationship of the unconscious to the environment was required alongside what Silverman calls “the psychological consequences of space” (1992: 77). This was highlighted by Count Robert de Montesquiou-Fezensac, the model for Huysmans’s Des Esseintes, who organized his apartment so that individual objects could dissolve into a field of suggestive visual energy (Huysmans 1884; Chaleyssin 1992). Linking interior decoration with psychological interiority, the Goncourt brothers, Edmond and Jules, also envisaged the interior as activator of both visual suggestion and nervous vibration (de Goncourt 1889). The dialogue between the narrator and his décor, particularly the nervous vibrations they stimulated to the point of transfiguring fevers, was captured in À la recherche du temps perdu by Proust, as epitomized by the whirling room in Swann’s Way in which all the furnishings appear trapped in the centrifuge of the psyche (1913). This linkage between psychological association and interior decoration was corroborated by la psychologie nouvelle.

Modern conceptions of the social and psychological significance of interior space were the results of new medical theories on the powers of suggestion and the relationship between external stimuli and mental health. While Théodore Ribot, appointed the first chair in Experimental and Comparative Psychology at the Collège de France in 1888, was one of the pioneers of the new psychologie scientifique française, it was at the Salpêtrière where most experiments in the psychology of space were conducted by Jean-Martin Charcot, Pierre Janet, Gilles de la Tourette, Alfred Binet, Charles Féré, and Joseph Babinski. At the Salpêtrière, Charcot and his “Charcoterie” demonstrated that female patients suffering from traumatic or epileptic hysteria and male patients suffering from what Charcot called “virile hysteria,” which Gilles de la Tourette also termed “neurasthenia,” were susceptible to hypnosis, particularly conducted by animal magnetism (Binet and Féré 1887; 1888). Under hypnosis, various forms of suggestion were found to trigger specific emotional and behavioral reactions, particularly such visual stimuli as colored images, discs, and signs to the extent that specific colors could be correlated with emotional states (Charcot 1888; Didi-Huberman 2003; Hustvedt 2011). Even Charcot’s Tuesday performances demonstrated the affective powers of visual suggestion on the nervously febrile (Charcot 1888–1889). At the same time, at the École de Nancy, Hippolyte Bernheim disputed that hysteria and other forms of nervous pathology made patients more prone to suggestion than normal subjects, particularly given the instability of boundaries between subjective and objective reality and the power of the environment to influence thought, feeling, and actions.

Without resorting to hypnosis, Bernheim discovered that he was able to alter patients’ behavior by using only visual and verbal suggestion (2014 [1884]). In fact, as Bernheim’s experiments revealed, the mechanisms of suggestion and hypnosis could be used just as effectively on subjects not suffering any form of pathological disorder. Rather than imagistic suggestion and the externalization of visual material being confined to nervous pathology, Bernheim reported that they were just as potent in “normal” subjects. In his 1884 treatise, De la suggestion dans l’état hypnotique et dans l’état de veille, he diagnosed how visual images penetrated the unconscious, the very thought process transforming ideas into images: “One should not consider the transformation of an idea into an image as a morbid operation but rather a normal property of the brain” (2004 [1884]: 52). He elaborated this transformation by focusing upon ways in which suggestion triggered images:

Suggestion, that is the penetration of the subject’s brain by the idea of the phenomenon through a word, a gesture, a view, or an imitation, seems to me the key to all the hypnotic phenomena that I have observed …. Suggestibility is such that, in the waking state, an idea accepted by the brain becomes … an image …. We are all suggestible and can experience hallucinations by our own or other people’s impressions. (Bernheim 1884: 53)

Since “sensorial hallucinations” were a condition of normal sleep when relaxation of judgment and verification released unconscious images, which he called “cerebral automatism,” Bernheim concluded that “sensorial hallucinations” form “a great part of our lives” (2004 [1884]: 54).

The discovery that the interior of the human organism was a sensitive nervous mechanism, prone to suggestion, visual thinking, and imagistic projection in dreams as well as everyday life, altered the meaning of interior decoration in the fin-de-siècle. Domestic interior decoration became invested with the healing powers of the new psychologist, hypnotically easing French citizens out of metropolitan frenzy and fractured decadence into wholesome subjecthood and nation regeneration. Hence, the domestic interior was invested with a major role on which the psychological health of the modern subject and the nation depended. This specifically French version of psychological interiority provided the intellectual vehicle for the transformation of the domestic interior from a place on display as a historical anchorage to one that was able to express personal feeling, evoke memory, suggest emotional states, and trigger intimate vibrations. With this new medical evidence showing that the built environment could both positively and negatively affect physiological and psychological states, interior decoration became invested with the task of facilitating the mental health of the citizens of France suffering the debilitating physical and mental effects of modern life. Art, particularly that reconnecting the urban subject with nature, was a prime medium for doing so, as explained by Émile Gallé:

Behold our ideal is achieved: furniture treated like the nude, ornamented with the equilibrium of its own structure, of its internal parts opening out like those of an animal or a plant, in their nerves, in their flesh, fur and feathers, tissues, membranes, bark, in their budding, flowering, fruitfulness; behold the labour of a sculptor, a work of intellect, of truth, of liberty—a work of delicacy, difficult, lasting and beautiful—that we advocate as our own and last efforts. (Gallé 1998 [1884–1889]: 275)

Following la psychologie nouvelle, the enterprise of interior decoration also became invested with new significations that entailed transfusing eighteenth-century associations of modernity, intimacy, and interiority with nervous vibration, spatial self-fashioning, and unconscious projection. Inspired by the Rococo, new interior spaces became necessary, according to Alain Mérot for the playing out of dreams (1990: 20). Reality and fantasy oscillated within interiors creating, according to Jean Starobinksi, “a self-contained world in which life can be lived as a representation” (1964: 74–75). Just as Symbolist literature was designed to trigger emotional states in the reader, so the new interiors were designed to trigger these states in the beholder. Through the suggestive power of line, color, texture, odor and shape, interior space became the domain of psychological self-exploration, self-projection, and self-fashioning, particularly as a dream room. That Gaillard’s chambre à coucher was perceived in this way was affirmed in decorative art reviews, particularly by the critic Gabriel Mourey.

“First of all the eye is charmed,” wrote Mourey of Gaillard’s chambre à coucher. “It is a true visual delight. Some panels of gray-blue silk and gray-mauve and gray-green, like glass lit by moonlight, decorate the walls of a blooming dream” (1900: 266). Yet, while Gaillard may have subdued his panels and wallpaper, as indicated in Figures 2.1 and 2.2 by no means did he apparently modify the color of other parts of his chambre à coucher, let alone modulate the texture and composition of his fabrics. Although difficult to discern from Figure 2.2, his bed coverlet was of mignonette green silk and apparently embroidered with plant stems and vegetable forms that seemed to weave their way through the bedhead, the canopy, the curtain, chairs, and the garland design of the wallpaper. The dream-like quality he was able to conjure was consistent with the way in which Bing’s Pavillon was critically received overall by the art media:

The minutely wrought metal follows almost voluptuously the moulding and panels of furniture of a solid elegance; their lines suggest, without actually imitation, the finest models of the eighteenth century …. The furniture is soft to touch, like silk, and has the shimmering hues of sumptuous damasks; the finish of the details, the preciosity of the chased copper, like so many jewels, make each item a collector’s piece, a rare object, and—a delightful thing—it all blends into the whole …. On the walls, in dream-like rosettes, the same dawn and twilight shades, of which de Feure seems to have discovered the secret, adorn the shimmering waters of a lake. (Silverman 1992: 287)

Its organic wallpapers, curved bedheads, optically charged panels, silken covers in “twilight hues” shimmering, according to this critic, like the water of a lake and its garlands of rosettes enfolding the bed in roses made it feel like a dream (Silverman 1992: 288). “He created a room which was soft, delicate and caressing,” concluded Mourey, “without any eccentricity or weakness … with beautiful motifs for thought and for the dream” (1900: 257). However, it was his use of wood that generated other states pertaining to what Gaillard called the “vibrations of nature and human rhythms,” as illustrated by Figures 2.1 and 2.2.

Les vibrations de nature et les rhythmes humanes: The vibrating bedroom

Gaillard’s choice of pearwood with ash-paneling for his bed was medium specific: “The essences of woods are extremely numerous and their variety offers an immense palette,” he explained. “Their complete range has tones of exceptional splendour” (1906: 44–46). By no means was wood an “inert material” for Gaillard. It was a living organism capable of opulent growth and continual enrichment even after it had been cut down (1906: 38). Its design qualities were also ingrained within it, as Gaillard explained:

Woods representing longitudinal fibres are juxtaposed according to the direction of the vertical thrust, that is to say according to their growth in height with the tree. Fibres are joined together laterally depending on the direction of the growth of the tree …. Wood is rigorously stable in the longitudinal sense of fibres. It is unstable in the transverse direction. Under the influence of the temperature and humidity of the air … remembering the seasons each year and sensitive to the smell of renewal, fibres move laterally …. They keep concentrically positioned around the heart of the tree, bending sometimes … Yet the bundle of fibres … cut short at both ends, retains its immutable length. (1906: 39)

Not only did these movements represent the physical phenomenon of wood for Gaillard, but also their psychic qualities pertaining to their deracination: “The tree always haunts wood-making,” he explained (1906: 44). When all the fibers met in a single piece of wood like the richest of palettes, Gaillard dramatically concluded that “they produce the most vibrant and the rarest intensity of vibration” (1906: 45–56). So important was this vibratory quality to decorative art that Gaillard carped that tapestries were unable to generate any. “All its flavour,” he said of wood, “resides … in the boldness of the vibrations or in the softness of the reflections that alone give to wood the hand of the artist” (1906: 51–52). These bold vibrations are epitomized in Gaillard’s chambre à coucher by the vigorously pulsating wood graining in the wooden panels chosen for the bedhead and bed-end, as can be seen in Figure 2.1 and more clearly in Figure 2.2. Not only do these vibrations seem to be echoed by the electrifying striations in the bed mat but also by the dynamic wood graining in the curved half-panels either side of the mirror on the wardrobe visible in Figure 2.1, appearing like two sides of an acorn as indicated by Figure 2.5. These vibrant optical wood markings were perceived as able to stimulate the unconscious, particularly through their purported facility to generate neurological vibrations and stimulate new energies comparable to radioactivity.

Once the radioactive materials discovered by Marie and Pierre Curie were perceived as offering unlimited sources of new energy, more than ever did regeneration of France seem attainable and devolution improbable. With Wilhelm Rontgen’s discovery of X-rays in 1895 and Henri Becquerel’s detection of radioactivity and radio-waves in 1896, Joseph John Thomson’s identification of the electron in 1897, the invention of wireless telegraphy and the concept of electromagnetic waves vibrating through the ether by Oliver Lodge, the universe began to be understood as a vast network of continuous vibrations of varying frequencies beyond the threshold of human perception (Dalrymple Henderson 2013: 1–27; Enns and Tower 2013: 2–5). Invisible and inaudible extrasensory vibrations were perceived as conveying a dynamic flow of energy and sensation that scientifically explained psychic and occult phenomena. Within this meta-reality of vibrations, energy was charged with emotive, psychic, and regenerative power, as epitomized by the concept of “sympathetic vibrations” theorized by Helmholtz as early as 1848 and retheorized by Edmund Gurney in 1886 when the brain was reconceived as a wireless transmitter. Within this vibratory model of sensory communication, protoplasm was considered to be able to transmit vibrations between the cells of all living beings from plants, animals, insects, and trees to homo sapiens (Brain 2013: 116–117).

Following the amoeboid model of neuronal mobility, neurons were considered to be able to make functional contact through pseudopal movements of the protoplasm of the nerve cells (Brain 2013: 125). Prior to popularization of Santiago Ramón y Cajal’s model of the nerve synapse, neuronal transmission was also likened to the behavior of rhizopods and other unicellar organisms (Brain 2013: 126–127). As surmised in Matter and Memory, everything in the universal network is physically interconnected and interdependent through continuous vibrations. “Matter … resolves itself into numberless vibrations,” he wrote, “all linked together in uninterrupted continuity, all bound up with each other and travelling in every direction like shivers in an immense body” ( Bergson 1912 [1896]: 208). Theorizing how the images of matter were determined by vibrations of light acting upon the retina, Bergson explained how these vibrations were able to penetrate the brain and memory: “The qualitative heterogeneity of our successive perceptions of the universe results from the fact that each, in itself, extends over a certain depth of duration and that memory condenses in each an enormous multiplicity of vibrations which appear to us all at once” (1912 [1896]: 77). When propelled by art, he speculated on the impact of these vibrations having the force of a “shell burst” able to stimulate sensibilities and engender a creative evolution—a concept with which Gaillard appeared all too familiar (Bergson 1912 [1896]: 1907).

Stressing that his creativity was bound up with his interdisciplinarity as an architect-decorator, Gaillard’s crossing of disciplines seemed to stretch beyond the arts to Bergson’s philosophy, the new sciences, as well as the new psychology. This was perhaps why he conceived of the decorative arts, particularly those integrated with nature, as able to unleash a flow of energy and vibrations between their interior designs and its inhabitants that could stimulate their intimate sensibilities. Like Gallé, Gaillard remained constantly concerned that his organic sensuality was able to impart nervous vibrations. “The vibrations of nature and human rhythms amplified” was what Gaillard confessed that ultimately he hoped to achieve by his chambre à coucher (1906: 66). These vibrations were posited as an unseen force able to mediate interactions between the interior self and the exterior organic environment in order to induce a trance-like hypnotic state that would release the imagination and enhance dreams, as well as states of hyper-perception (1906: 54). By no means was Gaillard unaware of the neurological potential that this carried, particularly in terms of the evolution of physiology and psychology. “Once our sharpened sensitivity is able to reveal a different universe to us,” Gaillard concluded, “we must modify our expressions and speak a different language” (1906: 66).

Hence, ultimately Gaillard’s chambre à coucher seemed designed to function not just as a sanctuary from the invasiveness of new technologies and the sensory overstimulation by the mass media, but as an instrument of psychospatial intervention in three different but interrelated ways. By transforming le lit conjugal into a bed of roses enmeshed in plant stems, tree roots, and vegetable structures, Gaillard signified their “constant communion” with one another in terms of Transformist evolutionary theory while reconnecting French citizens with the lost energies of nature. In keeping with the domestic prominence granted to the chambre à coucher at this time of chronic depopulation, the organic life with which Gaillard surrounds the conjugal couple is significantly in the process of budding and blooming. At the same time, his lit conjugal appears as the site of vivid vibratory energy conveyed by the dazzling optical wood graining in the panels at either ends of the bed, and the ways in which it was echoed in the wardrobe and bed mats. While consistent with what Gaillard terms “ineluctable evolution,” these signs seem to signify the prospective function of this chambre à coucher as a regenerative space for “procréation rationnelle,” where sex could be performed in a replenished psychological state of mind and body in order to produce the healthiest possible progeny. Yet, the design of Gaillard’s chambre à coucher does not seem to be just aligned with national repopulation and regeneration imperatives. Invested with visually suggestive signs consistent with la psychologie nouvelle, Gaillard’s chambre à coucher seems to evoke emotive states able to trigger the imagination in order to nourish the psychological health of those whom Zola called “weary neuropaths” suffering from the debilitating “fever” of modern life (1896: 546). Likened to a “chambre mentale,” with an impact comparable to hypnosis, Gaillard’s chambre à coucher appears to signal the possibility of easing French citizens out of fractured subjectivity into wholesome interiority. In exploring this trajectory, most critics and the mass media found that Gaillard had invented the dream bedroom able to embrace intimacy and, through its powers of suggestion, calm unconscious anxieties and lull its dwellers into a dream-state. At the same time, through his use of woods with vibratory power, Gaillard’s chambre à coucher also seems to signify the possibility of unleashing a flow of energy capable of stimulating neurological vibrations, releasing the unconscious and generating what Jules Bois considered would be a new state of superconsciousness (1900).


All the translations from the original French are my own. Owing to exigencies of space, the original French quotations that I would have preferred to include could not be published. My sincere thanks to Laure Haberschill, Bibliothèque des Arts décoratifs, for her invaluable help in locating Figures 2.1, 2.32.5, and to V&A images for supplying Figure 2.2.


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[1] So popular was L’uomo delinquente that five editions were published during Lombroso’s lifetime with its first French translation as L’Homme criminel in 1887. Since criminals were atavistic, according to Lombroso’s study of their skulls, this meant that France was the most devolved and degenerate of all Western nations. To Lombroso, this was proven by the soaring levels of crime—particularly inflicted by the terrorist “apache” and the marked influx of insane asylum inmates.

[2] Refer to Georges Valbert’s articles, Revue des deux mondes, 1890–1900.

[3] A chronic asthmatic, for the last three years of his life, Proust rarely left the bedroom of his apartment at 102 Boulevard Haussmann. Decorated with velvet curtains, wooden furniture, a piano, and walls encased in panels of cork, it was designed to keep out the noise and to absorb harmful dust. Proust identified it as the site of his creativity, writing much of À la recherche du temps perdu from his bed.

[4] So late in the day was Bing invited by Alfred Picard to participate that his Pavillon did not feature in Picard’s official report.

[5] While Catholic theologians stigmatized “l’onanisme conjugal” as “fraudulent” and “un état de péché mortal,” Corbin also points out that refusal to participate in “l’acte conjugale” was also identified as placing the soul in peril. At the same time, exceptional conditions were devised by these celibate theologians, listed by Corbin, when “l’épouse” could legitimately decline to engage. I am grateful for the gift of this book from Justin Fleming.