Jules Wabbes: Belgian Furniture Designer 12.03.13

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Jules Wabbes (1919-1974) was one of Belgium's most prominent interior architects and furniture designers of the 1950s and 60s, yet he never achieved the recognition of his French counterparts, Jean Prouvé or Charlotte Perriand, with whom his designs share an industrial aesthetic. He made furniture initially to complement the bank and office spaces he created, and drew inspiration from American modernism (he furnished Marcel Breuer's US embassy in The Hague and another in Rabat, Morocco). On a trip to the US, he was impressed by the architecture of his friend Philip Johnson, whose Glass House in Connecticut he visited, and his furniture reflects Johnson's transparency, strong lines and structural simplicity.

He was known for his sensual use of the very best materials, with office desks, tables and cabinets crafted from pear, walnut and cherry-wood or rich African hardwoods on elegant frames of stainless steel. To prevent warping, the timber was precision-cut and glued into woodblock panels to create long sumptuous contours or a mosaic of richly textured grain. He liked the construction of his designs to be visible, and didn't hide the supporting structure or joins – the concave, nickel silver handles were all stamped "WABBES". "What counts," he said, "is the sincere expression of quality." He was awarded medals at the Milan Triennale in 1957 and 1960 for his designs.

A large exhibition of Wabbes' furniture has just closed at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels, which has contributed to a revival of interest in the designer. Most of the objects on display came from his house, still occupied by his wife Marie Wabbes, who lived surrounded by cardboard boxes for the three-month duration of the exhibition. She was waiting for the return of the furniture when I spoke to her by phone. "I'm sort of camping," she told me. Speaking of her late husband, she paints a portrait of a committed perfectionist. "He wanted harmony, for things to be simple, he wanted everything to be done as well from the back as from the front. He loved to touch, he liked the texture of things," she says.

In 1957, Wabbes founded Le Mobilier Universal to manufacture his designs, and in the early 1960s, alongside pieces of his trademark glamour, he began to experiment with moulded plywood to create school and children's furniture. However, at the end of the decade he was ousted from the company, unwilling to compromise on quality for profit. His designs ceased production in the 1980s and he was largely forgotten. However, two decades later, when collectors were paying large sums for his pieces at auction, the Belgian firm Bulo approached Marie Wabbes with the idea of putting some of his designs back into production. She brought back the licence and several pieces that conjure up the Mad Men era have been reissued, including a sofa, armchair and stool in leather and wood, a wall coat rack with adjustable hooks, a desk, and a semi-circular table with a stone or chequered end-grain wood top on aluminium tulip feet.

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Image

Marie Wabbes/Bulo

 

Words

Christopher Turner

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He was known for his sensual use of the very best materials. He liked the construction of his designs to be visible, and didn't hide the supporting structure or joins

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