He was born Jules John Dunand in Petit-Lancy, Switzerland in 1877, changing his name to Jean in 1909. His father was a goldsmith which no doubt influenced Dunand’s pursuit of the decorative arts and he attended the École des Arts Industriels de Genève where he studied sculpture and metal work. After moving to Paris he became an apprentice to the sculptor Jean Dampt and exhibited his work for the first time at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1900.
Shortly afterwards he began to experiment with different techniques and materials the result of which was his move in to dinanderie work. Using predominately copper, his beautiful pieces were regularly exhibited in the Salon de la Nationale des Beaux Arts and the Salon d’Automne. In 1904 the Musée des Arts Décoratifs purchased one of his dinanderie vases for their permanent collection, thereby cementing his reputation as a master of the art.
However, what Dunand is best remembered for is his lacquer work and it was in 1912 that he met the Japanese artist Seizo Sugawara who was to prove such a pivotal character in Dunand’s life. Hailing from the small village of Johoji which was famous for its lacquerware, Sugawara was an expert in the art and he and Dunand agreed a ‘skill-swap’ in which they would each teach each other the secrets of their respective crafts. Dunand proved a keen and attentive student who filled many booklets with notes taken over just a two month period during which he learnt as much as possible from Sugawara. Lacquer is a notoriously tricky medium to work with but Dunand was determined to master it and, in due course, he did.
His earlier pieces reflect the Art Nouveau period’s fascination with Japonisme and he used largely naturalistic motifs and elements. Techniques utilised included repoussé and chasing as well as the use of inlays of variously differently coloured metals. As time moved on however and tastes changed he began to replace this style with geometric patterns and smooth surfaces which reflected the growing interest in African Art and Cubism and his style became one that today is synonymous with that of Art Deco. He also experimented with coquille d’oeuf, the painstaking technique of using tiny pieces of broken egg shell embedded into the lacquer to create interesting patterns.
Eager to expand the French market for this Eastern art form he not only used lacquerware for traditional objet such as vases and small objet but also for portraiture, furniture, wall panels and jewellery. His wide cuff bracelets and narrow circular neck collars decorated with red, black and yellow lacquer were made famous by Josephine Baker and are quintessential Art Deco jewels. He received so many commissions for his lacquerware that he had to expand his workshop more than once and at its height he was employing over 100 people. Of particular note were the requests he received to create large scale lacquer works for luxury ocean liners including the SS Île de France and SS Normandie. For the 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs he designed an entire room for the French Embassy which is today considered a national treasure and is owned by the French Government.
Dunand passed away in 1942 leaving a remarkable body of work which is still greatly admired and keenly collected today.