NEW YORK – France was home to many fine ébénistes (cabinetmakers) in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but few were as renowned and successful as Francois Linke (1855-1946). The quality of his craftsmanship was unequaled by any of his contemporaries and made him the most sought-after cabinetmaker of the period.
Linke skyrocketed to fame at the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1900, where his revolutionary Grand Bureau earned him the gold medal. His reputation firmly established, Linke went on to oversee the preeminent Paris furniture house, La Maison Linke, until the outbreak of World War II.
Linke’s early workshops were active in Paris as early as 1881. He honed his craft and paid close attention when it was decreed in 1892 that Paris would ring in the new century with the grandest international showcase yet – the 1900 Paris Fair (or Exposition Universelle). One of its commissioners, Victor Champier, issued the following challenge to the top designers of the day: “Create in the manner of the masters, but do not copy what they have made.” That was music to Linke’s ears. He vowed to create the most ambitious and original pieces he could envision, ones more extravagant and luxurious than had ever been seen before.
What Linke exhibited at the 1900 Paris Fair was an entirely new style, one that paid homage to the Louis XV rococo in terms of fluidity but infused with the vibrant and flowing lines of the contemporary and progressive “Art Nouveau.” The Art Journal said of his stand: “The work of Mr. Linke was an example of what can be done by seeking inspiration amongst the classic examples of Louis XV and XVI without in any sense copying these great works. Mr. Linke’s work was original in the true sense of the word, and as such commended itself to the intelligent seeker after the really artistic things of the Exhibition.”
In Linke’s creations, the traditional designs of the 18th century melted seamlessly into an exuberant naturalism. The Revue stated, “Linke’s stand is the biggest show in the history of art furniture in the year 1900.” But little did anyone know that this was a huge gamble for Linke. He produced expensive and luxurious furniture, but with no commissions or potential buyers lined up. He gambled everything on his stand and the belief that in order to grow his business he had to appeal to a broad, international clientele, one that had lots of money to spend. If it failed, he would go bankrupt. But the gamble worked, and the rest is history.
“As a preeminent ébéniste of the 19th century, Linke worked for the French royalty and members of the court,” said Joe Baratta of Abell Auction in Los Angeles. “In keeping with other pristine artisans of the time, such as Faberge and Tiffany Studios, Linke’s quality allowed a piece to transcend eras. The value stays constant even when style is not popular. Only the wealthiest people could afford Linke pieces. His furniture is the best of the best, so there will always be a desire for it. Like other pieces of this level, there are lot of misattributed items on the market, so when great pieces with clear provenance come to auction, there will be a demand.”
Andrew Jones of Andrew Jones Auctions, also in Los Angeles, said, “Francois Linke was one of the most celebrated ébénistes of his time. As was the practice among contemporaries and noteworthy predecessors, such as Joseph-Emmanuel Zwiener and Henry Dasson, Linke initially produced furniture derived from styles popular during the 18th century ancien régime. By 1900, after winning the Médaille d’Or for his Grand Bureau in the Paris exposition, Linke’s worldwide reputation as an individualistic master of high-quality furniture was already established and he continued to win top accolades at world exhibitions.
Jones added, “Linke’s trademark was a fusion of the ancien régime opulence with the latest Art Nouveau aesthetics. His oeuvre was so varied in terms of scale and style, but each piece he created was exquisite. The pieces produced by Francois Linke perfectly embody the Belle Époque, the Beautiful Period. One cabinet or gilt bronze created by Linke can become the focal point of a room. Pieces by Francois Linke are works of art made for use. While the fashions for his level of opulence may ebb and flow, the market for the objects he created is solid. His masterpieces will always achieve top tier results.”
Lauren Sciarappa of Austin Auction Gallery in Austin, Texas, said credit for Linke’s creations must go in part to the French sculptor Léon Messagé (France, 1842-1901). “Around 1885, Linke began a significant collaboration with Messagé,” Sciarappa said. “Together, they created a collection of designs for furniture and ornamental bronzes that were displayed at Linke’s self-financed stall. Their offerings combined Messagé’s characteristic asymmetry and naturalism of the Rococo and Art Nouveau styles, with Linke’s commitment to the luxurious finishes from the golden age of 18th-century French furniture.”
In many ways, Sciarappa said, Messagé was instrumental to Linke’s success, as the superior quality of the mounts brought him to the forefront of other Paris and international makers of the period. “Messagé’s technical brilliance was rooted in his outmoded practice of producing a wax maquette of his design, often of the piece of furniture in its entirety, a convention usually reserved for fine art sculpture and royal commissions in the 18th century,” she said. “Messagé’s designs showcase a mastery of proportion and scale, with the marquetry, ormolu, and luxury finishes working together to create the total work of art.”
Francois Linke continued to produce high-quality furnishings until his death in May 1946. In the scope of French furniture of the 20th century – which ranged from exacting historical reproductions, to new and innovative styles like Art Nouveau, Art Deco and Modernism – Linke’s work stands out not only for its quality but for its ability to transcend a specific time in history. At once evocative of the 18th century world of Versailles and the radical stylization of the 20th century, Linke’s work continues to be highly desirable among those who wish to capture the characteristic luxury and form of the French aesthetic.