Few know that Francis Bacon’s first painting was a rug. At the end of the 1920s, Bacon worked in Paris as an interior decorator, imbibing the influence of Le Corbusier and designing tables, stools, and desks. At around the same time, he saw a Picasso exhibition that inspired him to make a rug that closely resembles Watercolour, one of his first paintings.
Bacon ultimately downplayed his stint as a designer, but the unravelling of interior space remained visible throughout his oeuvre. His decades of portraits almost always depicted subjects in rooms — twisted and vague settings built for contorted bodies. Perhaps painting was not a turn away from the interior, but a way of taking built space into a place it could not go in real life.
Text: Rebecca Daniels
In early Spring 1927, at age 17, Francis Bacon travelled to Berlin for a two month sojourn chaperoned by a friend of his father. He recalls staying in the opulent Hotel Adlon in Berlin where the sumptuous swan neck handles on the breakfast trolley were etched into his memory. Bacon’s father had wanted the unnamed friend to educate his son, but instead, according to Bacon, he seduced Bacon and then abandoned him for a woman. Nevertheless, Bacon was deeply affected by the trip. He told Frank Maubert, in his last interview in 1992: “I found myself in the atmosphere of the ‘Ange Bleu.’ Every night we were going round the bars and cabarets. I did not ask myself many questions at the time. It was marvelous. I was having a good time.” For Bacon, the atmosphere of sexual freedom marked a coming of age, and he remembered Berlin feeling emotionally violent.
In interviews throughout his life, Bacon openly discussed his seduction in Berlin while remaining reticent about what art, if any, he had seen. He denied being influenced by German Expressionism, which he claimed he did not like and did not affect him. However, such statements at least evidence that he was looking at art. Intriguingly, during this trip, Bacon was photographed by Helmar Lerski, the influential avant-garde photographer and cameraman. Bacon claimed Lerski spotted him on a Berlin street and asked Bacon to pose for him. If Bacon was mixing with the avant-garde in Berlin, it is tempting to speculate whether he had been exposed to the modern furniture being created at Bauhaus or even visited the Dessau site during his trip. His furniture designs of the period suggest that Bacon was well aware of the work being produced there — constructivist elements did creep into his own designs
I found myself in the atmosphere of the ‘Ange Bleu.’ Every night we were going round the bars and cabarets. I did not ask myself many questions at the time. … I was having a good time. – Francis Bacon
Bacon left Germany in late Spring 1927 and traveled to France where he lived for nearly two years and worked as an interior decorator. He initially stayed with a family in Chantilly to improve his French. By autumn, he had moved to Montparnasse in Paris. He stayed at a hotel at 35 Rue Delambre, which some years earlier had been home to Paul Gauguin and André Breton. Bacon was clearly trying to locate himself amidst the avant-garde, as the hotel’s location, just around the corner from Montparnasse’s iconic brasseries, was where Hemingway, Picasso, Brassaï, and members of the Surrealists famously flocked. The importance of Paris to Bacon’s formative years was cemented in 1928, when Bacon visited a Picasso exhibition at Paul Rosenberg’s gallery. This was to spark his desire to become a painter.
Bacon was clearly busy looking at art and design in Paris during his stay. He was to admit, years later, that his own furniture was “awfully influenced by French design of that time.” In an interview of 1974, Bacon revealed that he “designed tables, desks, and chairs that must have all looked like Le Corbusier’s furniture, which I loved at the time.” Yet Le Corbusier’s furniture designs were only developing at the time Bacon was in Paris. Bacon could have seen Charlotte Perriand’s stand at the Salon des Artistes Décorateurs in 1928, but he had returned to London when her initial collaborations with Le Corbusier were shown at the Salon d’Autumne in 1929. It was really from this point that their furniture designs were given prominence in exhibitions, art, and magazines in both France and England. So Bacon’s comment about his work being derivative of Le Corbusier might be somewhat underplaying the originality of his designs.
The main record which we have of Bacon’s furniture is a double-page article, “The 1930 Look in British Decoration,” that appeared in The Studio magazine in August 1930. The article was clearly showcasing Bacon as an important emerging young designer ahead of his first exhibition at his Queensberry Mews West studio on November 4th of that year. In the text of that article, the author pinpoints Bacon’s originality: “The appeal of steel and glass is a strong one, and Francis Bacon shows us individualistic variations on this theme.” The seemingly minimalist, plain, round table in the center of The Studio photograph in fact has a split glass top of half frosted and half clear glass. The metal frame is painted pink, a fashionable, yet nevertheless surprising, color in the 1930s.
Bacon’s most important table is chromium plated with a circular support divided into thirds and layered down from the top to near the base, creating a fractured spiral. The top of the table is also unexpected, being half clear and half mirrored glass. These split textures on the table top seemed to have been Bacon’s specialty. A rare photograph of the table was taken inside Bacon’s flat, when friends were housesitting for him from 1932 to 1933 while he was abroad. One of his rugs is also visible on the floor of the flat, and these were a very important aspect of Bacon’s design practice. The rugs were manufactured by the Wilton Royal Carpet Factory, a prestigious brand in the 1930s. His designs are diverse in style, but largely consist of geometric compositions often in neutral tones of beige, gray, black, and sage green. Bacon hung some of these on the walls as if they were abstract paintings. To reinforce this, he gave the rugs titles, and one was called Formal Design, suggesting that they were being elevated above the decorative. The Studio considered that the rugs, “are particularly representative of today, and their inspiration springs from nothing Oriental or traditional – they are purely thought forms.”
Bacon was to completely turn away from abstraction after his early forays into painting – which reflected his rug designs – turning to the sorts of figurative paintings for which he is so well-known. He intensely disliked abstract Expressionism, famously dismissing Jackson Pollack as “a lace maker.” It seems that his downplaying of his interior design career may have been because of his struggle to be accepted as an uncompromisingly figurative painter at a time when abstraction was the dominant global style. However, these beautifully designed rugs, several of which still survive, show a different side to Francis Bacon.
Bacon intensely disliked abstract Expressionism, famously dismissing Jackson Pollack as “a lace maker.”
Bacon began his training as an interior designer in the heady days of the 1920s, when the partying spirit led to the invention of new pieces of furniture, such as the cocktail cabinet. The 1920s as well marked the widespread introduction of metal and glass. However, while Bacon was designing and manufacturing his furniture, in October 1929, the Wall Street Crash occurred and the world plunged into a severe depression. It is against that backdrop that Bacon launched his career in London. Not surprisingly, he sought to create pieces that were affordable, and so he also used plywood, which was a new and cheap material. He designed a serpentine-shaped stool using plywood, which was then painted in the fashionable eau de nil and varnished to imitate expensive lacquer. In order to highlight the potential for further economization, the purchaser was encouraged to use the furniture for different purposes. The stool could be used for a dressing table, or around a chrome and frosted glass dining table as dining chairs as in this photograph taken in the late 1930s in the flat of Australian novelist Patrick White. Likewise, a painted plywood desk with a glass top and large chrome handles could be used as a dressing table or a desk. Bacon also created an important three-fold screen that was a very popular design object in the 1930s, but also anticipated the format of Bacon’s triptychs. On this, he painted various figures and the quality of this initial foray into oil painting signals the direction the emerging artist would take.
Sadly, most of Bacon’s furniture has not survived. Frustratingly, several pieces were only destroyed as recently as the 1980s. From The Studio article, only one example of the chromium plate table and a few plywood stools still survive, along with the two rugs hanging on the walls.
See this feature as it was intended, in print, by purchasing 032c Issue 35 at our web store.
- TextRebecca Daniels