Gustave Serrurier-Bovy, the precursor of modernism
Gustave Serrurier-Bovy, architect, industrialist, furniture-maker and designer, is undoubtedly the Walloon most significant in and representative of Art Nouveau. He was born in Liège in 1858 and studied architecture at the Académie des Beaux-Arts (Royal Academy of Fine Arts) in his native town. In 1884, he married shop-keeper Maria Bovy. Having worked as an architect in Liège until 1888, he then turned his hand to the furniture trade. He began by working in his wife's business - a shop which mainly imported items from the Far East - offering customers furniture, objects and ornaments from Great Britain. In 1893, he began to create his own furniture following a stay in England, during which he had taken an interest in the Arts and Crafts movement. In 1894, he enjoyed immediate success when he presented a study at the Exposition de la Libre Esthétique (Exhibition of Free Aesthetics) in Brussels. In 1990, he opened a shop, "L'Art dans l'Habitation" ("Art in the Home"), on Rue de Tocqueville in Paris. The same year, together with his Parisian partner René Dulong, he created the Blue Pavilion at the Exposition Universelle in the French capital.
Serrurier was an idealist and a staunch advocate of the idea of beauty being available to everyone; this led him to turn his back on hand-made furniture production in favour of industrial manufacture. He produced workers' furniture for the social housing constructed for the Exposition de Liège in 1905, to the delight of the leaders of the Belgian Workers' Party.
His major architectural creations include the restoration of the Castle of La Cheyrelle in Dienne, in the Cantal region, in collaboration with René Dulong, during which both men freely applied the visionary, avant-garde principles of the time. In 1903, he also built his private home, the Villa Aube, in the Cointe district on the southern hills around Liège; this is one of the showpieces of Liège Art Nouveau. But this Liège native did not work only in Belgium, or even in Europe. In 1908, he crossed the Atlantic to decorate a large, Norman-style villa owned by the extremely wealthy Argentinian Ortiz-Basualdo family of Basque origin in Mar del Plata, Argentina. When he conquered Paris, a member of the Ortiz-Basualdo family had admired his furniture in a branch of his shop on Boulevard Haussman; this led to an invitation to decorate this house, which included ten suites, four bedrooms and a dining room that could seat 25. Furniture, panelling, lighting, frescoes... everything was designed and manufactured in Liège, shipped to South America and then assembled by a foreman and workers from Liège; the design had similarities with the villa in Cointe.
Gustave Serrurier-Bovy presented what would prove to be his last designs at the 1910 Exposition de Bruxelles. They reveal a new, simpler and more geometrical aesthetics far removed from the curves of previous works. Serrurier died suddenly of a heart attack in November 1910, at the age of 52.