New episode of the tour among the “alpine” articles published on Vogue house. This time we leave Europe to literally fly to the other side of the world, to the Andean Cordillera, where everything has gigantic dimensions, even more when compared with those of our valleys. It is no coincidence that the legendary Patagones were a fabulous and non-existent lineage of giants. Thus we end up in the San Carlos de Bariloche of the Thirties and Forties which was preparing to become the center of mountain tourism for the Argentine elites and beyond, also thanks to nature, landscapes, peaks, woods and lakes with absolutely alpine characteristics – an excellent a reminder for the Central European (and Belluno) emigrants who were making their fortune there. Among the many, there was also a Frenchman, Jean-Michel Frank, fleeing war and persecution. A tormented story, as you will read, which makes a singular contrast with the beauty of the place where the hotel of which he created the interiors still stands: a green hill overlooking a row of lakes. As if to say, a panorama and pacifying that makes you believe that nothing can go wrong. The article was published in Casa Vogue in December 2002. (Paolo Lavezzari)
When in 1934 the Argentine architect Alejandro Bustillo (1889-1982) won the competition for the construction of the only grand hotel in the southern cone (Chile, Argentina and Uruguay) in the middle of the Andes, the small town of Bariloche – “La ciudad de los Cesares” where the dreams of visionaries and precursors who had attempted to conquer Patagonia – loomed as the enclave and at the same time the mecca of the Argentine upper class and aristocracy. Its development progressed incessantly thanks to the determination and enthusiasm of immigrants from northern and central Europe, who had left their countries to find themselves among the snow-capped peaks and lakes of this remote corner of the world. Animated by the same romantic spirit of the architects of the Yellowstone park founded in 1872, the Argentines created their own laws and national parks to safeguard those newly explored lands.
The Llao Llao: In designing it, Bustillo was inspired by the Old Faithfull Inn, the first inn built in Wyoming National Park. Photo courtesy Asociacion Civil Arca / Gomez Archive.
A large mountain retreat of 1,750 square meters, with one hundred rooms, a rustic and essential style, a U-shaped plan and two identical wings around a central space arranged on the ground, seemed to crown all their dreams. And still today it dominates the scenario, just outside the disorderly development of the town. There large structure of stone and wood with the roof in larch blocks as is still used for all buildings in southern Chile, perfectly camouflaged with the mountain, it was built by thousands of workers who worked incessantly for months. Internally, the Bariloche hotel was conceived as a large “estancia”, a place where to receive friends, divided between huge common areas and small rooms with a very rustic style.
Photo courtesy Asociacion Civil Arca / Gomez Archive.
Each room was conceived as a tiny refuge in the midst of nature, and provided only with the bare minimum. In order not to interrupt theimpressive view of the Nahuel Huapi lake enjoyed from the double-height dining room complete with a stage for the orchestra, Bustillo arranged for the hill around the hotel to be lowered by a meter. In a short time, the great South American dream was completed. Meanwhile, war broke out in Europe, and an olive-skinned little man, persecuted as a Jew and homosexual, restless and affable, arrived in Buenos Aires to escape the Nazi fury, and to go and live in total anonymity in an apartment reserved for employees of the Comte factory, a company that in the 1930s hired local and European designers to create modern furniture and furnishings related to the Argentine wood industry. The character in question was Jean-Michel Frank (1894-1941), who for twenty years had played an extraordinary role in fixing the tastes of the time and interpreted like no other the ideal and aesthetic aspirations of the generation that had imposed itself after the First World War. Friend of the surrealists, of Salvador Dalí – author of the golden satin sofa with the shape of the mouth of Mae West, which he created with him for the music room of the Baron of L’Epee – but also of Picasso, Giacometti and many others, Frank he had taken part in all the avant-garde movements and applied asceticism and rigor in a worldly context, combining them with luxury and precious objects. Together with Adolphe Chanaux, his partner, he praised the simplicity of the shapes which he compensated with the quality of the materials, always absolutely precious, such as hand-sewn cowhide, parchment, straw. His drawings, exhibited in the shop in rue de la Boetie, ended up hanging in the homes of aristocrats or artists who were beginning to turn their backs on a past and an era that was rich, dense and almost out of fashion. The women who dressed Chanel and shortened their skirts identified with the style of Jean-Michel, who, despite his tragic fate, had managed to conquer Paris and the world with his charm and genius. Until the war, and it is a story common to many, put an end to its activities in Europe. From that moment the least known and most controversial period of his career began. While the interior designer was starting a collaboration with Comte, it was precisely to this that the Hotel Llao Llao, just inaugurated, asked to take care of the furnishings. One was proposed rustic furniture line, solid and well designed, without unnecessary frills.
The children’s dining room with white beech wood tables and chairs. Photo courtesy Asociacion Civil Arca / Gomez Archive.
It was at this point that Frank intervened, who contributed his ideas in terms of design and construction, reproducing some of his models with the use of local materials and the work of Argentine craftsmen. In practice, he did nothing but modernize and simplify the classic French and English projects to adapt them to the taste of local society. Faithful to his formal rigor and to the refinement of the finishes, Frank found in the new materials that he had available in Argentina a deep inspiration, stimulated moreover by the knowledge of the peasant culture and the gauchos to which he was introduced by Bustillo, who was a refined connoisseur. What resulted was a furniture in which the simplicity of the popular tradition rose to the purity of timeless classicism. Here then, in the bow windows, are Frank’s classic benches with crossed legs, but upholstered with raw leather, a typically gaucho material that Frank also used for the beech bed structures and as an element of tension in the seats.
The cross-legged benches, a Frank classic. Photo courtesy Asociacion Civil Arca / Gomez Archive.
And if on the one hand the large sofas, the “elephant” armchairs in the living room and the quilted benches are another trademark of Frank, their finishes with iron bands and more leather immediately refer to the trappings and stirrups of the knights of the pampas. However, he always refused to sign his works, at least according to the words of Mrs. Arauz, owner of Comte (which no longer exists) and famous interior designer, as if to dispel any doubts about the work done in Argentina. A few years later, when Frank’s scholars and connoisseurs discovered what had hitherto been a secret collaboration with the architect Bustillo for the realization of the furniture of the Hotel Llao Llao, the research began, which aroused many controversies and discussions. Several trips to Bariloche and complicated studies allowed experts to track down some of the few furniture that survived the fire that destroyed the hotel shortly after its inauguration (it was quickly rebuilt, albeit with some differences). Part of the furnishings were found in the poverty of the houses of former hotel employees, and it was concluded that the Argentines were not aligned with Frank’s taste and fame.
The furniture designs were inspired by early 19th century country furnishings. Photo courtesy Asociacion Civil Arca / Gomez Archive.
After the brief adventure in Argentina, where his furniture never managed to attract the attention of the public – with the exception of a very few, including the entrepreneur Born who, even before he arrived in Argentina, had commissioned the entire furniture of the house, located in a residential neighborhood just outside Buenos Aires – and from where he suddenly fled, Frank worked for some time in Manhattan, until he took his own life in 1941 at the age of 46. Little remains of his works, even if his ideas are as modern today as they were then. Perhaps it is precisely the words spoken by Cecil Beaton in 1954 that best describe his work: “If Frank were alive, he would still be the interior architect of the future… and surely he would have been the one to furnish the headquarters of the United Nations ».
Photo courtesy Asociacion Civil Arca / Gomez Archive.