Ask any first-year design student to name the world’s first interior designers and they’re liable to rattle off Dorothy Draper, Elsie deWolfe, and Sister Parish. While these designers were the undeniable headliners of early 20th century design, there’s one oft-forgotten name that predates them all: Maison Jansen.
Renowned for lavish, gilt-encrusted furniture that harks back to early French design and sleek, metallic-forward pieces that capitalize on Regency-era trends, Maison Jansen created some of the world’s most coveted furniture. At its height, Maison Jansen was also an international interior design powerhouse that employed dozens of designers. Yet it all began humbly enough with one man: Jean-Henri Jansen. Originally from Holland, Jean-Henri was in his twenties when he founded House of Jansen in 1880. While mystery shrouds much of Jansen’s early life, it’s known that he was incredibly well-connected and was trained under several prestigious apprenticeships. Without question, Jansen was also ambitious and tremendously talented.
An International Design Firm
In its formative years, Maison Jansen designed interiors for the aristocratic set. This included the royal families of the Netherlands, Spain, England, Belgium—not to mention, the Americans’ version of royal families, the Vanderbilts and the Rockefellers. Maison Jansen’s popularity grew by both word of mouth and appearances at European design fairs.
As early as 1905, Maison Jansen had international offices opening in Europe, the Americas, and Africa. Beaux-Arts style was at its peak, and Jansen’s work was the answer to an insatiable demand for lavish period interiors. By the time Jean-Henri Jansen died in 1928, he had created the first world’s first international design firm.
Following Jansen’s death, the Maison Jansen torch was carried on by a succession of design-forward presidents. First up was Stéphane Boudin who updated the traditional style favored by the firm previously. Her modern vision catapulted Maison Jansen into the position of the most celebrated and sought-after design firm of the day. Boudin also oversaw some of the firm’s most iconic projects, including Coco Chanel’s Paris apartment and Jackie Kennedy’s overhaul of the White House.
Pierre Delbée took over after Boudin’s retirement in 1967 and ran the company until its closure in 1989. During that time, Delbée created notable spaces for the Shah of Iran and his own residence in Paris, which would later be auctioned off by Christies. Delbée further refined the Jansen look, coaxing it into its most modern and recognizable iteration—an amalgamation of 18th Century French luxury crossed with the crispness of an English estate and judiciously splashed with modern glam.
An Elite Brand
Beyond interior design, Maison Jansen was also a maker and dealer. In the firm’s early years, Jean-Henri Jansen established an antiques trade and created a five-story atelier in Paris. The atelier was filled with highly-specialized artisans who created period piece reproductions to fill Maison Jansen projects. Soon, Maison Jansen furniture became a thriving industry in its own right.
Much like the firm’s interior design business, Maison Jansen furniture evolved with the company’s leadership. In the early years, traditional reproductions of 18th Century French court-style pieces were common. In the 1960’s and 70’s the firm became known for its Modern Regency style pieces. These included mirrored pieces, animal print upholstery, metallics, and sleek silhouettes.
The Three Tiers of Luxury
Maison Jansen furniture falls into three categories: finest, second tier, and third tier. Finest describes custom pieces or fully custom reproductions crafted in the house’s atelier. Due to their one-off nature, finest pieces are rare and extremely valuable. Examples of finest pieces include a pair of painted commodes made for the Duchess of Windsor’s dressing room and Louis XV-style furniture made out of Cuban mahogany for the Count and Countess de Revilla de Camargo in Havana.
Second tier describes furniture original to the firm’s atelier and manufactured in limited runs. A number of iconic styles fall into this second tier, including Louis XV and XVI style chairs and upholstered sofas. Other noted styles include Thebes stool, and a miniature wheeled telephone table. Originally, these pieces had small customizable elements such as choice of upholstery or finishes.
Third tier encompasses a collection of seating and case furniture manufactured as “filler” for non-principal rooms in projects. Most third tier pieces on the market today hail from a short-lived, 1970s retail line called “Jansen Collection.” This mass-produced line includes the brand’s now-iconic bureau-plat tables, secrétaire abattant desks, and commode chests.
Because Maison Jansen didn’t consistently sign their furniture, it is difficult to identify. From the beginning, Jansen was exceedingly modest and would pass credit for a commission to his high-profile client. For this reason, attribution to a specific commission is most accurate form of authentication.
There are also three marks that are universal signs of authenticity. These marks include “JANSEN,” “JANSEN/Paris,” or “JANSEN/rue Royale.” “JANSEN/9 RUE ROYALE” and “JANSEN” have also been identified on bronze tables and lamps. There is even a brand specific to a Jansen studio in Buenos Aires, “JANSEN/INDUSTRIA ARGENTINA.” Despite intense expert scrutiny, there is still no single authenticity standard. Today, pieces sold at auction receive expert “endorsements.”
Maison Jansen remains one of the most recognized and desired brands in the fine furniture market. From a single Paris storefront to a global interior firm and renowned furniture studio, Jansen revolutionized interior design. Like its founder, Maison Jansen is stuff of legend: mysterious, elusive, and the epitome of quality and refinement.
Lead photo by Björn Wallander/OTTO