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Interiors in Film: Absurdly Modern

Modern Design Auctions at Leonard Joel
Mon Oncle, Jacques Tati, 1958 / Alamy

This second instalment of ‘Interiors in Film’ focuses on the French director Jacques Tati’s film ‘Mon Oncle’ (My Uncle), filmed and set in 1958 when France and the rest of Europe were regaining prosperity after the second world war. Industries and technologies were booming, paving the way for a new, modern world. ‘Mon Oncle’, with all its slapstick elements, is more a reflection on how the modern age affects the way people live. Most of the film is set in a new house, and we watch how a group of guests interact with each other in the modern space.

The slick aesthetics of modernism continued well into the post war era. The wide-ranging trend encompassed everything, especially architecture. It focused on simple, rational forms that avoided ornamentation and historical context. While many celebrated the increased prosperity that modernism allowed, Tati sees the global culture as discouraging the enjoyment of life.

Modern Design Auctions at Leonard Joel
Mon Oncle, Jacques Tati, 1958 / Alamy

The Villa Arpel, the house in which the film is set, is modelled on Le Corbusier’s ideals of the home as a machine for living in. With this influence, Tati designed the furniture in the film along with his set designer Jacques Lagrange. The three key pieces are the ‘Haricot’ sofa, shaped like a bean, the ‘Yellow’ rocking chair, and the ‘Harper’ sofa, all designed to convey discomfort. Each piece of furniture, at some point in the film, reveals an awkward absurdity embedded in modern life. In one example, Mr Hulot (the uncle) gets physically stuck in a chair, and still tries to carry on socialising whilst uncomfortably wrestling with the seating.

Another wonderful absurdity is how long Tati spends depicting people walking around Villa Arpel’s garden. With its square beds of coloured gravel and tidy grass, aside from the aesthetics, the designer hasn’t put much thought into how the garden will be used. A series of comic moments portray people repeatedly following or passing each other awkwardly because they do not wish to step off the pavers and into the gravel.

Modern Design Auctions at Leonard Joel
Mon Oncle, Jacques Tati, 1958 / Alamy

Tati may see modern sensibilities as misunderstanding the essence of living and touching, however perhaps at the same time, his theories are a slight contradiction to what modernism achieved. Modernism rejected the progress and cultural evolution that inspired war, it sought newness, originality, and technical and creative innovation for a better future.

Ironically, the architecture and furniture that Tati designed for the film is what has gone on to become just as famous as the movie itself. The set designs are now coveted amongst collectors, with only one full set of all three furniture pieces remaining, belonging to Le Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris. Mon Oncle is a true testament to modernism and its designs that will no doubt continue to inspire multiple creative disciplines for decades to come.

Anna Grassham / Head of Modern Design

November 2021

Banner Image: Mon Oncle, Jacques Tati, 1958 / Alamy


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