Italian Renaissance artist Michelangelo Buonarotti (1475-1564) famously said, “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.” This same principle — the sumptuousness of the raw material seeming to spiritually guide and coax the artist’s hand — is at work in artist and designer Alexandre Noll’s wood sculptures, furniture and household objects.
A 1966 catalog accompanying his show at the Galerie Messine in Paris detailed that Alexandre Noll (1890-1970) wanted “to make of wood all that could be made out of wood.” Today, his name is obscure in the furniture world as he is mostly known for being a sculptor, but Noll was enraptured with wood and attempted to make anything and everything he could out of the material, from artfully undulating totems and sculptures to functional chairs and cabinets. This love of the material is what set him apart from other designers of the time. Noll eschewed the man-made resources becoming popular in Mid-century design such as steel or plywood, and found his muse in wood.
Noll never traveled extensively, but he worked with woods from all over the world, including Africa, Japan, North and South America, and his native France. The types of woods he took up ranges from elm to mahogany, walnut and ebony. His daughter, Odile Noll, who still lives in Paris surrounded by his estate, explains that “it was the shape of the wood that inspired him.” The appreciation of the organic is evident in the curvatures and sinews that spring up and intertwine on the facets and surfaces of a Noll-created object. Crags, holes, and other nooks and crannies in Noll’s work evoke the naturally occurring losses in tree trunks and bark, but in his designed objects also serve the function of a handle or storage space.
The creative impulse of the paterfamilias inspired two generations of succeeding wood-workers with a similar appreciation for organic shapes — his aforementioned daughter, Odile, dabbled in sculptural objects, and his late granddaughter, Catherine, fashioned earrings, bracelets and other wearable jewelry. Today, Noll’s work is quietly but highly sought after in art auctions by prominent collectors because unlike the other famous Knoll of modern design, which produces artists’ proofs in large numbers, Alexandre Noll’s work remains rare with one-of-a-kind handmade pieces.
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