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Furnishings from the Grand Salon of the SS Normandie at Rago

9 May 2018

On Sunday, May 20 Rago has the rare privilege of presenting at auction four chairs from the Grand Salon of one of the grandest luxury ocean liners to ever cross the Atlantic, the SS Normandie.

SS Normandie at Sea, 1930’s

The SS Normandie was built at the French port of Saint-Nazaire for Compagnie Générale Transatlantique (referred to simply as “The French Line” in America and the U.K.) and entered service in 1935. Over 1,000 feet in length and outfitted with four turbo-electric motors producing a total of 160,000 horsepower, the Normandie was the largest and fastest ship of its time. It remains the most powerful steam and turbo-electric propelled passenger ship ever built.

The SS Normandie was likewise exceptional for its luxuriously appointed interiors, decorated in Art Deco/Streamline Moderne style by some of the finest French architects and designers of the age, including Roger-Henri Expert, Jean de Brunhoff, and Jean-Maurice Rothschild. It was Rothschild, also noted for designing furniture for the Eiffel Tower’s first restaurant, who created the chairs headed to auction.

Though built with luxury and leisure in mind, the SS Normandie became a victim of global turmoil shortly after entering service. Docked at Pier 88 in New York City at the outbreak of World War Two, the luxury liner was all but abandoned by the French who deemed the risk of a trans-Atlantic crossing in the face of German U-boat patrols too great. Following France’s surrender to the Germans in 1940, and America’s subsequent refusal to acknowledge the puppet “Vichy” government, the SS Normandie effectively became an orphan; a ship without a nation.

Shortly after entering the war, the American government appropriated the SS Normandie, renamed it the USS Lafayette, and set about converting the luxury liner into a troop transport ship that would ferry G.I.s to the European theater.

This plan was not to be.

Lot 2244 – Slipper Back Chair from Grand Salon of SS Normandie

Est. $6,500 – 8,500

On February 9, 1942, an errant spark from a workman’s blowtorch ignited a fire on a stack of highly flammable life preservers on board the newly rechristened ship. Within an hour, this small blaze had grown into a raging inferno. The NYFD was called to scene, but the water they blasted on deck to fight the flames pooled on the ship’s port side, causing it to tilt. As the assembled firemen, workers and growing crowd of awe-struck New Yorkers watched on helplessly, the ship slipped further and further off axis, coming to rest with its starboard side jutting above the waves and its port side settled on the bottom of the Hudson River. Despite an extensive salvage effort, the ill-fated vessel never left port again.

Lot 2243 – Armchair from Grand Salon of SS Normandie

Est. $6,500 - 8,500

While the SS Normandie may have met its demise, much of the original décor and many furnishings that had adorned the luxury liner prior to its conversion were spared this fate, sold to the public in a U.S. Customs Auction on December 9, 1942.

The four chairs coming to auction at Rago were acquired at this auction and held privately since.

Lot 2242 – Pair of Lounge Chairs from Grand Salon of SS Normandie

Est. $10,000 - 15,000

All have been professionally restored by Miguel Saco Restorations. All of the brass leg sabots and mounts on the underside of the chairs used to secure the chairs in place on the ship are original and the Aubusson upholstery designed by Emille Gaudissart is original and hand restored. The chairs are being offered with the original 1942 U.S. Custom’s auction receipts included.

View these, and other works of Early 20th C. and Modern Design, in the online catalogs for our May Design Auctions, here.