Rennes — Art Deco may not be the first thing people think of when visiting Brittany in western France — an area better known for rough stone farmhouses, ancient megaliths, and rain.
But take the time to look upwards in many a Breton town and you could be in for a surprise. Distinctive Art Deco mosaics decorate many of the older buildings in the regional capital, Rennes, with similar creations dotted across the region.
"You need to get off the beaten track and look around you to see things that are not always remarkable but always worth looking at," said Therese Jannes, a guide for city-run tours of these often hidden architectural treasures. "It’s another Brittany.”
And the striking mosaic designs, combining geometric patterns in hues of golds, greys and delicately graded blues on facades, floors, and interiors, are unique in France.
While Art Deco flourished between World War I and World War II, the best examples in Brittany and neighbouring parts were the work of a Rennes-based company called Odorico.
The firm was set up by a migrant Isidore Odorico, who left Italy’s Friuli region in the late 19th century to find work in France.
Friuli has a tradition of mosaic making that dates back to Roman times and Odorico was highly skilled in the ancient craft and quickly established a respected local business.
But it was Odorico’s son, born in 1893 and also called Isidore, who really made the company’s name. Isidore junior trained as an artist in Rennes and his ability to combine a love of Art Deco design with skills as a mosaic artist saw the company create its most memorable works.
"He was the only mosaic artist who was really influenced by the Art Deco movement and was able to transform its concepts into mosaic work. There were no other mosaic makers in France who made Art Deco designs like his," said Fabienne Martin-Adam, curator of a major exhibition on Odorico’s work that ran at the Brittany Museum in Rennes this past summer.
Academic Helene Guene-Loyer, the exhibition’s scientific advisor and arguably France’s leading expert on Odorico’s work, said the young art student was clearly influenced by the emerging decorative art movement.
"The 1925 Art Deco fair was an important turning point, it marked the moment when ornamentation became a major element of decorative design," she said.
Examples of Odorico junior’s work can be found across western France, but perhaps the most famous example is the Maison Bleu (Blue House) in Angers.
The state-protected building is a monument to Art Deco extravagance, with a facade in complex blue and gold motifs that evolve subtly from the ground up. The bathrooms of the most luxurious apartments boast sumptuous coloured mosaic work, again featuring much gold.
The company also created scores of designs for everyday customers including shopkeepers, bathhouses and post offices, much of it still visible today.
"Odorico’s work shows there’s more to Brittany than standing stones and Celtic legends," said Martin-Adam.
Odorico junior died in 1945 and the company never really recovered.
By the time World War II ended that same year, sumptuous Art Deco creations had fallen out, and the city planners and architects who had been among the company’s key customers wanted more austere and cheaper designs to rebuild the region.
The firm limped on under various owners until the mid-1970s, when it finally folded, leaving the rainy west transformed ever so slightly by a bygone spark of Mediterranean flair.