France Continues to Rethink Its Furnishings


There’s a youthquake underway at one of France’s oldest institutions.

The Mobilier National, the national repository of furniture and the decorative arts, was formally established in the 17th century under King Louis XIV. Now housed in a massive Art Deco complex in the 13th Arrondissement — on land that was once the vegetable garden for the Les Gobelins tapestry factory — it houses more than 130,000 commodes, clocks, candelabras, chairs, tapestries, carpets and other antiques spanning four centuries of French history. For elected officials, a selection from the Mobilier National’s reserves is made available for refurbishing government agencies and residences, from embassies right on up to the Élysée Palace, the president’s official residence.

Last month, 54 new creations joined the inventory, including lamps, tables, sofas, room dividers and so forth by 30 contemporary designers in France.

Hervé Lemoine, the president of the Mobilier National, said this year’s crop was part of a campaign that began in 2020 to expand the institution’s holdings, especially to newer works. Contemporary acquisitions also have begun traveling the world. In December, the Villa Albertine x Mobilier National stand won the best special project award at Miami Design Week.

“What’s always interesting is to see a designer’s process and originality,” said Mr. Lemoine, who worked with jurors from decorative arts, the media and other fields to select the additions from among 436 submissions.

“What we’re looking at is how these young designers manage to take something classic, like a lamp, table or chair,” he said, “and use their command of different kinds of savoir-faire to transform them into a completely new proposition.”

The Face à Face game table by Camillo Bernal, for example, was anything but conventional. The piece, which the 28-year-old designer produced with his occasional collaborator, Blanche Mijonnet, drew on an unusual combination of specialized crafts.

Its curvaceous frame and legs in aluminum croqué — a finish that looks like micropleating — were made by artisans at Atelier François Pouenat, a fifth-generation, family-run ironwork specialist, and its top was made of plaster molded by hand and encased in vaseline milk glass, by the Atelier Tollis. The companies, which are an Entreprise du Patrimoine Vivant, the mark of recognition by the French state of living heritage companies, had never collaborated before, Mr. Bernal said.

In one of the tabletop’s corners, a very oh-là-là bas-relief depicts a faun romping with a nymph, reproduced from a mold that Mr. Bernal spotted in the archives at Atelier Tollis.

And at the center of the piece is a disk, 40 centimeters (almost 16 inches) in diameter, that can be removed to vary the look of the table. Clad in cognac-colored calf leather on one side, it was painted with a Fauve-style motif by the Marseilles artist Florent Groc on the other.

The table was displayed straddling a long wooden bench made of solid oak. How people choose to sit on the bench (or not) and place their feet helps to define the experience, Mr. Bernal said. “We wanted to push bodies to talk and also set the scene for parts of the body that one can’t often read, but which speak volumes,” he said.

Now that his piece has been bought by the Mobilier National, Mr. Bernal — like the other artisans in this group — has the right to produce as many as seven others for sale. He already has three orders for the ensemble, priced at about 11,000 euros ($11,910) for the table and 8,000 euros for the bench. (The amounts vary depending on material prices.)

Despite its provocative nature, Mr. Lemoine said he could picture Face à Face in the Élysée Palace, perhaps in an anteroom. “The fact that it’s a game table is a kind of metaphor,” he said. “Every discussion or negotiation is a form of play in which you try to persuade the other person.”

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