The veil that the French discreetly draw over their private lives is ever so slightly lifted in the museum’s newly reconstructed period rooms, which conjure the ambience of different eras as they invite viewers into the intimate recesses of abodes. That sacred literary sanctuary, the cork-lined room where Marcel Proust composed Remembrance of Things Past in bed while tending to his allergies, is unfortunately not among them (it’s at the nearby Musée de Carnavalet). But visitors can marvel at the luxurious bedchamber commissioned in the 1830’s by the Baron William Hope, a Dutch-English banker so wealthy he lent money to King Louis-Philippe. Hope never married; did he repair to this room, with its brightly colored paneling, its walls covered in brilliant yellow-and-white silk damask, and its frieze of commedia dell’arte figures, alone or with one of his mistresses?
The changing whims of fashion are highlighted in the Cabinet des Fables, an elegant 18th-century boudoir intended for the wife of a wealthy tax collector in Paris (whose home was seized by the state in the wake of the French Revolution and whose rooms were transformed, a century later, into the offices of a military governor). The paneling’s pale-green and rose-colored moldings, which surround illustrations of scenes from La Fontaine’s Fables—monkeys negotiating with foxes and the like—were covered in gold, and the entire ladylike confection rendered at once bolder and more vulgar. (Restorers have left evidence of both stages.)
Time stands still in the private apartments of couturier Jeanne Lanvin: a bedchamber, boudoir, and bathroom created between 1922 and 1925, with the designer Armand Albert Rateau, as a cloistered refuge where this consummate artist and businesswoman could retire in private or with intimate friends and relations. The silk wall coverings in her signature shade of blue have been reembroidered by Jean-François Lesage (son of the celebrated couture embroiderer); the perfect geometries of her bathroom, with its sculpted deer above a marble tub and its black-and-cream tiles, gleam once more. "These rooms were designed for a woman alone," said Hélène Guéné, the author of a recent book on the relationships in France between haute couture and interior decoration. "Everything turns around a very gentle and sophisticated idea of nature, like an enclosed garden behind whose walls one would speak of nothing but what interested her."
During the month of May 1968, as French students and workers joined in a general strike, and the paving stones of Paris served once again at the barricades, the Musée des Arts Décoratifs mounted an exhibition devoted to 20th-century chairs. No one at the time was thinking of sitting down, but the show remains a landmark in the history of design exhibitions. The museum’s contemporary galleries were still under construction when I visited last summer, but Béatrice Salmon told me they would reflect design’s current internationalism as well as its reach, which has stretched into the homes of the masses.
"We’ve never been a museum of the art of the people," she said. "Our founders’ insistence on French savoir faire and excellence from the nation’s artisans always put us just alongside royal tastes. Of course, a peasant may have sculpted a wonderful pair of clogs. But the history of our institution and the reality of its collections lie elsewhere. Today, because of the industrialization and democratization of design, the same social categories aren’t really valid anymore."
Designer trash cans for all! That was one cry never heard upon the barricades. But perhaps, in perusing these galleries, the revolutionary masses of the past might have found themselves reflected—or at least seen something they’d have liked to take home.
Musée des Arts Décoratifs, 107 Rue de Rivoli; 33-1/44-55-57-50; www.lesartsdecoratifs.fr.
Leslie Camhi, a New York-based cultural critic, writes about the arts for the New York Times and Vogue.