By Ian David Volner
Updated: January 24, 2017
AFP/Getty Images

“It’s no longer enough to just do lighting, is it?” asked designer Tom Dixon. “You’ve got to play some music, give people some chocolates, work a bit harder.” Standing in front of his booth at Maison et Objet, the twice-annual trade function for design, décor, and aesthetic miscellany on the outskirts of Paris, Dixon had already developed the dazed expression (call it “fair stare”) of somebody who’s been camped out in a giant convention center filled with furniture for about five hours too many. And he still had a long evening ahead of him—he was slated to appear that night at a Paris Design Week event at the Centre Pompidou, where he would be jamming live on stage with his self-titled band.

The now 20-year-old Maison et Objet took place September 4-8 at the Parc des Exhibitions in the suburban community of Villepinte, a place whose relation to the metropolis as a whole approximates that of Weequahic, New Jersey’s to New York City: farewell Maxim’s and the Tour St. Jacques, hello Ikea Paris North. Having finally gotten there, the next great hurdle confronting the visitor is the exhibition grounds themselves, an early-1980’s ensemble of glass pavilions arranged in a horseshoe configuration under the flight path of Charles de Gaulle. Here some 3,000 exhibitors show their wares in a series of loosely-themed grouping, including Electic (crafts, bedding, tchotchkes), Elegance (slightly higher-end tchotckes), Fragrances (fragrances), and—after several more dedicated to children’s toys and cookware and fashion and bathrooms—the real heart of the enterprise, the clunkily-named Now! Design à Vivre.

AFP/Getty Images

This is where the major global interiors brands are to be found, and for the most part this is where the action is for design-minded fair-goers. Dixon was there to show off his new Brew tea set, a copper-clad service that shimmered alluringly in the light of his amber-hued Melt pendant lamps. Along with booths from German blue-chip Vitra (a selection of new work as well as mid-century classics by designers like Alexander Girard) and Danish brand Hay (featuring new outdoor pieces by the Bourellec brothers), the presence of the London-based Dixon confirmed that the Paris function still manages to hold its own against the 300-pound gorilla of European design fairs, Milan’s Salone del Mobile. “It’s more resale shops and dealers here,” noted Dixon, making it suitable for “smaller objects” like his own Brew design.

Tea was one of several leitmotifs that emerged from this season’s Maison. In an adjacent pavilion, Italian kitchen specialists Alessi were celebrating the 30th anniversary of its Michael Graves collaboration with a special edition of the famed 9093 kettle; titled Tea Rex, it replaces the familiar spout-top rooster with a miniature dinosaur. Another recurring subject was monkeys, which seemed to appear with startling regularity—not least in the towering display for Italian manufacturer Seletti showcasing Marcantonio Raimondi Malerba’s dangling Monkey Lamp. In keeping with the animal theme, taxidermy, rarely seen at other design fairs, turned up in no fewer than three stalls. Anne Orlawksa of Parisian vendor Design et Nature has been coming to Maison twice a year for the last twelve, drawing curious crowds with a striking (if slightly macabre) collection of rare birds and mammals. “It’s very difficult because all the animals have to die naturally,” she explained: items like her complete giraffe head come mostly from zoos and circuses, and have to be thoroughly documented and certified.

AFP/Getty Images

And then there were the Portuguese, who seemed far more heavily represented here than at a fair like Salone. “It’s a very international fair,” said Paula Laranjo of Lisbon-based Branco Sobre Branco. “And it’s maybe easier for the Portuguese to come here—we have good contacts in France.” Not far off, furniture-maker Paulo Antunes’ booth was a subdued highlight of the proceedings, with work that spoke to the cultural roots of contemporary Portuguese design. “We have a very long tradition of working in wood,” said Antunes. “Since the 15th century we were making boats to travel around the world.” One could almost imagine taking his Serene chaise, with its prow-like wooden backing, on a trans-Atlantic voyage of discovery.

The proximity of more commercial fare in the non-high-design booths seems to attract a number of rather off-beat presenters into the Now! pavilion, and at least one architecture lover lost a good chunk of time marveling at the work of British team Chisel & Mouse. The duo, composed of brothers Robert and Gavin Paisley, specialize in creating weighty plaster replicas of familiar and not-so-familiar architectural landmarks from around the world, and their combination of hand-crafting and digital techniques—whence the company’s name—makes for astonishingly detailed mockups of Eliel Saarinen’s Helsinki train station, Walter Gropius’ Bauhaus, and more. “Some of them work as bookends, but they’re just objets d’art,” says Robert, who represents the “mouse” side of the operation; in addition to their world-architecture series, he and his brother can also produce a table-top edition of your own home (for a fee, of course).

Outside the fairgrounds, there were events aplenty for Paris Design Week, though they could be a bit difficult to find: Paris has a number of competing design weeks, and that appeared to dilute the programming somewhat. This being France, the problem is still worse on a Sunday afternoon, when most of the participating retailers elected to stay home for a grand matin. (A notable exception was Galerie d’en face, in the 7th Arrondissement, who have mounted a striking show of '60s-esque pieces by local designer Philippe Nacson.) Of course everyone might simply have been tuckered out from the night before, when, as scheduled, Tom Dixon took up his bass guitar in Beaubourg for a set that included a stirring rendition of David Bowie’s Let’s Dance. Not many people actually danced; but after a whole day spent trudging through the massive, confounding, uneven-if-consistently-entertaining grab bag that is Maison, who could blame them?