The new Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris showcases eight centuries of French savoir faire. Leslie Camhi tours the collections and the lives merged within.
Ditte Isager 1840 Louis-Philippe-style bedroom of Baron William Hope
| Credit: Ditte Isager

I was gazing at the perfect pink town houses of Place des Vosges from a private balcony one evening last summer as a fellow dinner guest, an auctioneer, spoke of the people who lived there as if they were his small-town neighbors. His family had owned the hôtel particulier next door for some three centuries, though he’d been the first to inhabit it. Former ministers of culture, famous pianists, femmes du monde, and high-living art dealers—he had known them all and under his gavel, many of their goods had been dispersed. His conversation betrayed a very French passion for the souls of objects, an intuitive grasp of what the details of an interior might reveal about a person’s private life. He let slip, for example, that he was installing three sinks in his master bathroom, leaving his domestic arrangements to my imagination. And he sighed with contentment over a purchase he had made at Drouot, the leading French auction house, that very morning—the bookcase of a turn-of-the-century pair, the desk of which had long been in his possession. He said it was like reuniting the scattered members of a single family.

I was in Paris to visit the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, which reopened in September after a decade-long, $46 million renovation. A monument to the French art de vivre, housed in a 19th-century wing of the Louvre that has been restored to Beaux-Arts splendor, its galleries and period rooms showcase eight centuries of Gallic taste in interior decoration.

It’s a unique institution in France, in that its vast collection of some 150,000 objects—from medieval prie-dieus to Sèvres porcelain to an entire Art Deco Pullman car—was built almost exclusively from private donations. The 6,000 pieces currently on view are spread out across 10 floors and arranged in roughly chronological order, punctuated by special displays, including a gallery devoted to the history of toy design and a room full of paintings by Jean Dubuffet donated by the artist in 1967.

So it is also home to a thousand ghosts. Some corseted lady, one imagines, spread her crinolines across the rich upholstery of that Second Empire sofa; some free spirit reclined on that tubular, 1920’s lounge chair, dreaming of a Modernist utopia. The hands that trailed along that sinuous Art Nouveau railing or raised a 17th-century glass to lips are never far from one’s thoughts, as are the hands of countless, often anonymous artisans. In a country where the art of the past is considered part of the national patrimony, subject to regulations as strict as the appellation "Roquefort," such dependence upon private patronage is an aberration.

"It’s linked to the origins of our institution, which was born in the 19th century out of the desire of individual industrialists and collectors," explained the museum’s director, Béatrice Salmon. "At the time," she continued, "a museum of the decorative arts wasn’t something the state considered indispensable." We were sitting in her office, one wall of which was covered with cartoon portraits of major benefactors, soon to be installed along museum staircases. Furniture manufacturers and antiques dealers mingled with artists, collectors, and philanthropists.

In her airy top-floor study overlooking the elegant topiaries of the Tuileries Gardens, Hélène David-Weill, the institution’s venerable yet sylphlike president, emphasized the intimate nature of each donation. "People gave the museum, for the most part, what they had lived with and loved," she said.

Every once in a while, the French rise up and burn their furniture. Not a single French throne survived the Revolution of 1789. Gustave Flaubert described the delirium of the hordes invading the Louvre’s royal residences during the Revolution of 1848 as "redoubling to the continuous din of breaking porcelain and shards of crystal"; 23 years later, the insurgent mobs of the Paris Commune made bonfires of the royal curtains and canapés in the Tuileries.

Perhaps it was the memory of those earlier conflagrations, as much as the threat of industrial competition from London, that inspired a group of 19th-century businessmen to create a museum of the French decorative arts. Their aim was twofold: to elevate the standards of national production by setting examples of excellence before the eyes of their workers, and to educate the tastes of a public newly attuned to the consumption of luxury goods. An early version of the museum, installed at No. 3 Place des Vosges, was open late at night so that upholsterers, cabinetmakers, and seamstresses could visit it after their ateliers had closed. Later on, the state, rallying at last to the museum’s cause, donated the Marsan Wing of the Louvre, its current location along the Rue de Rivoli, where it opened in 1905. (Although within the precincts of the Louvre, the Musée des Arts Décoratifs is a separate institution.)

Its focus on the "minor arts" of decoration also left it open to works that more traditional institutions, such as the Louvre, tended to shy away from. The museum was among the first in France to show African art and photography, and mounted key exhibitions of contemporary artists early in their careers, from Picasso to Daniel Buren. It still presides over two related museums, housed in the same wing of the Louvre and devoted to quintessentially French passions, fashion and advertising. (Farther afield, but also under its jurisdiction, lies the Musée Nissim de Camondo, a house that a Turkish-born Sephardic-Jewish banker, Moïse de Camondo, constructed on the eve of World War I, basing it upon the model of the Petit Trianon at Versailles and filling it with exquisite examples of Rococo furniture.)

Today, natural light floods through the oculi of a soaring central atrium (long obscured by successive renovations), and the sweep of French history unfolds through things designed mostly for daily use. Galleries highlight specific techniques and styles, such as examples of the 18th-century mania for cabinets adorned with eye-popping geometric wood veneers, or the macabre fin de siècle penchant for decorative bats and dragons on everything from table legs and mirrors to wallpaper.

Despite the national focus, the museum’s pieces show a history of constant exchange across borders, as Flemish, Chinese, and Italian influences (among others) have been absorbed and tempered by Gallic sensibilities. "Just look at European porcelain," Mme. David-Weill noted. "It began in Saxony, with manufacturers trying to surpass the achievements of the Chinese. So you can’t say that it’s a properly French tradition—it goes back even to the time of the Egyptians." Or consider a marvelously delicate writing table that once belonged to Madame de Pompadour, where the royal paramour may have sat writing love notes to King Louis XV. Its lacquered surface, inset with Orientalist scenes, imitates the Japanese, but in a blue that is classically French.

Because this is France, the history of desire is woven into these objects, and illicit passion has been among the greatest spurs to the creation and consumption of luxury goods. Witness the remarkable assortment of Lalique jewels worn by the expatriate American salonière Natalie Clifford Barney—all gifts (in a shade that matched the blue of her eyes) from her lovers: female poets and courtesans of the Belle Époque. There’s also the fantastic collection of Boucheron tie pins—miniature boars’ heads sculpted from sapphires, gold-and-enamel bees—offered to Nissim de Camondo (father of Moïse) by his mistress, a shady American divorcée from Baltimore.

On the fifth floor is a spectacular 19th-century bed cast in bronze—a throne, really, hung with velvet curtains and decorated with cupids and fleurs-de-lis—which another grande horizontale, Valtesse de la Bigne, left to the museum. She was among the models for Émile Zola’s portrait of a prostitute, Nana; her legendary bed a tool of the trade with which she had made her fortune. Though royal heads may have rested upon its embroidered pillowcases, the Louvre would not have welcomed it. Here it’s the centerpiece of a gallery devoted to the style of the great courtesans who were her contemporaries.

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;

Leslie Camhi, a New York-based cultural critic, writes about the arts for the New York Times and Vogue.

Musée des Arts Décoratifs

An Art Deco Pullman car, Madame de Pompadour’s writing table, and the bronze bed of 19th-century prostitute Valtesse de La Bigne are just a few of the nearly 6,000 artifacts housed in the Musée des Arts Décoratifs (Museum of Decorative Arts), which first opened in 1905 in the Marsan wing of the Louvre. Managed by an organization called Les Arts Décoratifs, this 10-story Beaux-Arts museum houses only a portion of the organization's complete collection of almost 150,000 pieces, which range from furniture and tapestries to ceramics, toys, and even vehicles. The artifacts date from the Middle Ages to present day.