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This is how the political elite set itself up

A second star shone under the Sun King, Jean-Baptiste Colbert.

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This is how the political elite set itself up

A second star shone under the Sun King, Jean-Baptiste Colbert. The finance minister at the court of Louis XIV was soon responsible for everything but the army. He headed the government, controlled construction, commerce, the navy and, as secretary of state, also oversaw the fine arts. The latter was particularly dear to the king, and he summoned Colbert sometime in 1663.

At first people probably spoke in a somewhat abstract way about the representation of royal power and then soon went into detail, i.e. how such an absolutist monarchy actually presents itself. More precisely: How does the royal household live? Which institution fits which office? Who makes all the furniture and wall coverings? And who is responsible for the magnificent administration?

Louis XIV and Colbert quickly came to an agreement. A lavishly funded department was created in the royal household, the Garde-Meuble de la Couronne. Carpenters and upholsterers were hired, the tapestry factory on Avenue des Gobelins was nationalized, the wallpaper factory in Beauvais, the carpet weaving workshop in Lodève and the lace workshops in Puy-en-Velay were also brought in.

Not only was an arts and crafts production network established, but an immense furniture store was formed, which furnished the court residences and their ministerial servants with armchairs, sofas, tables and chairs, including chandeliers and tapestries – for royal self-portrayal.

The monarchy fell in the French Revolution, but not the unconditional urge for state representation. So the Garde-Meuble was not dissolved, but renamed several times, sometimes dedicated to the republican consuls, then to the Napoleonic Empire.

Since 1870 it has simply been called Mobilier national – and it also equipped the representatives of the Third, Fourth and Fifth Republic appropriately. It owns more than 200,000 objects from five centuries, 75,000 pieces are considered national cultural heritage.

The task of the Mobilier national today is to decorate the official buildings of France with loans from the collection. If, for example, a French diplomat is appointed ambassador to a foreign mission and the office furniture is not suitable, then one phone call is enough and you can look for suitable decorative objects in all imaginable styles in the storage rooms of the Mobilier national.

Starting with the baroque Louis-Quatorze, of course, through the Rococo from Louis-Quinze to Louis-Seize, the classicist revolutionary style Directoire, the various restoration styles of the 19th century, right through to Art Nouveau and the pumped-up pomp of Art Deco. Everything is in stock, and everything is well cared for under the supervision of knowledgeable conservators and in-house craftsmen.

Not far from the Place d'Italie in the 13th arrondissement of Paris, the Mobilier national resides and runs workshops for the restoration of tapestries and upholstery of furniture. It maintains a carpentry shop for seating furniture, an art carpentry shop and a bronze workshop for the production of lamps, fittings and decorative objects. There has been a national design research institute since 1964 and, fortunately, large exhibition halls for those who do not belong to the diplomatic corps.

An exhibition can currently be seen there, which is dedicated to the decades from 1930 to 1960, when even modernity finally moved into the national furniture and the institution increasingly commissioned freelance artists and designers. But what kind of modernity should that be? This was a very hot topic in those years when the Union des artistes Moderne (UAM) and the Société des artistes décorateurs (SAD) were arguing about which aesthetic path object design should now take – and which design should be used to bag the lucrative government contracts could.

In any case, in this regard, the rather soft supporters of SAD clearly prevailed over the more progressive UAM. This means that architects and artists such as Jean Prouvé, Charlotte Perriand or Robert Mallet-Stevens, who are so coveted by mid-century design collectors today, had to assert themselves on the open market – where they then became famous and priceless. Designers such as Paul Follot, Étienne-Henri Martin and Maurice Dufrène worked for the Mobilier national and became less popular – but were able to move into the addresses of the state.

One goal (and probably also the task) of the artists was to use their designs to communicate diplomatically. The aim was to reconcile the historical forms and the taste of bygone eras, which was reflected in the buildings themselves, with the current taste of the time. And this at a time of huge construction projects, as Hervé Lemoine, the French state curator and President of the Mobilier national, emphasizes in the catalogue:

"Our institution and the decorative arts then experienced a true heyday with the furnishing of numerous magnificent embassies in the pre-war period and the redesign of new ministerial buildings in the post-war period." The decorations of the Élysée Palace or the summer residence, the Rambouillet Castle, are symbolic of these large-scale projects .

President Vincent Auriol initiated them. It is a persistent legend that Georges Pompidou (with the streamlined furniture by Pierre Paulin) was the first to introduce modernism to these presidential palaces. Designers and decorators such as André Arbus, Jean Pascaud and Raymond Subes may have been less radical, but, according to Hervé Lemoine, "they showed courage in a France of the 1950s that was still conservative".

Above all, the 1937 World Exhibition had encouraged courage. While Hitler and Stalin used the show to show the dominance of their terror regimes, France wanted to present itself as a modern cultural nation. In particular, the interior designers from the circle of SAD, which had its own pavilion at the Expo, also recommended their designs for Mobilier national.

Eventually, the government agency had big plans for building or remodeling embassies, such as in Belgrade, Ankara, and Ottawa from the 1930s, and in Helsinki, Saarbrücken, and Pretoria in the 1950s. French craftsmanship was also intended to convey (modernized) patriotic values.

At the same time, it was necessary to tie in with the glorious decorative programs of earlier regents on the “inside”. This will is exemplified by the partially gilded, robustly classical desk (designed by André Arbus) in the Hôtel Kinsky in Paris, which was redesigned for the Ministry of Culture. Jacques Jaujard, who evacuated the Louvre collection during the Second World War and saved it from the Nazis, once sat at it.

After taking office in 1947, President Auriol launched a major renovation project at the Élysée Palace. While in the official areas he carefully placed modernist furniture (such as a richly inlaid lacquered sideboard by Dominique and Paul Cressent) in the historic suites, the sudden entry of the present was more clearly felt in his private quarters. For example, Colette Guéden designed a hypermodern dressing table made of chrome and glass for First Lady Michelle Auriol. The presidential bathroom - like many other rooms in embassies and government agencies - has been recreated in the exhibition "Le Chic!".

The show, congenially staged by the hip interior designer Vincent Darré, not only presents the designs of the important designers and decorators, but also focuses on the work of the craftsmen of the Mobilier national. Much of the furniture (such as an ebony secretary by André Groult covered in shagreen leather) or the fantastic tapestries of the Manufacture des Gobelins (based on models by artists such as Pierre-Henri Ducos de La Haille, Xavier Longobardi or Joan Miró) have been extensively restored.

After the end of the exhibition, they are temporarily returned to the depot for the devotional objects from the time of the Sun King. Unless the pieces are loaned again. Then they can contribute to the taste of French diplomats and future heads of government.

"Chic! Decorative arts and French furniture from 1930 to 1960“, bis zum 19. Februar 2023, Mobilier national, Paris

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