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Seats for the Seats of Power
December 7, 2011  | 

Jean Manuel Guérard earns his living taking apart antique chairs, repairing the ravages of time, then putting them back together. Irène Chaillot is a weaver; she has an October deadline to finish an 11 by 6-foot tapestry that she started in January 2009. Julienne Sang bends over a 30-foot-long Empire carpet from the office of the Minister of Foreign Affairs, replacing the faded patches stitch by stitch—a task she and her colleagues expect will take at least four years.

All three are among the nearly 400 employees of the Mobilier National, the French government’s treasure house of furniture and furnishings in Paris. Its main task, says administrator general Bernard Schotter, is "to furnish the official buildings of the Republic. This in turn implies conservation, which includes storing items as well as restoring them in our seven workshops or under our supervision."

What Schotter means by official buildings are some 600 permanent and temporary locations ranging from the Elysée Palace and government ministries to France’s overseas network of embassies and major consulates. But the department’s presence extends to wherever a president or minister needs a seat—such as providing the presidential viewing stand for the Bastille Day parade on the Champs-Elysées.

The sheer extent of the operation is mind-boggling. At any given time, as much as half of this tentacular institution’s formidable collection of 80,000 superbly crafted chairs, fauteuils, candelabra, clocks and tapestries is spread around the globe on permanent loan. Much of the other half is either in storage or being restored. The French arts and culture magazine L’oeil aptly calls it "the Republic’s Aladdin’s cave." One small example: Objects on loan used to include elaborately upholstered fire screens, but with the advent of central heating, most of these elegant pare-feux have been retired. They are now stored in endless rows, covered in protective plastic.

"We’re not a museum, but we have a museum-quality collection," says Schotter. "Some of the furniture we install in government offices once belonged to the royalty and rulers of France." And whereas museums typically stretch cords across their Louis XVI chairs to prevent visitors from sitting on them, the Mobilier’s furniture is generally intended for regular use. Its chairs are seats for the seats of power; important documents of state are piled on brass-encrusted desks perhaps once used by Colbert or Talleyrand. Magnificent decorative clocks that survived the turmoil of the Revolution now mark the passage of time in foreign capitals.

"Of course, we also have a lot of pieces by contemporary artists, architects and designers," adds Schotter. "The Mobilier National has a tradition of commissioning works from the leading talents of the day." This state patronage has resulted in a collection that is a stunning celebration of French creativity and craftsmanship through the ages, from Louis XIV to modern times.

This fall, the public had an unprecedented opportunity to see some of the most outstanding pieces, even without the benefit of an invitation to the Presidential Palace or an ambassador’s residence. In September, the Château de Versailles inaugurated a two-part exhibition featuring more than a hundred objects belonging to the Mobilier National and representing four centuries of furniture history. Then in October, the Mobilier National filled its two exhibition venues—the Galerie des Gobelins in Paris and the Galerie nationale de la Tapisserie in Beauvais—with furnishings it recently commissioned from renowned artists as well as rare antiques taken out of storage for the occasion.

Bernard Schotter’s full title is administrative director of the Mobilier National et des Manufactures nationales des Gobelins, de Beauvais et de la Savonnerie, a department created in 2003 as part of the Ministry of Culture. As the unwieldy name suggests, it is a mosaic of national treasures that includes the Mobilier National, the Gobelins tapestry manufactory, the Beauvais tapestry manufactory, the Savonnerie carpet manufactory and the national lace workshops.

Each has its distinct history, but the storylines often overlap. It can be said that the tale began in 1447, when Jehan Gobelin, a dyer from Reims, set up shop on the banks of the Bièvre River in eastern Paris, now part of the 13th arrondissement. The enterprise flourished, and Gobelin’s descendants acquired extensive land holdings in the area. Two centuries later, the family was no longer among the local craftsmen, but their name remained attached to buildings in the vicinity. It was here that Henry IV, in an effort to discourage foreign imports, installed his royal tapestry manufactory, which simply took the Gobelins name.

Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Louis XIV’s energetic finance minister, bought the property for the King in 1662 with the idea of setting up various workshops on the site. He founded the Garde-Meuble de la Couronne, whose primary task was to reflect the glory and prestige of the powerful Sun King, marshalling the talents of weavers, painters, engravers, silversmiths, cabinetmakers and other artisans to make furnishings for the royal palaces that would surpass those made anywhere else. Presiding over it all was Charles Le Brun, first painter to the king, who gave the age its style. The next year, the Savonnerie carpet manufactory, founded by Henri IV and housed in an old soapmaking factory, also came under Le Brun’s control.

With the rise of Napoleon I, the Garde-Meuble de la Couronne became the Mobilier Impérial and—at the Emperor’s insistence—avidly commissioned Empire-style furniture. The restored monarchy and the florid Second Empire added their own distinctive designs. In due course, the republican era gave birth to the Mobilier National, which for a long time tended to be more backward-looking than innovative. Art Nouveau and Art Deco, for example, are sparsely represented in the collection.

In 1935, the Mobilier National moved into a large new concrete building across from the historic Manufacture des Gobelins on the winding rue Berbier-du-Mets, formerly the Bièvre River (the waterway had been covered over some years earlier). That same year, it assumed control of the Beauvais tapestry manufactory, founded in 1664.

About that same time, the Gobelins and Savonnerie manufactories began commissioning designs from the 20th century’s most prominent artists. Marc Chagall, Jean Arp, Victor Vasarely, Joan Miró, Sonia Delaunay, Alexander Calder and Serge Poliakoff were among those asked to make cartoons for vibrant tapestries and carpets.

Today nearly all the tapestries and carpets woven by the Gobelins, Beauvais and Savonnerie manufactories are based on contemporary designs. Among the most recent is a tapestry by James Brown, an American artist who lived for many years in France and now resides in Oaxaca. His "Untitled," an abstract work measuring 11 by 15 feet, will soon hang in the French Embassy in Washington, DC.

Artists, says Schotter, are fascinated by tapestry making. "It’s not an art of replication but the transition from one language (the model or design) to another (the tapestry), with much of the creativity coming from the talent of the weaver," he says. Going from the model, "you change format, you change material. It’s a long process, not like painting—more like pregnancy."

The Mobilier National’s furniture making finally began to catch up with its tapestries and carpets in the 1960s, thanks to writer André Malraux, who as minister of culture decided to add an experimental and creative workshop, the Atelier de Recherche et de Création, or ARC.

To date, more than 500 designs have been produced, each an exploration of new techniques and materials. One of the earliest collaborations was with Pierre Paulin, who was asked to create furnishings for the Elysée Palace, then occupied by Georges Pompidou (Ligne Roset recently began re-issuing several of these famous pieces). "Paulin continued to collaborate with us until a few months before his death in 2009," says Schotter. "It was a wonderful relationship."

Other partnerships have involved Christophe Pillet, who in 1999 was asked to come up with new drawing-room furniture for the embassy in Hanoi, and architect-designer Sylvain Dubuisson, who in the 1990s designed a desk for Jack Lang, then minister of culture. Such famous names as Andrée Putman, sculptor César, set designer Richard Peduzzi, architect Jean-Michel Wilmotte and Philippe Starck have also enriched a collection that began with pieces by the likes of André-Charles Boulle.

Some designers, such as Frédéric Ruyant, have worked with several of the Mobilier National’s workshops. Ruyant, who has produced furniture, a carpet and most recently the woven room dividers for the upcoming "Décors & Installations" show, says that it is an experience unlike any other. "These commissions are for one-of-a-kind pieces, and you have the luxury of time," he says. "The carpet I designed for the Savonnerie workshop took five years to weave; the craftsmanship that went into it was amazing, and the quality is outstanding."

Collaborations with the Mobilier National are considered very prestigious and are only by invitation. Once invited, the designer submits a project that must be vetted by a board. "What is so wonderful is that you have the time to research, to innovate," says Ruyant. "And the artisans are very open to new ideas. The partitions for the ‘Décors & Installations’ exhibit, for example, are woven using metal thread for the warp instead of cotton or linen. They had never done that before."

The Mobilier National also acts as interior designer, usually through outside contractors. The institution deals with locations, not people. Very senior ministers and officials may have input into how their respective offices and reception areas are furnished and decorated, but for everyone else, it’s "you get what you get." Newly appointed ambassadors move into offices where for decades only minor details have changed, with a team of inspectors checking the condition and location of the furniture every five years.

According to Edith Dauxerre, technical adviser to the administrator general, "the current trend is often a mix of antique and contemporary items, which need to be married with taste and discernment." The office of the Minister of Culture exemplifies this trend: Eighteenth-century gilded paneling and crystal chandeliers are a backdrop to Salomé de Fontainieus’s sleek powder-gray metal and wood desk, chairs and coffee table, added in 2007.

Regardless of how cutting-edge the designs may be, many of the techniques used to produce them remain traditional—some are identical to those used in Louis XIV’s day. The Mobilier National preserves this rare savoir-faire through training programs that teach young students art history and drawing as well as how to make and restore furnishings.

These skills are on full display in the Gobelins Manufactory, where artisans sit behind 15 massive wooden looms. Irène Chaillot is working on a tapestry for the Cour des Comptes (Court of Audit); designed by Vincent Bioulès, it is a collage of symbols of the Republic, balance sheets and other documents. Although it appears to be predominantly red, white, blue and gold, Chaillot explains that the different tones actually require nearly 150 colors of yarn (the establishment makes its own tints and dyes its own wool).

In front of Chaillot is a mirror reflecting an enlargement of the artist’s cartoon, which is mounted on the wall behind her. She works on the design inch by patient inch, deftly handling the 300 wooden bobbins by hand, much as tapestry makers did in the Middle Ages. Production is slow, averaging only 20 square feet per weaver annually, but she and her colleagues take pride in the fact that their work is recognized throughout the world as the finest there is. Gobelins tapestries are extremely rare—only six or seven are completed each year. "For the workers and the artist, it’s always a very moving moment when you cut the threads," says Schotter.

The level of mastery required in the Mobilier National’s seven workshops is equally impressive. Here, craftsmen and women repair tapestries, furniture and carpets but also chandeliers, bronzes, decorative fabrics and upholstery.

Over the years the Mobilier’s approach to restoration has changed from one of heavy intervention — for example, using screws to strengthen joints—to a more "historical" approach based on old techniques to preserve the integrity of the piece. "These days, we try to intervene as little as possible," says one craftsman. Stapling, widely used by furniture restorers, is a no-no (glue is preferred), as is reweaving worn spots on antique tapestries (fragile areas are reinforced with special backing).

This past summer, craftsmen were repairing and restoring an upholstered suite from the Empire period consisting of six settees, four armchairs, four chairs and a fire screen. Signed by Desmalter, its famous maker, the set had once belonged to Joachim Murat, whom Napoleon had made king of Naples, and had long been in the French Embassy to the Vatican. One settee had been stripped to the frame. Wooden wedges had been glued in place to reinforce the corners; curved inserts had been fitted to the damaged armrests so that upholstery could be reattached. Later, other specialists would restore the gilding; finally, upholsterers would re-stuff and re-cover the seats with the cleaned, restored material. "Each piece in this set will be treated differently, according to its specific needs," says Jean Manuel Guérard. "In the past, they might all have been stripped, for example, and simply re-gilded."

The Mobilier National has an annual operating budget of €4 million, with another €250,000 earmarked for acquisitions. Given its ambitious mission, its roster of fewer than 400 specialists seems barely adequate. Senior staffers double as inspectors, visiting embassies overseas, and also teach students. "What unites the men and women here is their love for beautifully executed work. It is a passion," says Bernard Schotter. "These are not careers you get into by chance. You really need to believe in what you do."

Centuries after Colbert enlisted the country’s best artisans in the service of the king, new generations are still heeding the nation’s call to excellence. This was evident on a sunny afternoon in early July, when a group of exuberant young men and women filed out of the workshops into the avenue des Gobelins. They were students at the Mobilier National celebrating the end of a school year and their new mastery of age-old techniques. Decked out in laurel wreaths and Roman togas improvised from bed sheets, they posed for a group photo outside the gate.

As soon as the shutter clicked, these aspiring artisans left the past behind: Almost every one of them began tweeting, texting or talking on a cell phone.

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