The Paris Flea Market

by James Duncan


There is a certain irony in the idea that designers who flock from all over the world  to the Parisian trade show, Maison et Objet to discover what’s new in international interior design, would not dream of missing the Saint Ouen “Marche aux Puces,” the enormous flea market on the outskirts of Paris to see what’s old.  In fact, there is an intimate historical connection between Paris as a leader in design and its flea markets.  The rise of Paris as a city of artistic innovation and wealth during the nineteenth century produced both a hunger for new design and the affluence to discard objects no longer considered fashionable.   Out of this ferment of creation and rejection the flea market was born.

 The Paris flea market dates back more than a century.  Before the 1880s when Monsieur Poubelle invented the public garbage disposal service,  people’s castoffs were collected by 30,000 rag and bone men, poetically refereed to as “pecheurs de lune,” moon fishermen, because they scavenged bric-a-brac by night.  They sold their wares in small outdoor markets throughout the city or from carts as they moved from neighborhood to neighborhood.   This all ended in 1885 when the city officials, in an attempt to beautify the city, banished the sale of scavenged goods within the city walls.  Consequently, the rag men and women settled just outside the city gate at Clignancourt.  It wasn’t long before well to do Parisians began coming to the Marche aux Puces on Sundays in search of bargains.  One such gentleman is said to have looked down from the ramparts on this rabble of people and objects and declared it “a market of fleas, un marche aux puces.”  The name stuck and is used in many languages today. 

 The Clignancourt market now occupies a twelve acre site, has over 2,000 shops and receives 70,000 visitors a week.  Gone are the “pecheurs de lune” selling cast offs for a few “sous” and in their place are antique dealers, art galleries, African merchants selling tribal art and vendors hawking t-shirts and cheap jewellery.  There are still bargains to be had, but the best pieces command the same prices as they would in the chic shops on Faubourg Saint-Honore or in the 6th and 7th Arrondissements.

Today, the market is a microcosm of post-colonial French society.  Immigrants from North Africa and Senegal rub shoulders with well-heeled Parisians from central Paris and working class Parisians from the banlieus.  And then of course, there are the tourists, lots of tourists.  I saw an American woman searching for a pendant for an inherited chandelier, (she found one), an Englishman haggling over a Georgian silver bowl, a German who bought a gorgeous leather trunk to adorn his front hall in Munich. 

To arrive at the inner sanctum of the market where the best stuff is, you must pass through outer rings of objects that can most charitably be called junk.

Once one enters the inner sancti of the market, great warehouse-like structures, one feels firmly back in Paris, but Paris of long ago.   Each warehouse contains a warren of  small shops, some no larger than a closet,  overflowing with treasures.    Here one finds high quality antique African carvings.   Several years ago, I found a seven foot Senoufu creation mask from Mali that now dominates one wall in our Paris apartment.  There are dozens of galleries selling nineteenth century Orientalist paintings, lalique glass and eighteenth century Aubusson rugs.  There are shops specializing in nineteenth century bronzes and antique hardware. There is one whole market, a favorite with professionals, devoted to architectural salvage including large iron gates, marble fountains, parquet flooring, and wood panelling.   And then, of course, there is a vast amount of furniture.  All of the Louis are present and there is so much gold leaf that one wonders how there was any left for the state treasury.  Some of the pieces are marvellous, while others are hideous beyond belief.

I was particularly struck by some of the interwar French modern furniture.  I saw a number of brilliant pieces in lacquer and parchment.  I found another store that specialises in antique luggage and camp furniture.  Some of their highly polished steamer trunks would make chic coffee tables. Other stores specialise in 1930s wall coverings, antique gilt mirrors, and country tables with tops are so thick and heavy, one wonders if they could be safely put in a second story apartment, chandeliers, leather bound books—the list is endless.

It is no mystery why design professional are drawn to the Marche aux Puces.  Whether searching for something particular for a client, just browsing, or hoping for inspiration for one’s next creation, nowhere in Paris will one find such a density of beautiful objects.  Granted these will invariably be surrounded, sometimes even buried, by kitsch, but this makes the whole experience so much more adventurous.

I will conclude with what I find to be a delicious irony.  In 1885 the scavenger markets were banished to Clignancourt on the grounds that they were an eyesore.  But in 2001 the Clignancourt flea market was declared an architectural heritage site. 

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by James Duncan


Majorelle Bleu is my wife Miriam’s favorite color. She has her reasons, as we shall see.  Apparently, Miriam is not alone; an international survey reveals that blue is the most popular color in the world.  Perhaps this seemingly subjective choice we collectively make is connected to the prevalence of blue within the cosmos.  After all, the world is called the “blue planet,” for reasons that are all too obvious to anyone who has seen the amazing photograph of the earth from space.  Blue is the color of the sky and of the oceans. So why then does the word blue signify sadness? Apparently because of the blueness of the water in our tears.


Although blue may be the most prevalent color in the cosmos, throughout much of human history, the most brilliant blues were unobtainable for the majority of people. In the ancient world, lapis lazuli was the source of the most vibrant blue. It was more precious than gold.  From medieval times through the renaissance the rarest paint color was ultramarine, produced by grinding lapis to a powder. So valuable it was, that only the robes of the Virgin and the infant Jesus were painted blue.  However, with the move from tempera to oil painting during the Renaissance, the use of brilliant ultramarine blue declined because powdered lapis lost its brilliance when mixed with oil.  It wasn’t until 1834 with advances in chemistry that brilliant blue ultramarine and cobalt oil paints were invented in France. And so, brilliant blue went from being a color only the very rich could afford to one available to all.    


Which brings us back to Miriam’s favourite color,  Majorelle Blue.  The story of Majorelle Bleu is the story of cultural borrowings and the invention of a tradition.  When the French colonised Morocco, they took their new vivid blue paints and dyes with them. In fact, so cheap had ultramarine and cobalt blue dyes and paints become, that the local Berber tribes used them extensively to color their clothing and paint the trim on their buildings.  The use of these colors had become so widespread, that in the 1920s when the French artist Jacques Majorelle arrived in Morocco, he saw all the window sills and doors painted in ultramarine and cobalt and assumed these to be the traditional Berber color.  Little did he know that both colors were invented in France less than  a century earlier. 


And so, Majorelle, who had admired vivid blues in the painting of Matisse, was charmed by his impression that these were authentic Berber colors. He painted his villa and fabulous walled garden in Marrakech Berber Blue. Majorelle’s innovation in this tale of cultural borrowings and re-borrowings, was to paint entire buildings and walls ultramarine blue.  The result was so striking, that the color was renamed Majorelle Bleu. Although the gardens fell into disrepair after Majorelle died, they were restored to their former glory by Yves St. Laurent and Pierre Berge in the 1980s.  Today they are one of the principal tourist attractions of Marrakech.  But beautiful as the gardens are, what strikes people most about the place is not the spaces, or the plants, or the buildings, but the Majorelle Bleu color itself.  My wife Miriam grew up in Morocco and for her this blue is the color of North Africa and of childhood. 


And so, to celebrate the Berbers, Jacques Majorelle, and Miriam’s North African childhood, I have created the Majorelle chair in cobalt; very French, very Berber, and very Blue.


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Sleeping Around: A History of the Bedroom

by James Duncan

We all know that the contemporary home is divided into a number rooms, each with its own special function: the living room, dining room, kitchen, bathroom, bedroom, etc.  What could be more natural, right?  In fact, it isn’t natural at all, but historically-speaking a quite recent phenomenon.  The nineteenth century marks a great watershed between the way things had been for centuries and the way they are now.  That century saw incomes rise dramatically thanks to the industrial revolution and consequently the creation of a middle class as we know it.  And one of the interesting things about these newly affluent people was that they increasingly retreated from public spaces towards the seclusion of the home.  During this time the home and the work place became increasingly separated.   In the twentieth century these new informal arrangements became encoded in law as zoning codes which forbad the mixing of residential and industrial spaces.

 Simultaneously this increasing privatization of life also took place within the home itself.  Before the nineteenth century, rooms tended to be multipurpose.   Furniture was often shifted from room to room depending on what activity was to take place in a room at any given time of day or night.  Servants often slept in the same rooms as family members and boys and girls slept with their parents, or all the children together. More often than not there were no rooms that served exclusively as bedrooms, except perhaps among the one percent!  But in the nineteenth century all that changed.  The newly prosperous middle class could afford larger houses, and the good house became defined as one that contained many separate spaces.  Spaces to entertain guests, spaces exclusively for family, spaces for parents, spaces for children, spaces for servants.  Just as the family separated itself off from the public, so increasingly the parents were to have their bedroom and each child his or her own.   And these rooms were seen as private refuges for each person, spaces that were not social. For example, when a child was told to “go to your room,” it was both a punishment and a symbolic statement that the child was no longer fit to be part of the family space but was to be banished to his own private space until he was fit to be reincorporated into the family again.

Among the wealthy in the nineteenth and even up to the mid twentieth century a husband and wife had their own bedrooms.  In America, separate bedrooms for husband and wife are rare today, even among those who can afford to have them.  The reason is that unlike during Victorian times, the shared bedroom is perhaps the key symbol of the happily married couple.    A friend of mine (who sleeps in a separate bedroom from his wife) argues that while the conjugal bed might symbolizes “married” it definitely does not symbolize sexy.  Sexy, he says, is not lying next to someone who snores, or even sleeping next to the same person every night.  Sexy is slipping into another bedroom for a few hours. He goes on to argue that separate bedrooms are the best way of avoiding having marriage become “a long dull meal, with the dessert served first”!  But this, I grant you, is probably a minority opinion.

While we very rarely get asked to create separate bedrooms for a husband and wife, which I think is a shame,  we have noticed that the size of master bedrooms continues to grow.  And such spaces need to be filled with furniture. A king-size bed can’t get much larger without running the risk of looking like a wrestling ring, and so bedrooms are coming to look more and more like intimate living rooms.  The model here is the Victorian “boudoir” (from the French verb bouder, “to sulk”).  In the nineteenth century, wealthy women had their own private sitting room, and dressing room adjacent to their bedroom, where they could entertain intimate friends, or simply sulk if they were fed up with their family.  Wealthy men, of course had their own bedrooms in those days, complete with attached dressing rooms and private sitting rooms.  And so what we are seeing now is an update on the nineteenth century boudoir.

 But enough of who’s sleeping with who.  Ever notice how the language of advertising has crept into the bedroom?  Who thought up the term, “Master Bedroom?”  If the home and the bedroom in particular are thought of traditionally as the woman’s place, then why is it called the Master bedroom? Why not the Mistress Bedroom?  I suppose that while that sounds like fun, maybe it doesn’t convey the idea of the “happy family!”     And in the master bedroom the couple’s bed is either  a “King” or a “Queen.”  If you think about it, this is getting downright silly.  Here we are in the age of equal rights for women and in the great democracy sleeping in rooms fit for a master with beds of an appropriate size for a king or a queen?  Oh please, tell me it’s all ironic!!!!! But of course, it isn’t.  Advertisers aren’t just playing games with language or, god forbid, trying to be funny.  Their not too subtle message with this pre-modern language of domination and grandeur is that bigger is better, and no expense should be spared.  Maybe if we thought about language more we would be more critical consumers!

And speaking of being critical, for god sake don’t waste your money on a “bedroom set,” for it’s the TV Dinner of interior design.  The “bedroom set” is a twentieth century creation, geared to a rising mass market of new middle class consumers who felt lost. It was a brilliant move on the part of the manufacturers who could now sell sets rather than single pieces and was a boon to upwardly mobile consumers, unsure of their taste, who were assured that their furniture “went together.”  The forerunner of the Ethan Allen Company was a pioneer in this area, and that company and others continued the tradition.   Of course, right from the start, not everyone was impressed by the idea of the “set”.  To the elite, the idea of buying a newly manufactured “set” was poison, precisely because it suggested that they were incapable on their own of choosing furniture that went together.  In fact, I would argue that the essence of interior design is to choose things that go together harmoniously but definitely don’t look like a set! 

So where is the bedroom going from here?  My guess is that at the top end, bedrooms are going to get larger and that eventually people are going to realize that rather than creating living room size spaces, that  the Victorian bedroom idea might have been right after all.  What I envisage is a couple having  connecting bedrooms, each with their constellation of ensuite bathrooms, dressing rooms, boudoirs and offices.  That way each person can have exactly the bedroom they want, and yes, have visiting rights in the adjoining bedroom.