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.