The Capital of Chic
After a decade on the sidelines of style, Paris is back in the action
Ian Phillips -- Interior Design, 4/1/2002 12:00:00 AM
For the majority of the '90s, Paris was not precisely the most happening place on the planet. New restaurants, bars, and clubs were an endangered species, and the trendiest place to be on a Friday evening was the Eurostar terminal at the Gare du Nord (direction: London). In terms of interior design, the French capital seemed to be light years behind. "The French only like Versailles," scoffs the country's design diva, Andrée Putman. "They have always had real difficulty accepting modernity."
In the last couple of years, however, things have changed dramatically. Designer Patrick Jouin points to the founding of numerous French design schools over the past decade. "We're now seeing the emergence of a new generation of designers—huge media coverage of Philippe Starck has certainly opened the way for them," says Jouin, who worked for Starck for four years and is responsible for one of the most stunning current examples of Parisian design, the Bar du Plaza Athénée. Previously a staid hotel drinking hole, it has been transformed into one of the hippest places in the capital. The Régence paneling is offset by a bar that looks like it was carved out of ice, not to mention the elongated Louis XV stools, mini chandeliers of Murano glass, and wonderfully funky alcoves.
Designer Christophe Pillet concurs, "There's a constant stream of new places where design really matters." Among them, the city's first hip contemporary hotel, Pershing Hall, is giving the Napoléon III–style Costes a run for its money. Conceived by Putman, Pershing Hall's design features zoomorphic sofas and chairs with suckerlike feet, plus curtains of glass beads and a 105-foot-high hanging garden.
Numerous new boutiques are almost worth visiting for the architecture alone. For example, the ever changing 17 par Carole de Bona—which has stocked everything from tableware to Moroccan slippers and avant-garde fashion labels Isabelle Ballu and Laurent Mercier Deluxe—is housed in a '30s swimming facility in the 6th arrondissement. The Comme des Garçons store hides behind an opaque red facade on the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré. The Dior jewelry boutique on Place Vendôme incorporates an oversize Murano lamp, a sweeping wrought-iron balustrade, and a miniature reproduction of Christian Dior's couture salon.
Dining in Paris has turned into quite a visual experience, too. "In the past, people talked about the ambience and the food but not about the quality of the design," says one of France's leading young architects, Christian Biecher. "Design has become a cultural phenomenon." Biecher himself is responsible for Korova, where rounded forms and translucent walls effortlessly distract attention from the rather strange dishes on the menu. (Examples include Coca-Cola chicken and chocolate mayonnaise cake!) Besides Korova, the area surrounding the Champs-Elysées has seen a number of eye-catching restaurants pop up in the last few months: the sleek Cantine du Faubourg, Christian Liaigre's Market, and Jonathan Amar's psychedelic Nirvana. Elsewhere, Jean Nouvel was called in to create the facade of Au Coin de la Rue near the Madeleine, and artists Philippe Parreno and Pierre Huyghe teamed up with the trendy graphic designers of M/M (Paris) on the Costes brothers' latest dining venture, Etienne Marcel near Les Halles. Pillet, meanwhile, has cooked up a magnificently handsome restaurant called R, whose all-white terrace affords a view of the Eiffel Tower. "In Paris, there's no notion of design simply for design's sake," Pillet says. "Decor always incorporates the intrinsically French notion of pleasure."
Tellingly, Royal Copenhagen has vacated its space at the Maison du Danemark to make way for Bang & Olufsen. The center's two restaurants have also been given a makeover by architects Søren Eriksen and Susanne Kongsted. The redesigned interior incorporates classics such as Arne Jacobsen's Egg and Poul Kjaerholm's PK22 chairs in addition to furniture and light fixtures by contemporary Danish designers Boje Estermann and Poul Henningsen, respectively.
Indicative of Paris's new place on the world design map is the opening of Cappellini's first Paris showroom, in the Marais. "The city is very active and evolving rapidly," enthuses Giulio Cappellini. "Parisians are still bound to the concept of quality and tradition, but now they understand that it can be applied to contemporary as well as classical style." And Australian designer Marc Newson—based in, please note, London—is planning to open a Paris office in June.
Recognition of this burgeoning scene first started flowing in from abroad, with Ronan Bouroullec being named Best New Designer at the 1998 International Contemporary Furniture Fair in New York and American Vogue acclaiming India Mahdavi as the next big thing. Now even the Paris authorities are catching on. The city government recently launched the idea of establishing a Maison du Design near the Bibliothèque Nationale by 2005. "We need a place to reference everything that exists," asserts the deputy mayor in charge of cultural affairs, Christophe Girard. "There is such an immense amount of talent."