Two Views of Living
Maison & Objet closed on a less than exuberant note. Although attendance seemed to be heavier than at any other time I can remember, what was on view was not riveting or as stimulating as in previous seasons.
While it makes sense that suppliers were holding back given the economic uncertainties - which don't bode well for the immediate future for anyone in the Euro-zone - there seemed to be more than that at work here holding back new looks and innovation. It was stagnation in furniture and interior design that bothered me and a lack of any indication for new directions.
There was an uncomfortable level of sameness in these sections, which looked as they have for several years by now - only more so. I have already written about the overwhelming presence of neutrals and black that cast a cloud over this sector.
The look when it started some 15 years ago - minus all the black - was startlingly new, departing as it did from far more formal and polished and carefully finished forerunners. The honesty of bare woods was a healthy shocker then but is looking really tired by now.
I will never forget when I first encountered it - at Flamant, the successful Belgian retailer's first store in Brussels. I remember that my breath caught in my throat at the recognition that this was something entirely fresh.
Unfortunately, since then, Flamant has been knocked off across the board by not just European competitors but in part by American observers as well. Worse, Flamant itself has stayed in the same groove. And it still reverberates most strongly at this time at Restoration Hardware, which imported the look complete some two years ago or so. Having gained considerable attention on the American retail scene recently, don't be surprised to find High Point exhibitors hot on Restoration's trail.
What I want to talk about instead is where I found the energy and verve that were sadly lacking at Maison & Objet this time Thanks to Design Week, which immediately followed M&O, I found that spirit of innovation and progress in Paris' Concept stores.
Such stores have grown like kudzu in recent years in Paris and they have become inspirational laboratories for a different take on home furnishings. It is here where the overall theme of Maison & Objet -"Singularity" - is really happening. These stores march to an entirely different drummer and are clearly addressing a younger constituency pushing ahead with new values, new needs and new priorities in their lives.
Those priorities would include, in an age of uniformity, to retain their own individuality and to surround themselves only with such furnishings that are necessary, useful and functional, devoid of unnecessary ornamentation, made of high performance materials that are sustainable and environmentally sound.
I found those priorities plainly on view at Merci, for instance, easily the most interesting of the Concept stores I visited. The store carries apparel as well as all things for the home, but it also has a vibe all its own. It's a compelling space, judging by its size probably a former warehouse. You enter through a very narrow corridor lined floor to very high ceilings with nothing but books. If anyone is telling this generation that nobody reads anymore, this store is proving them wrong.
Once you pass its long library wall you come upon a fabulous open space of quadruple ceiling height with an enormous skylight which distributes daylight all through the space and onto displays of products, one of a kind as well as multiples on several levels.
It currently features a selection of Japanese designs, mostly basic and humble housewares products which bear out the store's principles. Known as "Sugao" in Japanese, it stands for simplicity and a sophisticated new way to project tradition. The symbol for the display is "koi" the carp, representing in Japan "Energy and Perseverance". Soap in the shape of the fish was chosen because it is a symbol both new and old - the soap having been made the same way since 1880.
Gambs Second Nature is another noteworthy concept store on the same street as Merci, an area that's fast becoming a Mecca of hip decoration. Here, 20 years after his first vegetal designs for interior decoration, the architect and scenographer Herve Gambs has given himself an indoor/outdoor decoration and lifestyle platform. Furniture, decorative objects, gourmet delights, fashion accessories, scents and even children's items are on view here.
That's another thing concept stores tend have in common: They don't just stop at one category; they collect what they believe will bring pleasure and meaning to daily lives. Often they include, flower shops and food.
At Merci for instance, you can either have a bite outside the store or in an indoor cafe section - but there is also a full size restaurant which serves only organic and healthful foods overlooking a natural garden where the store grows its own herbs to be ever-ready for consumption. I had such a delicious lunch there that I could turn into a vegetarian overnight.
More about concept stores and a wrap up of Maison & Objet and first-time available services that were offered and are worth mentioning coming up shortly.