A trip through Les Arts Décoratifs, Paris

This blog post was written by Ulrike Haussen, the picture researcher at akg-images in Paris responsible for the Les Arts Décoratifs collection.

Yes, I confess, I am a museophile. I go to the museum in the same way other people go to church: my eyes wide open, not wanting to miss a single thing, daydreaming and imagining myself elsewhere. I am part of a silent community of visitors, standing in front of exhibits in the same way pilgrims pray before a holy relic in a chapel. Who was it that said that museums were modern-day cathedrals?

When I was first given the job of managing the integration of the photographic collections of Les Arts Décoratifs into our database, I was immediately beside myself with joy. However, I had to calm myself down and wait, as there were technical questions about file names, caption lengths and keywords which had to be discussed at length first!

Nevertheless, every time I visited Les Arts Décoratifs and walked through the permanent collections or explored the temporary exhibitions, I was once again filled with enthusiasm at finding myself in such an exceptional place, somewhere which can only really exist in a large city.

So what is Les Arts Décoratifs, Paris, exactly?



Les Arts Décoratifs is located in the Rohan and Marsan wing of the behemoth that is the Palais du Louvre, running along the Rue de Rivoli and ending at the Pavillon de Marsan at the side of the Tuileries. This is the part of the Louvre built by Napoleon III in 1852 and which, much later, served as the seat of the Ministry of Finance, before becoming in 1905 the site of the UCAD, the Union centrale des Arts décoratifs, the forerunner of the current organisation.

The Musée Nissim de Camondo, which is also part of Les Arts Décoratifs, is located in the Hôtel Camondo, bordering the Parc Monceau.

The institution is not a national museum, but rather a private organisation (governed by the law of 1901 on not-for-profit associations), born out of a willingness by collectors to create a space dedicated to the preservation, promotion and dissemination of the decorative arts, in the wake of the Universal Exhibitions of the second half of the 19th Century.

After several years of structural and spatial reorganisation, the museum of Les Arts Décoratifs was reopened in 2006, with the collections of decorative arts, fashion, textiles and advertising displayed over 900 m2 of permanent gallery and temporary exhibition space.

Surrounding the large Nave, a vast central space used for temporary exhibitions, exhibits are organised chronologically and thematically. Thanks to this arrangement the visitor has an overview of other parts of the museum from several vantage points and at different heights.

The Study Gallery (Galerie d’études) covers two floors and is devoted to long-term exhibitions which display a variety of objects from all periods to illustrate a particular theme. The Toy Gallery (Galerie des jouets) is always a pleasure to visit with its fun, colourful layout.

The whole of the Marsan Pavilion is occupied by the collections, right up to the roof, and the view from the 9th floor mezzanine right down to the pyramid of chairs way below is worth taking a detour to see!

The Jewellery Gallery (Galerie des bjoux) is spread across two rooms, veritable jewellery boxes plunged into darkness from which glitter a thousand objects in gold, silver and precious stones. From this gallery the visitor turns into the Rohan wing, where the two other great collections of Les Arts Décoratifs are displayed, with a bias towards temporary exhibitions (of which there are 2 to 3 per year):

Fashion is presented over two floors, large glass cases occupying entire sections of wall from floor to ceiling which give the visitor the delicious impression of being able walk amongst pieces created by some of the most gifted creative talents in the world.

The space reserved for the advertising collection has its own character and offers a very particular type of escape, with its bare walls and the fireplaces and cabinets retained from the old palace. A narrow corridor runs though the middle just like on a ship, even down to its metal cladding and windows.

© Les Arts Décoratifs, Paris / akg-images
What is the speciality of Les Arts Décoratifs? 



Apart from the sheer diversity of their collections, it’s the composite nature of Les Arts Décoratifs that is so special, with its temporary exhibitions, its permanent galleries displaying numerous collections of objects, as well as “period rooms” in which sets of objects evoke a particular era.

Above all it is the amount of space and time through which the visitor travels within a relatively small location that’s amazing: collections dating from the Twelfth Century are only a hundred metres away from objects created in 2011, on display in a gallery at the other end of the building.

It is in this time machine that these objects, gathered from the past, present and future, are brought together, and all of them have a valued place in the daily lives of humankind. They shape, have shaped, and will shape the way in which we sit, eat, work, sleep, play and dress; they accompany us on our most essential activities, not only by decorating and adorning us.

We are here “where the beautiful meets the useful”, that is to say where the most successful, most eccentric, most charming, most unusual, most avant-garde examples of objects are kept, preserved safe under glass cases, yet accessible to all the everyday uses that one could make of them.

Alongside its conservation work, Les Arts Décoratifs has from the very outset had a policy of teaching and promoting contemporary creative art.

In addition to numerous educational visits, a multitude of art classes is offered in the Carrousel studios and at the École Camondo on Boulevard Raspail, the latter specialising in interior architecture and design. It is the École Camondo which gave us renowned designers such as Philippe Starck and Jean-Michel Wilmotte.

The gift shop at 107 Rivoli is definitely the place to be, with its large bookshop specialising in all of the decorative arts, as well as limited edition design objects, jewellery, fashion accessories and tableware created by contemporary artists. It is not only one of the most chic and fashionable meeting points in the capital, but also a vehicle for promoting creativity today.

When I’m not going mad in the shop, my favourite game in Les Arts Décoratifs is to ask myself: “If I could take home any three exhibits, what would they be?”

Well, there’s a lounge chair by Charlotte Perriand which dates from 1941 and was inspired by a stay in Japan: that would be on my list. I am almost ashamed to say that I’d also include an ostrich-leather Balmain coat from 1977. Last but not last, the 1938 Bugatti 57 SC Atlantic Coupe, which featured in a recent “Art of the Automobile” exhibition, that would be my third choice! It was whilst looking through the side window of this car and noticing that the windshield was separated in two by a border made of leather that I suddenly realised that beauty can indeed make one happy!

After each visit to Les Arts Décoratifs, I ask myself: Where have I just been? And when? It feels as if I was asleep on a 15th-century canopy, or as if I had woken up on board a spaceship blasting into the future, or as if I was sitting at dinner in the 18th Century, if only that inflatable plastic turtle had not taken me back to the beaches of my childhood. But where was I? I had just spent a few hours at Les Arts Décoratifs in Paris.

Ulrike Haussen
Picture Researcher, akg-images Paris