Le Mobilier National – France’s national furniture

Le Mobilier National

The Mobilier National is the oldest furniture depository in the world. As long ago as  XIIIth century there was already a special service which was responsible for inventory and transportation from chateau to chateau of furniture and objects belonging to the king, royal family and les “serviteurs du roi”. Under Henri IV in 1604 the Garde-Meuble de la Couronne was created, then formalized and reorganized under Louis XIV in 1663. Since then France has kept good track of its furniture heritage. In fact in 1777 there were even public exhibition galleries for the collection, thus creating the first Parisian museum of decorative arts. Then came the Revolution. But fear not, the revolutionaries were rather gentle to the furniture, left the collections intact and renamed them the Garde-Meuble du Premier Consul. Napoleon followed through and Stendhal was one of the first inspectors of the Mobilier impérial. Thus today there still exists in France a long standing heritage in furniture of the finest craftsmanship called the Mobilier National.

Mobilier national
Atelier de restauration de tapisseries. Photo de Lawrence Perquis

The ateliers of the Mobilier national are responsible for storage and restoration of  the magnificent pieces of furniture and decoration that are now used to decorate the chateaux, ministries, palaces and embassies of France. Each year 1500 objects pass through the seven workshops: textiles (drapery, walls), bronze and crystal (think chandeliers and clocks), cabinet making (and marquetry), Joinery (chair making) and three tapestry sections: murals, seats, and carpets. The Mobilier National in Paris has recently opened a six month exhibition called L’esprit et la main to allow the public to appreciate their savoir-faire. The exhibition does not allow you to walk through the actual workshops, but they have recreated work spaces with samples of materials that you can touch, along with videos and people. Yes, the artisans themselves are present on some days to talk to the public and demonstrate their craft.

Atelier de restauration de l'ébénisterie. Photo Vincent Leroux
Atelier de restauration de l’ébénisterie. Photo Vincent Leroux

The artisans that we met during our visit were happy to explain their tools and allow us to watch them work. We especially enjoyed the cabinet maker who showed us his saws and other tools he has created himself to do a specific job on a specific restoration. He also explained the thought process he had to go through to restore a roll top desk that no longer functioned. The top wouldn’t roll any more as the wood had shifted during years of storage. He figured out how to make it roll again, but with the adjustment he made he created another problem. A few weeks went by before a new idea came to him. This idea involved a physical change to the structure of the desk which is usually taboo at the Mobilier National. The big dilemma of course was should they modify the desk to make it work again or avoid modification and then display the roll top either open or closed permanently. In this particular case function won over form, but one can imagine the debate they had. The cabinet maker got approval for his idea from the higher ups and set to work and was pleased as punch to show us the desk. These days the artisans restore rather than create, but the savoir-faire shines in each and every project and they are able to use their creativity when solving restoration problems such as the desk.

They plan to have live artisans – the real people who work on restoring these national treasures at the exhibit each day. Check for the schedule online or call to see who will be working when. The people are the best part of the exhibit. What an opportunity for them to interact with and be appreciated by the public with whom they usually have little contact. And what an opportunity for us to discover their work and their passion.

The exhibition is open daily except Mondays 11-18h, until January 2016 at. Guided visits are available at 13h on Tues, Wed and Thurs, buy your ticket early and sign up at 11h at the Galerie if you want the guided visit.

Galerie des Gobelins,
42 av des Gobelins 75013 Paris

Mobilier National
Atelier de restauration de tapis – Atelier de menuiserie en sièges – Atelier de restauration de lustrerie-bronze. Photos de Vincent Leroux