Designs on the Past
When I returned to Paris several months ago, during the second Covid lockdown, I kept myself entertained by trying to see the city of my birth through new eyes, scouting out lesser-known corners and hidden places I had never visited before. It was during this roving exercise that I was introduced to Guillaume Féau, heir to the 150-year-old interior woodworking firm Féau Boiseries, acquired by his family in the 1950s and today regarded as one of the most important historical purveyors of its kind, among the last of a breed of French decorative specialists.
Tucked away behind an unmarked oak door on a tiny street a short walk from the Arc de Triomphe, the store is a place remarkably out of time, a series of workshops and rooms that Walter Benjamin or Roland Barthes might have used to illustrate essays about discontinuity, memory and taste. Walking in, I was charmed, stunned, overwhelmed. I felt like a child who had discovered a forbidden attic in a grand abandoned castle. There were complete interiors by Napoleon’s architect duo, Charles Percier and Pierre François Léonard Fontaine, responsible for the look of the rue de Rivoli as we now know it; an entire bedroom of Madame de Pompadour’s; doors commissioned by Louis XVI. The winding array of rooms, many of them piled deep with dusty panels, columns and cornices, seems to tell the entire story of French decor over more than four centuries, a private de facto museum whose holdings are the envy of the world’s decorative-arts museums and whose expertise is sought out by the most important architects and designers of their day. I recently invited Olivier Gabet—newly appointed director of the decorative arts department at the Louvre and former director of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris—to sit down in the shop with Guillaume Féau, his longtime friend, and talk about the history contained within the building. These are edited excerpts of our conversation.
Olivier Renaud-Clément: So, Guillaume, can you tell us a little bit about Féau and its history?
Guillaume Féau: The business started in 1875, and my family purchased the company in the late 1950s. We are like a candy shop for interior designers and architects because we have a huge collection of antique wood paneling that they can use to make reproductions and as an inspiration to create modern designs. We produce approximately eighty rooms a year for projects around the world, partly using the old techniques.
ORC: I have a question for Olivier [Gabet], who is the historian here. When did the fashion for wood paneling start? In the Middle Ages, or a little later? When was the big explosion?
Olivier Gabet: What happened was that wood paneling—after starting quietly in the late Middle Ages—became a real field of artistic expression in the Renaissance. It was important in the 17th and 18th centuries, continuing into the 19th century, which is at the core of what happened here at Féau: the blooming of paneling as an expression of style, allure, elegance. I would say since the 17th century, the fashion for decor and what you have around you here never stopped. After the end of the 18th century, once it was over, it became very beloved among both collectors and the general public quickly afterward. And the founding of this firm reflects the renewed passion for decor in the mid-19th century, when collectors and interior designers really adopted the ethos of immersing yourself in the style of past decades. What is quite fascinating at Féau is that it is at the center of this history of taste.
ORC: Just to backtrack a little bit, it seems that the company was able to thrive early on because it was the era of Haussmann, when Paris was being rebuilt, so there was a huge demand for interiors at the time. When your family bought the company about seventy years later, what state was it in?
GF: The golden age of our company was between around 1875 and 1914, when there were all these big banker families, French industrialist families and a lot of old aristocrats married to rich American ladies, like Boni de Castellane, who [married American heiress Anna Gould and] commissioned the palais Rose de l’avenue Foch [in the sixteenth arrondissement; demolished in 1969]. With the war and after, the company suffered a major, long-lasting shock. We lost a lot of clients, and things didn’t really pick up again until the mid-1990s. Now we are back to a market like that before World War I, thanks to new clients in America, in Asia, all around the world.
ORC: So in the 1920s and 1930s, nothing was being done?
GF: Well, there were still some commissions. It was a great period for decor, but more for interior and furniture designers Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann and Jean-Michel Frank. Those companies had great knowledge of wood paneling. Frank used a lot of beautiful 18th-century paneling. We have some paneling here commissioned from Frank by the Guerlain family. It is very beautiful and very simple.
OG: If I may say something: In the history of taste, you always have a dichotomy between what matters for art history and the current line of taste. When you just talked about Art Nouveau and Art Deco, it concerns a very small number of people. Because there were not so many who really wanted to have a Ruhlmann interior, or even before, a great Art Nouveau interior by Hector Guimart. In the time of Art Nouveau, the taste of the concierge in Paris is still a Renaissance Revival taste. She doesn’t care about Art Nouveau. She doesn’t know, so she appropriates the taste of two generations earlier, when the Renaissance Revival got under way. In questions of taste, there is very often a time lag.
ORC: I’m curious about the inventory, the collection you have. Some of it is for sale, some of it is not for sale and some of it is used as template, like a sketchbook, right?
GF: I try not to sell my old decors. I try to keep them. Sometimes we have a great collector who really wants to buy them, but most of the time I don’t try to push them into purchasing an antique one, because it’s a difficult game. It’s hard to reproportion. You never have the right ceiling height, the proper volumes to fit perfectly. It’s a difficult exercise. So for me it’s easier to make a copy.
“It’s a very special kind of place. Nothing is under glass. If you want, you can touch. It’s a different way of experiencing art.”—Olivier Gabet
ORC: Where do you buy pieces for your collection? How do you buy them?
GF: It’s a small world, so I’m lucky. Interiors are a very difficult thing to sell. Auction companies and antique dealers don’t really want to deal with them, so they generally call me directly. It’s a niche market and we have the biggest inventory, and people know that. I’m still missing some pieces, but . . .
ORC: What are you missing, for instance?
GF: What I will tell you is terrible—I hate to say it—but sometimes great decors are completely destroyed. You can have one of the best decors, but if it has been repainted thirty years ago in a shiny pink, the new owner might ask the architect to put it in the garbage quickly, because it’s awful and ugly. And yet behind that awful shiny pink you sometimes have beautiful 17th-century gilding and you have to be there, at the ready, to buy the garbage. It’s an extreme situation.
ORC: Olivier, I’m wondering when you first met Guillaume?
OG: Perhaps early 2000, as a curatorial intern at the Louvre, and an art historian. This is certainly the best place to understand what it meant to be an interior decorator in the 19th century. It was a new profession then. I love the models and sketches and ornament drawings and fragments of objects. And because you don’t have to respect museum rules, there is a kind of freedom, a sense of poetry and liberty.
ORC: When I’m in this place, of course I immediately think about conservation. I mean, there are millions of wooden panels, all piled up. As a museum person, aren’t you horrified?
OG: No! It’s a very special kind of place. Nothing is under glass. If you want, you can touch. It’s a different way of experiencing art. So I’m not horrified—I’m more overwhelmed by the poetry. But it cannot be that way in the museum, for sure. It would be a nightmare of safety and so on.
ORC: As long as I’ve known you, Guillaume, you’ve expressed a desire to share the treasures of this place with people. At the same time, it’s not very public. There’s a little door and you really have to know what is behind it.
GF: Yes, it’s a secret place, but we are open to people who really want to come, and I am always happy to host people: It’s very important to explain to them why this huge mess is here! [Laughter.] So that people understand why we are here, what we do, and how important we are to the general interior-design world—also from the point of view of connections with the present, what we are able to create in terms of beautiful architecture along with a beautiful Andy Warhol or [Takashi] Murakami or Jean-Michel Othoniel. We want people to understand that we are not out of date. Sometimes our clients have beautiful 18th-century collections, but more than fifty percent of what we do is for collectors with modern and contemporary art.
ORC: Before we go into the 21st century, so to speak, I’d like for you, Olivier, to say what you see as the highlights here? Me, I have a passion for Percier and Fontaine. The first time I came here and saw that, I was freaking out. But you also have the bedroom of Madame de Pompadour, and those doors from Louis XIV, I think, with the—
GF: Louis XVI. It could be Louis XIV, though, yes . . .
ORC: And, Olivier, what are your highlights?
OG: Sometimes when I’m here the masterpiece is, obviously, the Percier and Fontaine. But other times it’s a fragment, something which is meaningful because of what you can imagine. For me, that’s a very modern way of looking at art. Look at this part of a door here, for example. Is it Ruhlmann?
GF: I think it’s Ruhlmann, yes.
Detail of a room by Charles Percier and Pierre François Léonard Fontaine, early 1800s, Féau Boiseries, Paris, 2022
Samples of plaster ornaments and moldings, Féau Boiseries, Paris, 2022
“We respect the traditional technique of woodwork construction of the 17th and 18th centuries. It’s very important.”—Guillaume Féau
OG: Or [Armand-Albert] Rateau?
GF: I think it’s Ruhlmann.
OG: You don’t have the door itself, but you open a kind of door with this little fragment.
ORC: And for you, Guillaume? Maybe it’s a stupid question, like asking someone to choose among children, but what is your favorite? Or does it change all the time?
GF: I’m like both of you. I love the red-on-bronze Percier and Fontaine room, which is one of the best I have. I love the Ratteau room made in 1925 for Jeanne Lanvin, which is also one of the best I have, but there is a Ledoux room I love and the Bélanger room, which I also love a lot. And fragments, I agree, can also be very, very interesting.
ORC: What’s fascinating to me is that now, with architects and designers, you produce new templates based on the actual antique things you have here. And you also use new materials to create new work. What is the process? And when did you start to understand that you had to incorporate new techniques?
GF: I love great decor made by the masters, but when you have one of those great decors, if you sell it, you no longer have it. So you have to cast your decor to keep some in your inventory as a reference. And when you cast that decor in resin, you have all the details, the volumes, and also the aging and some cracks. So when I propose to a modern designer that they use very highly carved panels, the resin can reproduce perfectly, and gives you the ability to go in the direction of a more modern feel. But usually we only do the ornaments in resin. We still have about thirty-five carvers and we do approximately ten to fifteen hand-carved rooms a year. We respect the traditional technique of woodwork construction of the 17th and 18th centuries. It’s very important.
ORC: I’m going to put Olivier on the spot now. When are you doing a show of the Féau collection in one of the museums in France?
OG: I’m not sure that, in the world of today, moving big paneling from one place to another in Paris or wherever would make sense. But people, especially young people, are more and more interested in the process of making. For me, showing that would be very meaningful, and I think an exhibition would be an interesting way to talk about it. Guillaume was very visionary in his own way by acquiring an ensemble of archives from great decorators of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. We have some examples at the museum, and a beautiful collection of drawings for sure. But these kinds of models, for example, we don’t have. And I think they’re very interesting because they would help people understand the process—
GF: Some of these models have been created for weird reasons. I bought a huge collection of forty-five models from the Carlhian Collection that were made to try to prevent the client from making a mistake, and to prod them to choose a certain style for their mansion.
ORC: One more question: How do you see the future? Are your children interested in this business?
GF: Yes. I’ve tried from the beginning to give them my passion, and I think at least two or three of them will be interested in working in this field. One probably is going to manage the New York office in three to four years. They know the market will be huge in the future, and that we are kind of the only one. We are the last.
ORC: Olivier, anything you want to add?
OG: Maybe just that I think it’s always a privilege to come here. Always.
GF: Everybody’s welcome to come here. I’m always happy.
OG: Don’t say this because then a lot of people will . . .
GF: It’s by appointment only!
ORC: We won’t publish the address!
Olivier Renaud-Clément has organized exhibitions and acted as an advisor to artists and estates in the United States, Europe and Japan for many years. He has worked frequently with Hauser & Wirth, collaborating with the gallery on thirty-one exhibitions to date. He has collaborated with Takesada Matsutani and the estates of Fabio Mauri, Lygia Pape, August Sander and Mira Schendel, among others. Renaud-Clément is the founder of the International Friends of the Munich Opera. He is based between Paris and New York.