Take us seriously, but don’t be serious
Versailles shows the significance of interiors, but it’s impossible to escape their artful wit
Last week ended in Leicester at a meeting of interior educators. We discussed the usual things interior educators discuss: what we teach, how we teach it and who we are.
But the week began at Versailles, with the Furniture History Society. They are quite a different bunch: antiques dealers, decorators and museum curators, but I love them — they got me into Versailles when it was closed. We were there to see the current exhibition, which didn’t exactly sound threatening: The Palace of Versailles and the Mobilier National, it’s called, four centuries of furniture design.
Once upon a time the Garde-Meuble Royal supplied furniture to Versailles, but during the revolution both the royal family and their furniture were removed from the palace, either sold or confiscated for the use of the republic elsewhere. The salons of Versailles were left more or less empty until this exhibition, the result of a detective rummage through obscure ministries and government warehouses, restored the few pieces left to the building for which they had been made.
But the Garde-Meuble didn’t end with the monarchy. It still exists, and, under the guise of the Research & Design Workshop founded in 1964 by André Malraux, still produces Gobelins tapestries, Sevres porcelain and Savonnerie carpets — as well as Philippe Starck furniture — just as it has always done. It is perhaps one of the strangest and most pleasing aspects of French statism, aesthetically anyway.
Rather than exhibiting this (mostly post) modern furniture on plinths and in cases, it was shown as if Versailles was still, two centuries after the revolution, the seat of power. The antechamber of the Dauphine contained a dining table made for the private apartments of Mitterrand; there was a desk by Sottsass and a console table by Ronan Bouroullec. The furniture had been arranged in historic rooms with a wonderful wrongness, as if Louis XIV had donned a suit and tie to become Jacques Chirac, and Carla Bruni were a pouting Pompadour, wearing Roland Mouret and a powdered wig.
My furniture historian friends were horrified. Nothing was in period; the show was inauthentic, unhistorical, wilful and perverse. I loved it: these are all the things that interiors are meant to be. Ornament is crime, Loos said, and there has always been something a little bit naughty about decoration too. A private art of collage and trickery, it’s not obliged to follow all those tiresome laws of progress and truth and integrity to which architecture is enslaved. I ended up in the Galerie des Glaces, intoxicated by an excess of ormolu and boudoir, willing myself to miss the plane home.
Three days later, in Leicester we talked about being taken seriously as a discipline. If anyone has any doubts about the political and philosophical importance of the interior they should visit the boudoirs of Versailles. But to talk of seriousness is, perhaps, to miss the point. Interiors, particularly decorated ones, are artful games of wit, played with objects, stories and time. They aren’t serious and no-one should feel obliged to make them so.