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The Hidden Wonders of the Musée des Arts et Métiers: Paris’ Museum of Art and Invention

A CRAFTSMANSHIP photo essay.

Theme: The Culinary Frontier

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The Musée des Arts et Métiers sits on the site of the Saint-Martin-des-Champs Abbey — founded in the 8th century, destroyed in the 9th by the Normans, and rebuilt in 1060 by Henry I. A photo from the 19th century shows this same squat church on a boulevard, with food stalls in front and a tall building near the entrance advertising beer and other goods.

Léon Foucault was the epitome of the 19th-century inventive genius. He had no formal scientific training, yet built his own steam engine as a boy. Later on, he learned the first form of photography, the daguerreotype, and took the first photographic image of the sun. He determined how to measure the speed of light through water, improved microscopic photography, created the gyroscope, a form of which is in use on every airplane today, and proved the rotation of the earth with his ingeniously simple pendulum.

First hung in his basement laboratory, this pendulum’s coming out party was held at the Paris Observatory. My host, Jean-Luc Chazoule,  got us a private tour of le Observatoire with Suzanne Débarbat, astronomer and member of the International Astronomical Union. There, in this 400-year-old floor, she showed us the first line of longitude agreed upon by 17th-century cartographers and scientists. Now protected under a clear plastic mat, one can just see the marks in the stone. Above us was the chamber cut into the ceiling through which the first French astronomers viewed celestial movement. It was from this spot that Foucault hung his pendulum above the line of meridian to demonstrate his miracle of motion.

The first public demonstration of this swinging “plane of oscillation” showed the earth moving beneath its pulse as it rotated. A self-taught and thus suspect engineer, Foucault was spurned by the French Academy of Sciences that he so desperately wanted to be part of, then accepted by the organization only a few years before his death. Britain, on the other hand, had given him honors 10 years earlier.

Herein lies the history of our desire for movement: It houses self-propelled bicycles, early automobiles, and, above, a transparent glass-and-steel catwalk stretching upward. As you look up, you see two planes—the first, a biplane made by Louis Breguet; the second, an early aeroplane by Louis Blériot.

Breguet’s biplane was outfitted with a short front ski for landing on the sands of Morocco. One of its first flights was from Casablanca to Fez in 1911.

The second perilous-looking assemblage, which you see below, was built at the turn of the 20th century by Louis Blériot. It was his 11th version, since the previous 10 did not survive takeoff or landing. The plane was the first to cross the Channel in 1908, winning it a prize from the English newspaper the Daily Mail. The aircraft was later purchased by the newspaper Le Matin for 20,000 francs, then donated to the Musée in 1909. The wings are wrapped with oilcloth and supported by wires and metal struts only one-half inch wide.

The prop on Blériot’s plane comprises five laminates of wood, which were glued together and then shaped. Just over 2 meters in length, it spins a bare inch from a three cylinder, 25-hp motor. As a woodworker, I couldn’t help wondering how that prop would feel in my hands as I scraped it smooth, balancing it to the last gram. A scientist would wonder about the aerodynamics of air flow across the prop, but I studied it for its seamless joinery, its symmetry, the beauty of its line. How would I balance it, with what precision would I remove a gram of material, with a scraper or a spokeshave, so that it would stay true?

Its genius is in the shape ellipsing as the blade curves. But the curves of both sides have to match for this to work. What template shows you that? What calipers were invented then that could measure along two axes so you knew where to shave next? I have an idea how I might do it, but then I think of the weight of my task: Keeping a prone pilot aloft with one’s skill at paring wood.

These bicycles are old enough that some were put in a retrospective bicycle exhibition—in 1906. Some of their makers used wood for their frames, handles, and spokes, just as some bicycle designers have rediscovered how to do now. But these remnants remind me as well that even transportation needed grace beyond speed, beyond lightness. It’s like building a chair: You take away everything that is unnecessary, everything that is not essential to utility and structure, while still paying attention to beauty.

The study of mechanics fascinated inventors of the 18th and 19th centuries. These models, commissioned by the Musée, were made to illustrate kinetics, the study of types of motion.

It’s hard to imagine this massive self-propelled cart as one the progenitors of the automobile. Cugnot’s fardier à vapeur was a three-wheeled, steam-driven dray designed to carry military armament. This second larger version, built in 1770, could carry almost four tons, but its weight issues, coupled with the massive, unwieldy steam kettle in its front, compromised its agility.

What could be more pedestrian than a door knob? Who would give it more than a passing thought on their way out the door? Or invest time and effort into reinterpreting one? But I imagine opening this door every day and knowing how it would change my attitude toward the world I was about to enter, or had just left. Think of the smile it must have brought to a 19th-century carver’s face as he made this peapod shape in wood or plaster, knowing that the brass casting would create a playful impression on someone’s hand every day.

The handle now sits in a building that houses the Musée’s reserves, which turn out to be the majority of its collection, a compilation almost too boggling to comprehend. They include, just for starters:

This staircase model, which is only a foot tall.

An inlaid music box whose brass chimes were shaped as bees; a book of the 19th-century architectural details of Paris whose pages stack up almost 8 inches high; a 2-foot-long pair of 17th-century binoculars; an early Citroen sedan cut completely in half, including the motor; and row after row of vintage tools. This building is where most of the restoration work is done by Jean-Luc Chazoule and his team, and where scholars can come to study the early fruits of invention.

For my own work, I know that if viewers love the form of my furniture, the next thing they will do is touch it. I would have loved to touch the peapod handle. The lure still holds for many of the doors, windows, and facades of Paris. Such thought has been given to each one that you want to reach out a hand, feel it, and perhaps stop, for just a moment, to think that yes, life is beautiful. Things are worth doing well.

Singer had created a machine so versatile, so quick, and so powerful that its cost of a few months’ wages could be overlooked. Stick on a decal of a lotus blossom or sphinx and its popularity, at least with collectors, was assured.

This beautiful bit of metal and wood was designed to make hand files, and to do so very precisely. A file in the shop is a useful if mundane tool. It acts like a scraper, harder than everything else around it, and it leaves a mark. Mongrel, in a way, because it can cut in any direction, it is not usually graceful in its appearance even if what it creates is.

One of the goals of the greatest engineers of the Renaissance was to create machines to take the place of laborious handwork. And many tried unsuccessfully to make a file-making machine. Files were one of the most basic of tools—used by mechanical engineers to create other tools and machines, such as rack and pinion gears.

The most inventive engineers were the horologists, the watch- and clock-makers. Similar in appearance to a machine that appeared in Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks, this version was made around 1750 by an unknown watchmaker. A hot metal file blank is laid onto the anvil of the voluted machine, and then pounded into a tool of unerring precision, in the right hands of course.

This is a reproduction of a building made to the specifications of 16th-century architect Philibert de l’Orme, architect of many royal buildings, including the Tuileries Palace in Paris in 1564. The rafter design was unique at that time, using small timbers to support the grand structure. The building was razed in 1874 to help create Boulevard St. Germain. Bittersweet progress.

The needs of a horologist are small: Good light, a comfortable bench, precise tools, and a superior way of holding things fast. This ornate vise was made for clockmaker Antide Janvier, maker to Louis XVI.

This “Swan’s Neck” loudspeaker is no question mark; it is an exclamation point—to point out and simultaneously limit the distortion of ascending volume, the glory be of what’s to come. Made in 1924 of wood, steel, and aluminum, its sound was generated by transforming electromagnetic waves into mechanical vibrations and causing a thin membrane to move, thus creating sound. Notice that this is no tentative shape. It is surefooted, designed to get respect. Prepare yourself, it seems to say, for what a radio has to offer. This is what you strive for in each piece you design: the arrest of attention.

Is my ear the bumblebee to this flower? Or is my eye? I would think that when this Pathé phonograph and loudspeaker played to crowds in the 1920s, it was first the eye that was seduced, from some distance, and then the ear. The shape of the painted metal petals, however, has me tumbling now like a drunken bee inside some lascivious orchid. The 13 raised petals draw me in. Who divides a circle into 13 parts? Of course, it’s an odd number. But any designer knows the value of odd numbers, how they make us spin around a maypole center searching for symmetry. It’s a golden circle then, the number 13 falling into Fibonacci’s golden spiral of addition—a cultural milestone set for Western European mathematicians by Leonardo Bonacci, aka Fibonacci, in 1202, whose Italian eye saw how a particular sequence of numbers can please our senses. One more subtle invitation to our willing mind to see, be moved, and listen.

Of course they modeled this colossal bronze statue, more commonly known as the Statue of Liberty. It’s the only method that makes sense. Done in the workshops of the French sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi in 1879, it was donated to the U.S. by his widow. This is a small copper version sitting next to a plaster version of the same scale, with a smaller plaster version next to it. Bartholdi made his models by increasing their scale with each version, fixing errors before they became too gigantic to fix. Model after model trying to anticipate the connections, the looming complexity in such a massive sculpture.

The method of creating the copper skin is known as repoussé. First, the plaster forms were sculpted into the required shapes. These were covered with laminated wooden or lead molds into which thin copper sheets were then hammered. This kept hammer marks from being visible on the exterior of the copper skin.

Every architect knows the importance of a model. Frank Gehry modeled his buildings in a different scale each time to get a different view each time, a different sense. The value of modeling for furniture makers cannot be overstated, because within a few hours, you can see errors that would destroy a fine piece of wood, not to mention the days it would take to reach the point of error. But to see the workman himself modeled, and his tools, lends unusual grace to a model’s potential.

More stories from this issue:

The Clay Conjurer

Food Shift

Paula Wolfert and the Clay Pot Mystique

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