The Soul of French Invention
An American woodworker’s love affair with “the best” (and perhaps least-known) sculpture museum in Paris—and what the affair taught him.
By GARY ROGOWSKI
“Have you been to the best sculpture museum in Paris?” I asked the Québéquoise couple visiting my furniture studio in Portland, Oregon. Having been to Paris several times, they of course thought I meant the Louvre. “No,” I sighed. “Musée d’Orsay?” they asked. “No,” I countered, “the best is the Musée des Arts et Métiers, in the 3rd arrondissement.”
They looked at me with the blank stares of statues, having never heard of the place. But this is true for most of the museum-going crowd in Paris. La Musée displays the best collection of ideas and shapes in the city, yet few people know of it. It is considered a conservatory of inventions, but is a treasure house of form. Forms so beautiful that I could not, as a designer, be unmoved by them. Here is how I discovered it.
It was because I was in love. No, not with Paris. Everyone falls in love with Paris. And how could you not? Her 19th-century charm surrounds and beguiles you and yet, she is still so insecure. Paris constantly checks her renowned beauty in the mirror. She is like a courtesan who turns to you every morning and bares her breasts and asks, “Am I not beautiful?” And you answer, mouth agape, “Yes, yes you are.”
I happened to be in love with a French-Romanian actress whom I had met on a plane three months earlier. I was flying home from Scotland where I’d been on a pilgrimage to see Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s masterwork, The Glasgow School of Art. We met on an extra-long flight from Paris to New York, a time when the volcano erupting in Iceland was delaying flights in droves. It seemed an impossible story, too good to be true, and we both fell for it. So there I was back in Paris to see her.
Simona lived up three flights in a garret apartment with exposed ceiling beams hewn in the 18th century. The apartment sat down a forked alleyway, past a patisserie with a school up one tine and an art supply house up another. In this alley, the schoolboys would come to lurk most mornings, to smoke and piss on the cobblestones. Ah, Paris, in all its splendiferous odeur. I was in the City of Grey Light and happily roaming its wet streets while my actress was busy rehearsing her lines. This left me free to search for ideas, forms, inspiration for my furniture. Any of the grand musées of Paris can do that, no?
The fact is, I am a museum curmudgeon: the cattle walk to enter, the curatorial bias so out of touch with its public, the gaudy collections serving to keep the public numb with awe—I find all of this irritating. When I was in Paris, I loathed waiting in line to see the demure Mona Lisa. I would shuffle past and check her off my life-list like a birdwatcher spotting my pileated woodpecker, then searching next for the golden plover. But Simona had mentioned another museum that most people knew of only by its ornate, copper Métro stop. It was not listed under any Paris museum search that I made.
My choice for moving about Paris was a Velib rental bicycle—perfect for the city’s boulevards, which were built to radiate out from circles so the military could easily disperse its troops. Between these spokes are the city’s famous crooked streets, designed to give its citizens places to hide during siege. My first stab at finding the museum landed me in the wrong arrondissement, headed back home. It was no wonder I couldn’t get anywhere. I wasn’t dispersing or hiding. Besides, it’s Paris. She smiled and said, “Don’t worry about the museum. Am I not beautiful?”
But I was determined. When I finally found the Musée, it sat, like many churches in Paris, incongruously next to apartments and cafés, in a squat Romanesque building. This “Chapel for Arts and Crafts,” as its founder, Abbé Henri Grégoire, said of it in 1796, was founded to house the inventions of the 18th century. He began the collection in the former Saint-Martin-Des-Champs Abbey, which itself sat on the site of a 6th-century church and graveyard. Throughout the centuries it had been inhabited, pillaged, rebuilt, ignored, and finally rescued at the end of the Age of Enlightenment. In 1798, the Abbey was saved from yet another of Paris’ famous executions, and appropriated for Henri Grégoire’s grand idea to “preserve the national industry.”
Grégoire was more than a prelate with an affinity for inventions. He was a visionary for his time, an intellectual, a champion of civil rights, and an adept politician and tactician. In the late 18th century, he wrote in favor of the right of citizenship for Jews and the abolition of slavery. He corresponded with Thomas Jefferson on the “Literature of the Negroes.” He wrote on the importance of preserving cultural objects, and the harm caused by an activity whose name he coined: vandalism. He was instrumental in coalescing the myriad local dialects, the patois of France, into a single language. As a member of the National Convention, he proposed abolishing the monarchy and bringing the king to trial, even as he himself kept his office (and his head) as a cleric throughout the Reign of Terror.
Grégoire’s hope was that the Conservatory would help to train the craftsmen of the day by exhibiting and conserving the tools, drawings, models, and machines of that era, and for time to come. Inside this former church would be an encyclopedia of ideas made visible, of mankind’s greatest innovations and creative genius.
After gaining your ticket or, better yet, using your Paris Museum Pass, the museum guards will point you upstairs to the second floor attic space to begin your tour with the Scientific Instruments. Don’t do it. Walk instead to the left through the small gift shop and begin your exploration in the chapel on the ground floor. Here, just as you enter, you see your first marvel: Foucault’s original pendulum.
So many inventions first strike us as impossible or beneath notice for their cheek. “Who needs a telephone?,” a buggy whip maker must have once yelled at Mr. Bell. In the 19th century, seeing someone whizz by on a bicycle must have appeared magical. How then was one to consider a flying machine or a steam engine? These objects were so terrible at the time of their invention, so evil-looking and evil-sounding, that to many, they were as sacrilegious as they were frightening. The first movie of a train coming straight at the viewers had people running out of the theater.
Imagine, then, living in 1851 and seeing Foucault unveil his pendulum—the first device to prove that the earth did indeed revolve around an axis. It’s a trick, is it not? Or is it sacrilege? Who has moved the room? Even now, as you watch it, you feel its pull, tracing its course and in the most subtle of fashions pulling you into its dance, the world’s mass in orbit at your feet.
My tour guide during one of my visits was the head restorer of the museum, Monsieur Jean-Luc Chazoule. That morning when he set the pendulum in motion, it was like he was starting time. We waited for the world to turn as the long cable and brass globe moved slowly and elegantly over a giant round table. Just as Foucault must have done, Jean-Luc set up short metal pins around its perimeter like sentries. As the morning’s visitors watched, Jean-Luc said, “Religion: You have to believe it to see it. The Pendulum: you have to see it to believe it.” Five minutes later, a pin toppled, another believer made.
I looked up to see the rest of the chapel. In this rising space, three stories tall, was a catwalk holding old bicycles and motorcycles, several vintage cars, and an airplane and a winged flying machine hanging from the ceiling. This display of frozen motion was gorgeous in its audacity. It was sculpture couched in the guise of invention. Amidst the tumult of the French Revolution and the subsequent Empire, think of the determination it took to save these devilish discoveries.
It became clear this was a house of worship: the worship of invention, and the power and beauty of its many forms. My gaze rose with my joy and disbelief at what I had stumbled upon. Others, such as the Swedish playwright August Strindberg, were not as happy with their find. As the Musée catalog points out, in 1883 Strindberg wrote, “Utilitarian minds at least will be satisfied.” His, apparently, was not.
What Herr Strindberg failed to see was the potential in the marriage of form and function. The collection was begun with objects, models, and drawings rescued in France some two centuries ago and filled with the ones designed through the centuries since then. This is essentially the country’s Art and Science Museum, but it offers more than that. Since it has been curated by the French, it is the Museum of Art and Passion as well. Its collection is not just about the dusty power of science, but also about the role of grace in manufacturing. Two centuries ago, beauty still had value. It was an offering to the gods. Utility loved Beauty and she loved him back.
The power in this marriage has been largely forgotten by most of today’s businesses, but not all of them. Didn’t Steve Jobs insist on creating fonts for his Apple computers as beautiful as the calligraphy he once studied? For Jobs, it was imperative that design and technology go to market together. From all indications, this marriage treated him pretty well.
Now I am a formalist. My job as a furniture designer is to make you fall so in love with a form that you must come up and touch the work. Once you do that, I have you. So I am always in search of ideas, patterns, rhythms, negative space, eliminating the non-essential. Adding lightness to the work. From that perspective, the Musée was like a treasure box of forms that I had found in the attic.
The Musée is arranged by the orderly French into seven domains—Transportation, Construction, Communication, Energy, Mechanics, Materials, and Scientific Instruments. In each domain there are further divisions by centuries and content. For instance, on the first floor, where one encounters the Construction domain, it is divided into: The art of good building [before 1750], An effort to rationalize [1750-1850], The revolution of structures [1850-1950], and finally The revolution of forms [after 1950]. [For a full tour, view our photo essay The Hidden Wonders of the Musée des Arts et Métiers.]
In each one, form and function were caught in eternal trysts. The Pathé loudspeaker was shaped like a giant red and beige flower. A Singer sewing machine table curled with metal spirals, the machine itself inlaid with mother-of-pearl, Beaux-Arts flourishes. Another room held twin models of the Statue of Liberty: one made of plaster, the other in copper replete with to-scale workers and tools. The spiral staircase models were inspired flights using golden geometry. There was the room of automatons, one of Marie Antoinette playing the dulcimer that so upset her with its realism that she gave it away. There were printing presses festooned with wheels and rollers like bizarre gnashing beasts. The rows of old Parisian bicycles were a cascade of forms, as though Giacometti was designing motion itself. On the first floor, a cart used to roll in the inventions of the 18th century was locked onto its rails, a sign that this was a museum that still breathed with the past. Even if my brief love affair was born in the sky by two dreamers, these dreams I saw before me had been made real, and they had survived.
So when you visit Paris in search of art, you can wait at the Louvre or Centre Pompidou or go find the Impressionists, or the Cubists. For me, the best collection in Paris is here. Forget standing in line to see the Mona Lisa. Go instead to Musée des Arts et Métiers and marvel at what da Vinci himself would have paid to see.