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Turning shopping into an artform

Updated: May 9, 2023

All profound distraction opens certain doors. You have to allow yourself to be distracted when you are unable to concentrate.” Cortázar, Around the Day in Eighty Worlds Some might say I have turned shopping into an art form while in Paris but the opportunity to find art in unexpected places has surprised me, and shopping has become a very different experience. My friends won't believe me, but my sole purpose for visiting some of the more famous shops has not been for material gain.

I started the day on a hunt for batteries: 'les piles.' The TV remote had stopped working and the daily news is a useful place to learn the language and stay up to date. Finding triple-A batteries in Paris is as easy as finding a bottle of unicorn tears, though. I was distracted along the way by the sight of my local department store, which led me to this post,

Galeries Lafayette

Galeries Lafayette is one such example of an art and shopping fusion. Founder Théophile Bader wanted to create 'a luxury bazaar', and he enlisted artists and architects to create the building we see today. The Paris Opera inspired the main staircase, and the 43-metre dome created by master glassworker Jacques Gruber in the “Art Nouveau style is world-famous. The stained glass dome forms an immense flower comprised of 10 luminous sections stretching over a total of 1000m².

Galeries Lafayette recently invited Korean Artist Kimsooja to illuminate the store's breathtaking architecture with a light-orientated installation called Breathe. I stumbled upon the exhibition while heading up the seventh floor to go onto the terrace and take in the fabulous view across Paris (although I think the view from the Panthéon is much better). Two people in white coats stood near a door, inviting people in. Through the doorway, you find yourself transported into another world in the heart of the dome. Within the space, a soundscape of the artist's breathing can be heard. By covering the clear glass around the Dome, Kimsooja creates a new light and colour experience that is captivating, echoing the coloured light and hues that filled the building when it was first built.

Le Bon Marche

Once described as a 'cathedral of modern commerce' (Émile Zola. Au Bonheur des Dames), In 1872, Aristide and Marguerite Boucicaut, the visionary founders of Le Bon Marché enlisted Boileau, Armand Moisant, Gustave Eiffel, Jacques-Émile Ruhlman and other to create the building we see today, In 1875 the owners created a gallery of paintings where they exhibited works by artists who the Salon des Beaux-Arts had rejected. A fire in 1915 led to the building's reconstruction in 1923.

Today, Bon Marche is still a department store that houses a collection of artwork. Finding them is something of a treasure hunt. My research has revealed there are around 100 pictures and sculptures dotted around. the building. They really are everywhere; behind one of the bookshop's checkouts; by the escalators, and outside the lifts. The lure of the Violette pop-up store (well, it's only there until 23 April) distracted me from my mission at first, but I did discover a few gems, including this bronze sculpture.

Etienne -Martin. La Tête aux mains 1950-51

Each year the store hands over the main space to an artist who has complete carte blanche. Until 23 April, 'Comme un poisson dans l'eau' fills the ceilings and staircases. The Japanese Collective, Team lab, is running the Sketch Aquarium, a huge virtual aquarium where you can sketch and create your own colourful fish and see it brought to life on the screen.

Au Printemps An innovative new store, Au Printemps was created in 1865 by Jules Jaluzot, who was only 31 years old at the time. Jaluzot had trained at Bon Marché, where he met his wife, an actress in the Comedie Francaise. It was her dowry of 300,000 Francs that enabled him to start the business.

Jaluzot's creativity lay in an entrepreneurial and creative approach to business. His was the first department store to introduce the concept of sales, where goods could be bought on a fixed day at a reduced price. Jules Jaluzot was a natural marketeer and brand champion While many of his rivals traded on the price he amplified the store's name and started to give a bouquet of violets to customers on the first day of spring, He also pioneered the use of window displays

Zola, one of my favourite writers, who is referenced continuously in exhibitions throughout Paris, said in his book 'Bonheur des Dames'

"She spoke of the new Bonheur bonus, an idea of Mouret which he was causing a stir in the newspapers, small bouquets of white violets bought by the thousands in Nice and distributed to any customer who made the slightest purchase," - Emile Zola

Le Printemps has a great history of innovation and modernity. The original building expanded in 1874 and elevators were installed, After a fire in 1881, the store was rebuilt and became the first Department store with electric lighting.

Printemps also revolutionised French society. In 1882, it implemented sweeping social changes by introducing more attractive salary packages creating a shift in the pay gap between men and women with equal salaries for both genders.

Shopping in Paris is more than it appears on the surface. There is so much to learn from the story of each store and even more to discover inside.

For anyone worried about whether or not I found the batteries, fate sent me a Decathlon store on the walk back and 18,842 steps later, the universe is back in balance.

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Helen Tilly
Helen Tilly
Apr 18, 2023

’Bravo’ for getting back on track after the lure of the Violette pop-up … not sure if you would have managed that if I had been with you!

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