To be clear, Chanel never slept here. The suite of rooms on the third floor of 31 Rue Cambon, Paris, was used to entertain the designer’s friends, people like Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Diaghilev, Jean Cocteau. Come bedtime she sped directly across the street and lay her head down in her regular quarters at The Ritz. But this space above the Chanel boutique and offices—with its 17th-century Coromandel screens, its glass-topped gold wheat-stalk coffee table, its many clusters of rock crystal—is known as her Private Apartment. And the lucky few granted private tours (mostly journalists and longtime clients) find it exactly as she left it upon her death in 1971. There is still the scent of Chanel No 5 in the air; her staff reportedly sprayed it minutes before she arrived from The Ritz each morning. A crystal fob remains firmly in the mouth of a frog figurine, just where Hubert de Givenchy is said to have left it when it dropped, mid-soirée, from Chanel’s elaborate Maison Jansen chandelier. And during Paris fashion week 2008, a Russian model adjusts her lace stockings and peplum coat at the top of the mirrored staircase before descending for a final fitting with Karl Lagerfeld. Coco Chanel used to stand at precisely that spot during her own shows: Because of the strategically prismed mirrors, she could see everything and everyone. But they could not see her.
Chanel bought this three-story building in 1921, flush from the success of No 5 that same year, then from her little black dress collection in 1926. She had begun buying furniture for it years earlier, reportedly with the guidance of her friend, the Spanish muralist José María Sert. It was Sert who introduced her to the intricate Coromandel screens. Instead of using them as room dividers, Chanel covered the walls with the screens. They are the first thing visitors see when they come in. And though Sert may have had some influence, the entrance marks this space unmistakably as Chanel’s.
The black lacquered Chinese screens are carved with her signature camellias; the gilded 18th-century mirror echoes the shape of a perfume bottle; the cream satin chair Chanel reclined on in her portrait by Horst sits front and center. It is the only piece of furniture that did not belong to Chanel herself. The company bought it from the Horst estate at a Christie’s sale in 1990. The room also offers the first glimpse into Chanel’s superstitious spirit: A bouquet of wheat, a sign of prosperity and abundance, rests on a mantle.
Throughout the apartment’s other three rooms—there is no bedroom—symbolism is a motif. Stalks sit in a vase by the fireplace in the living room, where a circular glass coffee table stands on gilded wheat and more than a few of the leather-bound books on the shelves have, yes, wheat stalks engraved beneath the titles on their spines. There are the lions (Chanel, born August 19, 1883, was a Leo), one in marble on a table at the entrance and others made of gold, wood, and bronze scattered around. And of course there are the life-size bronze stags, an homage to the virgin goddess Diana from the defiantly single Chanel who, when asked why she would not marry her lover, the Duke of Westminster, famously said, “There have been several duchesses of Westminster but only one Chanel.”
Though the apartment is, and by company policy will remain, off-limits to the public, pieces inspired by it have always made their way into the collection. The silk camellia brooches were inspired by the Coromandel screens, as was a series of chinoiserie embroidered evening coats, and the trademark pleats of the Chanel bag are said to be done in the style of the quilted couch. This season there’s even a nail lacquer named Antilope, in honor of the deer. But the surest sign that 31 Rue Cambon holds a powerful place in the Chanel empire was the decision to have designer Peter Marino redo all the company’s fine-jewelry boutiques in its image. The shop walls are lined with custom gold wool bouclé. French artist François-Xavier Lalanne created bronze stag sculptures. Enormous chunks of white quartz are in the windows and around the fireplace. Rock-crystal and bronze chandeliers hang from the ceilings; tan suede couches sit beneath them. The redecoration began in the Hong Kong store and has unfolded through Beverly Hills, Paris, and now New York. And just as Coco Chanel would have seen as she came into the apartment each morning from The Ritz, the first thing shoppers see when they step in off Madison Avenue, even before the diamond camellia choker or the white ceramic J12 watch, is the shiny black lacquer of a Coromandel screen.
The Chanel boutique in New York is at 733 Madison Avenue (212-535-5828).
An interior, Coco Chanel once said, is a natural projection of the soul. Not surprisingly, her apartment at 31 Rue Cambon reveals a deeply rich spirit. The company recently decided to design all its fine-jewelry boutiques with elements that reflect it.
Paris-based Maison Jansen was decorator to the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, the Shah of Iran, and the Kennedy White House. It also produced custom furniture such as this thirties brass, crystal, and glass chandelier. The one in Chanel’s apartment, also by Jansen, featured double C drops and some shaped in her lucky number, five. From Thomas Gallery, $43,400; 212-688-6100; firstname.lastname@example.org.
Exactly when Chanel became enamored with Coromandel screens is in dispute. Some say she began buying them early in the century for a place she shared with lover Boy Capel on the Avenue Gabriel; others point to the Spanish muralist José María Sert’s influence in the twenties. Whenever and whoever started it, the affair was lifelong. The screens, named for the route they took from China to Europe via India’s Coromandel coast, were done in both black and the rarer burgundy. This 18th-century 12-fold screen features a procession honoring a Chinese feudal lord. The borders are done with Taoist emblems and flowers—alas, they are peonies, not camellias. From Florian Papp, $98,000; 212-288-6770; email@example.com.
The sun, moon, and stars figured prominently in Chanel’s life. A pack of tarot cards sits on a desk in the apartment, and her jewelry designs include comets and other astronomical phenomena. Nowhere is her belief in the supernatural more evident than in the multiple lions she, a Leo, kept in the apartment. Two bronze lion statues face each other on the dining room table. From Ralph Lauren Home, $695; 888-475-7674; ralphlaurenhome.com.
Though she claimed to loathe “dust catchers,” the apartment is hardly minimalist. Every surface is covered with a birdcage, a figurine, or clusters of quartz crystals. Birdcage sconce with faceted acrylic flowers from Vol. 1 Antiques, $4,900 a pair; 860-868-1900; firstname.lastname@example.org. Rock-crystal cluster mounted on gold from Eduardo Garza for Formentero, $2,890; email@example.com.
The Coffee Table
The circular glass and gilded wheat-stalk piece—one of many wheat-themed pieces in the space—seems to be the most accessible item in the apartment. Type in “wheat coffee table” on the antiques Web site 1stdibs.com and multiple listings come up. Glass and gilded iron was a particularly popular combination in pre–World War II Paris. From Huntting House Antiques, $2,800; 631-907-9616; firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Paris weather is perfect for growing camellias,” says event designer David Monn. But, he warns, their season is very short—February to March—and the buds don’t have long stems, so you can’t use them in a vase. Which is why when he planned the party for the Costume Institute’s Chanel exhibit, he used Chanel’s second-favorite flower: gardenias. For camellia branches, call US Evergreens at 212-741-5300.
When they are not covered in Coromandel screens, the walls in the apartment are done in a shimmery gold. Cole & Son Patina wallpaper in metallic gold, $270 per roll; 800-453-3563.
The virgin goddess Diana the Huntress is said to have turned Actaeon into a deer after he spied her in the nude. He was subsequently eaten by his own hounds. Still, Diana was always pictured with a stag by her side. It was a myth and image Chanel seemed to take a liking to. The bronze stags in the boutiques were created by François-Xavier Lalanne (Paul Kasmin Gallery, 212-563-4474; email@example.com). The wooden deer shown above is from Belgium and is available at Linda Horn Antiques ($1,550; 212-772-1122).
In 1937 Cecil Beaton photographed Chanel in a gold lace gown with two blackamoor sculptures beside her. The statues have remained in the apartment. Italian blackamoor torchère, ca. 1910, from Thames Valley Antiques, $8,950; 404-262-1541.