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Alexia Leleu is heir to one of the great interior-design houses in modern French history. But until she revived the business, she didn’t know the circumstances surrounding its mysterious end in 1973. The great-granddaughter of founder Jules Leleu, she decided to look into what had long been treated as a family secret. After four years of research, she discovered the truth: Maison Leleu’s biggest commission turned out to be its downfall, when its client, the Shah of Iran, didn’t pay his bills.
What began in 1910 as a furniture line defined by Deco-like classicism developed a distinct aesthetic that encompassed lighting and textiles. The late ’50s brought the company’s most important commissions, from the interiors for institutions like the League of Nations in Geneva and the Sorbonne in Paris to the French president’s railroad car and Tunisian president Habib Bourguiba’s villa.
It was at that time that Leleu’s three children took on roles in the business. His daughter, Paule, oversaw the textile department, designing carpets, fabrics, and wallpaper, while his sons, Jean and André, supervised commissions and the management of its ateliers and designs of private residences. “As a child, I knew that my grandfather, Jean, and his siblings were important figures in the design world,” says Alexia, now 33. “But it was only after I began my own research that I realized the impact they had.”
When Jules died in 1961, his children continued to uphold his legacy while ushering it to a new era that would soon end as quickly as it had started. In 1971, the year that marked the 2,500th anniversary of the founding of the Persian Empire, the last Shah of Iran hosted a party. “It wasn’t just any party, but the most expensive affair of the century,” says Alexia. On a site adjacent to the ruins of Persepolis, he built an extravagant tented city from scratch, indulging in such luxuries as catering from Maxim’s, uniforms by Lanvin, Limoges dinnerware, and 50 tented rooms by Maison Jansen and Maison Leleu. Following the three-day, 600-person event, Maison Leleu was never paid, and the company couldn’t recover.
It wasn’t long after Alexia started her research that she discovered Françoise Siriex, a decorator who had worked for the house for 23 years. “She’s the living memory of Maison Leleu,” says Alexia. “Not only was she able to provide more details into the history, but as the firm’s unofficial archivist, she had books containing carpet designs and colorations, all with original samples and wool pom-poms.”
With that, Alexia’s path became clear, and, in the fall of 2017, she decided to revive the esteemed design house. Unveiled in January, the first collection, “Itinérance,” is a series of carpets based on 12 drawings from the archive. A second line will come out this fall. Hand-knotted in India, the collection will include original designs by Paule Leleu along with interpretations that incorporate new colors, shapes, and patterns. The Paris-based heir plans to reintroduce furniture, lighting, and wallpaper, but the decision to revive the house with a collection of perfectly distilled graphic rugs seems a fitting continuation of the work that her great-aunt had only begun.