Returning to the road in New Mexico in pursuit of making art.
Marie-France Cohen, the creative force behind Bonpoint and Merci, reveals the best that Paris has to offer.
INSIDE THE GRAND Parisian hotel particulier that Marie-France Cohen calls home, there is no hierarchy among objects. A 50-year-old “Eloise” doll rests against an empty wine bottle, wearing only a finely tailored muslin slip (her pinafore’s at the tailor for restoration). In the sitting room, a tower of artists’ monographs teeter next to a collection of delicate pigeon eggs collected from the garden. Inside a glass cloche sits a pile of ghostly wax fruit, a Victorian mourning sculpture that Cohen found in a London thrift store. She runs her hand along a pair of Renaissance-era wooden columns from a sunken boat that burned in the harbor of Bordeaux. “These are the only things worth anything in this house,” she confides. “The Louvre wanted them, but I said no.” She opens her hand to reveal fingertips black with soot.
It’s all so effortless. And yet, singularly chic. I’m taking notes. Not just for this article, but for the life I want to live: that of a curious collector and visual storyteller committed to the art of “making place.” Never one to show up empty-handed, I give Cohen a milk-glass jar of jasmine and cassis jam, imagining she will spread it responsibly on her croissant at breakfast. “Oh, I love confiture!” she says. Without hesitation, she opens the container and scoops the purple jelly into her mouth with a silver dessert spoon.
For Cohen, beauty cannot be bought or sold — a paradox given that she revolutionized fashion retail in Paris, twice. In 1975, her husband Bernard and she created Bonpoint, the iconic children’s brand renowned for its fine tailoring and sumptuous fabrics. More than kids clothing, it proposed that children should be seen, heard, and dressed as well as their parents. The precocious Eloise was her muse, with the girl’s unbridled fantasy life set among crystal chandeliers and crown molding, frilly bloomers on display. After selling Bonpoint in 2005, Cohen dreamed up Merci, a 360-degree concept store of its kind, with multiple restaurants, that sold everything from the perfect three-dollar kitchen sponge to fine jewelry and vintage clothing. Its ripple effect can be traced throughout contemporary retail. What’s more: What was outwardly a temple to exceptional design was actually a nonprofit that funded the construction of nine schools.
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Cohen’s vision has always embraced the high, low, and everything in between — a perspective she attributes to her upbringing: “I grew up in a culture of opening your eyes and finding beauty.” One of eight children, she was raised in the countryside of Aix-en-Provence, with a chocolatier father and a mother who elevated domestic life to the realm of art, teaching her daughter to “make something incredible out of the most insignificant thing.” This talent would come to define Cohen’s home, her daily life, and ultimately, her career. Now the family matriarch and a grandmother of seven, Cohen is more curious than ever and bursting with fresh ideas. Although she recently closed Démodé, her small interior-design shop, she casually mentions that she is toying with another children’s concept. When I inquire further, she leads me across the courtyard into another fantasy world, where samples of handmade toys, children’s perfume, and cashmere accessories take my breath away. She has already begun tapping her wide network of creative friends and makers, all in the name of yet another project — this woman never stops. Even if I cannot be like Marie-France Cohen, at least for now, I can shop like her with her list of preferred Paris spots for homeware, jewelry, and design.
Located on Rue de Verneuil among a string of interior-design shops, ceramicist Myrtille Ronteix can be seen rolling out slabs of porcelain and hand-painting bisque cups in her signature minimalist style. The majority of her cozy storefront is allocated to workspace, so you can watch the pieces being made as you peruse a small selection of finished works on display. Cohen says, “Everything Myrtille does is handmade, and she makes things to order,” such as the porcelain coin bank she made for Cohen in the shape of an ostrich egg, intended to be smashed with a hammer once full. Pieces range from more practical plates and tiny bedside dishes for jewelry to the ornamental, such as cups with unfinished, ragged lips. Porcelain is much stronger than it looks, so pieces can easily be shipped abroad.
Just across the street from Monochrome, there’s a world of color. Ring the bell at the door of Arrogant Verneuil, and be prepared to fall into a 1970s fever dream. “The French have great taste, but everything must be perfectly ‘just so.’ The owner, Rozemarijn de Witte, is Dutch, and that makes all the difference. She has no limits,” Cohen tells me, admiringly. Cohen and de Witte met in Ibiza, when Cohen was a guest at Los Enamorados, the boutique hotel designed, owned, and operated by de Witte and her husband: former French basketball star and self-proclaimed sneaker addict Pierre Traversier. Arrogant Verneuil is part gallery and part boutique, filled with objects found during the couple’s travels. It is difficult to discern what is vintage and what is a glimpse of the future — there are kaftans and oversized leather purses that de Witte designed herself as well as wildly textured ceramics, shag carpets, and more. Traversier and de Witte have a duplex apartment in the back, so if you are lucky, you might be able to sneak a peek inside.
Walking into Alix D. Reynis’ second shop on Rue Jacob is more than an errand — it’s an invitation into an eighteenth-century Parisian home. A smoky-gray kitchen hutch is filled with monochromatic porcelain pieces whose bas-relief details echo the acanthus leaf motif on the stone fireplace. In the adjacent room, the walls are two-toned powdery mauve with matching upholstered Victorian armchairs flanked by Doric columns. As Cohen says, “Her displays are very artistic,” a hefty compliment coming from her. “I love her hanging lamps and her ceramics. They have a special, ghostly quality — they are not flat white.” Opportunities for customization make this a brilliant resource for gifts, such as hand-painted monogrammed teacups and surprisingly affordable engraved jewelry inspired by ancient Greek and Roman ornaments.
La Trésorerie has two locations facing each other on Rue du Château d’Eau: Le Magasin Général and La Trésorerie Suite. The first is an upscale “general store” for everyday small tools and objects: soft goods, pens, cheese graters, and the Platonic ideal of a wooden spoon. It’s the kind of place that makes you regret every purchase you’ve made prior, with visions of lighting all your belongings on fire so you might start over. High and low converge under the umbrella of brilliant, utilitarian industrial design, 90% of it made in Europe, with the country of origin clearly specified on each. Wood, glass, metal, and natural fibers abound, as everything in the shop is made from renewable resources. The shop’s second location, on the same street, sells more substantial furnishings and lighting, also all sourced from the continent and primarily from France.
Regis Godon-Dilla was once in charge of the first floor of Merci, where the store’s signature thematic, shoppable exhibitions came to life. Following this formative stint under Cohen’s wing, Godon-Dilla opened Ailleurs, a home-design shop near the Place de la Bastille. “The concept is smart-bohemian, not too fancy, and reasonably priced,” Cohen explains. “It’s fashionable, but very good for young people.” Vintage, one-of-a-kind ceramics proudly announce their age and mingle with contemporary designs that include everything from elegant Japanese pajamas to glassware to multisized oil lamps.
Julia Sherman runs Salad for President, an evolving publishing project that draws a meaningful connection between food, art, and everyday obsessions. Sherman, and her writing and photography, have been featured in Vogue, the New York Times, T Mag, Domino, Art in America, Food & Wine, and Bon Appétit, among others. She is the author of two cookbooks, “Salad for President: A Cookbook Inspired by Artists” and “Arty Parties: An Entertaining Cookbook.” Sherman is the founder and creator of Jus Jus Verjus and she lives in Los Angeles.
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