French Accents

For wood paneling with pedigree plus fireplaces, molding and more, it's off to Féau we go!

After a day of traipsing around the massive home furnishings trade show Maison & Objet in Paris in January, a visit to this breathtaking atelier was the perfect antidote. Behind the façade of an elegant townhouse in the 17th in Paris is Féau & Cie, the world-renowned boiserie showroom. (Boiserie is French for elaborate wood paneling, often decorated with handpainted and gilded carvings of foliage and musical instruments.) If you fancy the style of Versailles, Napoléon or Château d’Yquem and Latour, you’ve come to the right place.

A walk through with Guillaume Féau, the young owner, offers a lesson in the history of the decorative arts, plus a remarkable insider’s look at artisan skills that thrive today based on centuries’ old techniques. One of the prized rooms is “La Petite Singerie,” dated 1860, belonging to Louis XV at Versailles. Another room belonged to Napoléon and is painted in red and black—very much in vogue back then.

The bohemian-style atelier oozes history and invites exploration, even though it’s cold inside and traces of wood dust are scattered around. Most of the space is awash in light from the huge skylight, and order exists amid the chaos of haphazardly arranged priceless panels and doors that lean on top of one other like layers of history. Descending white stone stairs into the newly created and brilliantly lit “cave” reveals a massive collection of period fireplaces. The term “modern” has no relevance here.

A walk up a rickety staircase to the attic uncovers a cache of period armchairs and a closet overflowing with molding patterns. During our visit, Féau rummaged through his extraordinary inventory in the maze of rooms in preparation for a client visit. “My job is a lot like that of a museum curator who comes to work each day in a living library of history,” says Féau. “For me, the greatest satisfaction is knowing that I’m preserving history and also making pieces of it available for collectors and people who respect the design elements that our craftsmen strive to perfect.”

In addition to a world-famous collection of period paneled rooms, Féau has more than 100 complete rooms from the 17th to 20th centuries created by renowned panel artists Claude-Nicolas Ledoux, Charles Percier et Pierre-Francois-Leonard Fontaine. From the 20th century, there are original panels by Jacques-Emile Ruhlmann, Eugène Printz and Emilio Terry.

“We are always looking for 17th-century rooms and panels, because they have disappeared and in consequence they are rare. They are imposing and really ‘strong’ in terms of ornaments,” notes Féau.

For more than a century, the house has been involved in selling, replicating, restoring and installing wood paneling for private residences and museums. During the glory years of the 18th century when star city-planner Baron Hausmann was urbanizing Paris, rich people showed their wealth on their walls—not with paintings, but with ornate, gilded paneling.

The house was founded in 1875 by Charles Fournier, a panelist par excellence, who ran a modern-day showroom with rugs, furniture and home design elements. Féau inherited the business from his father, who purchased the company in 1963 from Raymond Grellou. Today, his inventory includes not only paneling, but also fireplaces, floorboards, molding and hundreds of original plans.

Business is growing for Féau, who employs 100 restorers and woodworkers. Notable clients include New York designers Peter Marino and Anthony Ingrao, Alberto Pinto of Paris and San Francisco’s Paul Wiseman. The Wrightsman family donated a Louis XVI boiserie purchased from Féau’s company to The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Other Féau patrons whose fortunes built America include Henry Clay Frick, Henry Ford II and John Paul Getty.

A reproduction of a complete room (around 130 sq. feet) starts at $150,000. An original room from the 18th century can run into millions of dollars. But for Féau’s boiserie, whether authentic or handcrafted from original archive designs, this is a small price to pay for a piece of history.

The 17th in Paris is full of charm, including a chi-chi outdoor market on the rue Bayern with purveyors of seafood, truffles, cheeses and wine. The four-star Hotel Waldorf Paris Arc de Triomphe at 36 rue Pierre 
Demours, is smart and has an indoor pool and spa.

Pavillon des Lettres, in the 8th and next to the Ministry of the 
Interior, uses letters instead of numbers to identify its rooms, which 
correspond to Baudelaire, Flaubert and other literary greats.