What's that old line about the Smithsonian being 'America's attic?' France's attic is being run by The Louvre, with remnants from the Middle Ages onward. The Musée des Arts Décoratifs is not comprehensive -- not a single throne, for instance, survived the French Revolution -- but it surely is fascinating. Housed in the western wing of The Louvre and run as a separate entity, it focuses on objects that are functional as well as beautiful. The collection is eclectic: furniture, jewelry, clothing -- even toys and religious items -- that reflect the history of France and its aesthetic.
Despite a location in the heart of tourists' Paris, it's surprisingly undiscovered. On our most recent visit, there were no Americans and only one pair of Brits. But the people-watching is superb. Exquisitely groomed German college students focused on a Dries Van Noten clothing exhibit. Some visitors resembled staff at art galleries or couture houses, fashionably Bohemian, carefully and artfully put together. Unless there's a special exhibition, there's none of the mob scene found at The Louvre or the d'Orsay.
The many model rooms are splendid, with fine attention to detail. Many of them, like the salon and boudoir of designer Jeanne Lanvin, leave a vistor thinking, I could live there. Some are quite contemporary, including one with a giant marble bathtub looking like a sculpture. Stained glass, vermeil coffee sets, ivory carvings and hair ornaments pop up here and there, as well as some amazing clocks. The jewelry gallery is hypnotizing, visitors glued to a single spot for minutes at a time, closely inspecting the small and exquisite.
There's an entire two-story room of nothing but chairs, including one that has St. Louis ties. It is, of course, an Eames chair, the best-known work of the famous designer Charles Eames. Eames was raised and educated here. His aunt, Adele Chomeau Starbird, taught French at Mary Institute before becoming the dean of women at Washington University and a syndicated newspaper columnist.
The strength of the museum may be its collections of Art Nouveau and Art Deco. A bedroom by Hector Guimard, the man who designed those famous, sinuous entrances to the Metro, is an absolute showpiece. Watch for the stained-glass screen depicting a factory as industrial art in one of the Deco galleries.
The layout of the museum is not quite as uncomplicated as the map would indicate, so be prepared to do a certain amount of exploring. The remodelling of a few years back has left a lovely atrium and, even better, reopened some of the original windows, giving onto wonderful views across the Tuileries gardens, the Musee d'Orsay and the Invalides' golden dome. The museum shop, on the rue de Rivoli side, by the entrance, is excellent -- among the best of its kind in town -- and can be entered without paying the entrance fee.
Saut de Loup, the museum's restaurant, also has access from both within and without the building. The outside entrance is on the Tuileries side where there's an umbrella-covered terrace as well. Nice views, serious food -- none of this premade chicken salad sandwich business -- and excellent people watching, including locals exercising plenty of those pampered Paris pooches.
Les Arts Décoratifs, as it refers to itself, is a treasure, and a real insiders' secret.
IF YOU GO:
• Arts Decoratifs is included in the Museum Pass, which allows you to skip lines - although as quiet as this museum usually is, that's no advantage here. The pass offers no other advantages if you're a one-museum-a-day sort of person, but if you fly through museums, you can save some money with it. en.parismuseumpass.com. Without the pass, regular admission is 11 euros, which includes the audio guide
• In reasonable walking distance are a couple of spots we like to send folks to: Within sight of the Madeleine church is the remarkable Maille boutique. Yes, mustard. Giant brass taps dispense fresh mustard, or small gift packs of mustard variations unknown to supermarket shoppers, flavors like apricot-curry or pesto. Good stuff for foodies ahd photographers, great for gifts at many price levels. 6 place du Madeline; open daily.
• For lunch or dinner, it's the great old bistro, Chez Georges, with classic French favorites. It's near the Bourse, the French stock exchange, thus busy, so reservations are very helpful. Your French not up to it? Have your hotel do it. 1 rue du Mail; 33 1 4260 0711.
• Probably the best meal we had in Paris this last trip was at Lazare. Tucked away in front of the Saint-Lazare rail station, it's a good combination of traditional and modern cuisine in a striking interior. Three meals a day, reservations suggested, which can be done by email. Parvis Gare de Saint-Lazare, rue Interieure, Paris 8; lazare-paris.fr