An apartment above Coco Chanel’s first Paris boutique at 31 Rue Cambon is a key to interpreting one of the most significant icons of the 20th century. In these four rooms, the real Chanel lived, unlike the Paris Ritz where she merely slept. Mademoiselle Chanel never had a private home in the common sense. Uncommon through and through, in this apartment without a bedroom, her touch is everywhere—from the golden paint on the walls, applied by her personally, to the suede upholstery on the wide couch, a choice, like many of hers, that, though unusual for the times, would prove prophetic.
On January 10, 1971, when Chanel left this world, everything in the four rooms upstairs was frozen in time and space. Still arranged just as it was, it is now open to visitors to see for themselves how, in the early 20th century, Chanel was already using 21st century fashion elements. She thoroughly despised the fancy carpets and curtains of her era. The ivory-white chair, in which Chanel was captured by the German photographer Horst in 1937, still presides over a decorative court whose queen lives in the minds of fashion devotees everywhere.
Chanel was captivated by Oriental art. Fascinated in particular by Qing dynasty lacquered screens, she owned a collection of 32 folding screens. Boldly creative, she split the Chinese screens and fixed them on the walls as panels in order to admire them in their entirety. The panels at her apartment’s entrance are painted with golden birds paying homage to the phoenix, the king of birds in Chinese mythology. There are also three full-length mirrors and a baroque style Austrian octagonal hanging mirror above a Qing dynasty console. Two deer stand on both sides of the mirror. Matching the white ceiling, beige carpets confer on the place a modern charm; they are as timeless as all Chanel’s designs.
Nobody knows why Chanel was so fascinated by Chinese objects. On the grand bookshelf of her living room is seated a Buddha statue. It is said that this statue was a gift from her British lover Arthur Boy Capel. Behind the Buddha statue hangs an 18th century Chinese painting of female musicians performing. On dark red mahogany is a carved painting of red-crowned cranes in a Chinese landscape. Away from the mundane world, the cranes rest comfortably in their recluse habitat.
The apartment is filled with crystal balls and seated lion sculptures, a symbol of her astrological sign, Leo. Chanel was a firm believer in destiny and believed that births, lives and deaths are foreseeable. The crystal balls and tarot cards in her apartment were Chanel’s means to interpret fate. She was profoundly convinced by the theory of yin and yang, which is the reason why many of the decorations in the apartment appear in pairs. There is a pair of Qing dynasty lacquered screens on both sides of each room. All rooms are equipped with large mirrors, lion motifs, octagonal boxes, and crystal camellias. White camellias were her favourite. In Chanel collections, from haute couture to jewelry and even to the packaging, white camellias are omnipresent. Now they have become a symbol of the House of Chanel, just like the double-C logo.
Going even further into Chanel’s apartment, you will find her workshop, where she spent most of her time. There she arranged lacquered screens featuring the West Lake Misty Rain painting. The craftsmanship is so well done that the lake and surrounding mountains almost come to life. The painting portrays West Lake, which is mentioned in a Chinese poem… “West Lake may be compared to Lady of the West (a legendary Chinese beauty), whether she be richly adorned or plainly dressed.” The pavilions, buildings and platforms are well-arranged, and the stone bridges twist and turn to create a variety of scenes.
Chanel’s preferences for objects were usually long-lasting. She once said that she would not create fashion with a shelf life of only two to three weeks. In her view, women’s fashion should reflect their lasting beauty, elegance and noble disposition. She always insisted on choosing comfortable fabrics, using simple and practical cuts while employing fresh design elements. For this reason, Chanel’s elegance and nobleness remain fashionable after a century.