One of Creative France’s multiple outputs is the French Design Forum, a group exhibition that was this year hosted in Chandos House, a Grade I Georgian townhouse in Central London. The annual event brings together a selection of French craftspeople and ateliers and presents their work in a curated exhibition. The event is widely attended by London-based architects, interior designers, as well as members of the press, and serves as a platform to introduce French brands to the UK’s commercial interior design market.
The French Design Forum is distinctive in its emphasis upon bespoke design and customisation – the exhibition is intended to act as means of introduction between clients and designers, rather than simply serving as a showcase for finished products. “What is interesting here – and this is not always the case with trade shows – is that the craftsmen can customise their products to the needs of the interior designers,” says Valentine Bastide, a representative for Business France, the business arm of Creative France. “At the French Design Forum there is a possibility to customise everything.”
The craftsmanship on display in the exhibition is diverse, encompassing handwoven carpets and tapestry; bespoke fine linen and embroidery; decorative metalwork; crystal sculptures; and carpentry. For all 11 exhibitors an emphasis on the hand of the designer lies at the core of their practices. “ It is a very human industry,” says Bastide. “If you speak to any of the ateliers featured in the exhibition, they will tell you how everything is made by hand in their atelier. There is something very personal about the approach.” It is a concept echoed by Antonin Mat of Atelier Alain Ellouz, a Paris-based atelier that specialises in alabaster and rock crystal. The atelier participated in French Design Forum in 2015, as well as other Business France events such as Decorex. It has since opened a showroom in Mayfair.
“There are a lot of companies that spread production over several countries,” says Mat. “Although these companies produce a little in their own country, they mainly export from China and India. French companies, however, have a unique tendency to make everything by themselves. For me, producing in China, where cheap materials are often used, is like cheating the client. Especially if a product is quite expensive. We believe that producing within France and using French artisans adds value to the product. You are also able to see the production from beginning to end. Sometimes we have clients who come to the workshop when the products are being made. They can choose their individual stone and then they are able to see how it is made.”
Mat believes that is one of the attractions of collaborating with craftspeople like those on display in the French Design Forum. “A few years ago interior designers and architects were looking for cheap materials and using that for their products,” he says. “But right now clients want really quality products: real stone, real wood. That is perhaps why interior designers come back to French craftspeople.”
“The history of French craftsmanship makes it very unique,” says Bastide by way of explanation. “A lot of French companies have huge archives and have been operating for several hundred years. They have the power to use traditional work as well as contemporary pieces. It is very powerful to have that history and background and adapt yourself. There are a lot of countries where talking about that kind of history is not done, but French people are extremely proud of their history.”
In spite of this, Bastide is unequivocal about the limits by which discussion of nationality ought to be constrained within. “Interior designers don’t have a desire to work with French designers purely because they are French,” says Bastide. “They are instead looking for a certain savoir faire: a knowhow that these French craftsmen possess.” In this lies the guiding principle of the French Design Forum: a desire to celebrate French craftsmanship for its intrinsic design qualities and the advantages it brings, rather than obsessing over accidental features of its country of origin.