To talk about the 11th and 12th “arrondissements” of Paris, between the place de la Bastille, the Gare de Lyon and Nation, is to conjure up the traditional world of master craftsmen. For generations, cabinetmakers (ébénistes) and other players in the craft industry have passed on their skills in secluded workshops on the Faubourg Saint-Antoine, tucked away in courtyards and alleyways. In contrast, those beneath the archways of the Viaduc des Arts can express their art for all to see, allowing us to reap the benefit of their ancestral techniques and their gifted imagination.
Anecdotes from the Faubourg Saint-Antoine
The Faubourg Saint-Antoine area takes its name from a former abbey, Saint-Antoine-des-Champs, founded in the 12th century. It once stood on the site now occupied by the Saint-Antoine Hospital, at the metro station Faidherbe-Chaligny.
In the 15th century, Louis XI released the artisans who worked within the abbey’s domain from under the authority and strict control of the guilds. Cabinetmakers were then able to develop new techniques and the district’s wood industry boomed.
By 1700, the “faubourg” boasted 500 carpenters and 400 ébénistes. Featuring among the great wood craftsmen who made the reputation of the Faubourg Saint-Antoine throughout the world in the 17th and 18th centuries, are the names of Boulle and Riesener. The rush of orders, in particular from the royal court, for furniture appreciated for its quality and its originality, brought a spectacular prosperity to the district.
In 1886, the Boulle school of art was established there, near Place de la Nation. A hundred years later, in the 1980s, attracted by the reasonably-priced housing and the profusion of vacant workshops, a good many artists settled in the district: painters, interior decorators, photographers, architects...
A district that appeals to the senses
These days, the Faubourg Saint-Antoine remains the preserve of trades in the wood and quality furnishings sectors: cabinetmaking, bronze work, marquetry, gilding... To go in search of these artisans, whose age-old gestures are often handed down from father to son, you need to make your way into the hidden passageways and paved courtyards, where their workshops are ensconced.
Go there to soak up the odours of wood and varnish, where time has stood still, in the cour des Trois Frères or the cour de l'Ours, and in the Boule Blanche, Chantier or Bonne Graine passageways. The Faubourg Saint-Antoine houses many other arts and crafts besides these, from book-binding to art restoration, not to mention the studios buzzing with the talent of young up-and-coming artists. These communities regularly open their doors to you during artists’ open days, with the aim of sharing their love of beautiful things. And in the autumn, make sure you don’t miss the “Journées des Métiers d’Art”, a national event.
Paris city council is making every effort to preserve the character of this district by providing support for the artisans’ housing and activities, while also maintaining the coherence and picturesque quality of the area, new constructions included.
A remarkable viaduct devoted to crafts and design
Not far from the Faubourg Saint-Antoine, along Avenue Daumesnil, is a succession of stone and pink brick arcades, topped by the unexpected hanging gardens of the Promenade Plantée. Here you find yourself face to face with the Viaduc des Arts, impressive showcase for some fifty artisans and designers. These archways once supported a railway line, built in 1859 to link the former Bastille station to Vincennes. It was in 1990 that the Paris city council came up with the idea of restoring the disused viaduct to create a space entirely devoted to crafts and design. Four years later, the Viaduc des Arts came into being and the Avenue Daumesnil became a sought-after place to stroll, appreciated by aficionados of beautiful objects.
Beneath each archway, behind wide bay windows, you can catch a glimpse of the timeless precision and the inspired accomplishments of creative minds. This is where wood, glass, fabric, silver, copper and all kinds of other materials are fashioned. Cabinetmakers, sculptors or upholsterers open the doors to their workshops and showrooms for those who wish to find an original piece, the fruit of meticulous and passionate workmanship. So don’t hesitate, go and encourage their skills, and ensure that their craftsmanship continues its journey down the ages.