Playing my Map Game before a trip to Paris, I was thrilled to draw L7. Faubourg Saint-Antoine is an area I first explored 37 years ago, during Rick’s first trip to France. Since he worked in the furniture industry, I thought it would be fun and interesting to stroll through the Paris neighborhood historically associated with menuisiers and ébénistes.
For several centuries workers in this area outside the walls of Paris were exempt from taxes. Additionally, the proximity of the Seine meant that craftsmen had access to the wood supply coming into the capital. Already striving during the Middle Ages, Faubourg Saint-Antoine experienced its golden age during the XVII and XVIII centuries: its reputation in arts décoratifs was so well established that woodworkers, cabinet makers, upholsterers, and other artisans flocked from Holland and Germany to set up shop here.
On both sides of rue du Faubourg Saint-Antoine, between Bastille and hôpital Saint-Antoine, craftsmen opened up courtyards and passages: ateliers occupied the first floor while the upper levels were used for housing. More than 200 workshops were registered in the XVII century, all involved in wood and complementary activities such as varnishing, ironwork, textiles, ceramics, porcelain, marble, wallpaper, etc. Courtyards were like mini “villages” that composed a high-density community of people with related interests.
Like most areas in the city, this quartier has gone through substantial transformations since my first visit in the early 80s. Lifestyle changes (hello, Ikea) and the availability of inexpensive furniture from Asia ushered the decline of artisanal activities that had flourished since medieval times.
Thankfully, urban planners had the good idea to protect the courtyards and buildings of the area. Some have been lovingly renovated and still house a few furniture makers and restorers. Designers, architects, galleries, home decor shops round up the offering. So far, the gentrification efforts are progressing at a much slower pace than in the neighboring Marais or the area south of Pigalle. I feel le faubourg du meuble has not lost its soul and, at least for now, manages to retain some of its original population.
Rue du Faubourg Saint-Antoine straddles the 11th and 12th arrondissements (odd numbers on the 11th side, even on the 12th.) There is no significant monument or museum, which means the street is virtually free of tourists. That’s a good thing. If you like to stroll without an agenda, this is the perfect place to explore. You hardly need a map: start from Bastille and walk into every passage, courtyard, and porte cochère that’s open on the even side. When you reach rue de Citeaux, cross the street and repeat on the other side. Make sure to check the section of rue de Charonne up to avenue Ledru-Rollin: lots of gems there, too!
Le menuisier: woodworker
L’ébéniste (m): cabinet maker
L’atelier (m): workshop
Le quartier: neighborhood
Le faubourg du meuble: furniture district
La porte cochère: carriage entrance