Belle Epoque Goes High-Tech
Hervé Descottes and Sylvain Dubuisson reinvent the chandelier at the Musée des Art Décoratifs in Paris
Judy Fayard -- Interior Design, 11/1/2007 12:00:00 AM
They hover in linear formation, like a small squadron of flying saucers. In the morning, they glow with a pale lavender light. They're bright white by midday, and they warm to ivory as the evening approaches. At party time, they can take on brilliant confetti colors, each one doing its own thing.
Hervé Descottes of L'Observa toire International refers to the seven extraordinary fixtures he and Dubuisson Architectes designed for the great hall of the Musée des Art Décoratifs as "chandeliers," but they're light-years away from the multiarmed danglers of yore. Descottes calls these creations "floating clouds."
The Parisian museum, a unique half-public, half-private enterprise that has occupied the northwest wing of the Louvre since 1905, emerged last year from a 10-year renovation. Its most successful element is unquestionably the belle epoque great hall. Freed from a clumsy mezzanine added in the 1980's to increase exhibition space, the double-height volume now boasts a ceiling pierced by seven oval oculi.
"New lighting was part of the original concept," says Descottes, who was a member of the team that masterminded the renovation. The initial plan called for conventional chandeliers to hang through each oculus. Once the mezzanine was removed, however, museum director Béatrice Salmon decided that more innovative lighting would better suit the institution's high-design mission. She also thought that the ordinary glass roof, clearly visible through the oculi, was unworthy of the otherwise gorgeous gallery.
Descottes was commissioned to illuminate the 4,800-square-foot room while partially screening the skylight. (Due to fire-safety concerns, the oculi could not be completely covered.) He and Sylvain Dubuisson, a longtime collaborator, then sketched out their concept of floating clouds, a high-tech solution that took 18 months to formulate.
"The most important question was scale," Dubuisson says. "The hall is monumental. To fill it, we had to find something large that would still be lightweight." In the quest for lightness, the idea of inflatables emerged. The elliptical rims of the chandeliers are PVC inflated by air pumps, just like inner tubes.
The chandeliers' convex centers, nearly transparent when seen from below, appear to have an overlapping petal pattern reminiscent of the rose windows in France's great Gothic cathedrals. Of the petals Descottes says, "The trick was to find enough transparency, so they both let the light through and reflect it." He and Dubuisson achieved the perfect equilibrium of transparent and matte with the help of clear PVC strips—and a frosting process developed through lengthy trial and error. The PVC was hand-sanded with a perforated metal stencil; the frosted material was then cut into strips ready to be sewn into place.
LEDs are strung around the interior of the inflated rims. The number of LEDs was increased, according to Descottes, "to avoid the effect of a string of pearls." The precise direction, intensity, and color of the lights also required experimentation. "It's crucial that you cannot see the light source," Dubuisson says. "Otherwise, you lose the magic." The color of each cloud can be individually programmed from a range of 10,000 individual colors and color combinations.
Once finished, the chandeliers were "terribly problematic to install," Descottes admits. A deadpan Dubuisson notes, "It required the combined skills of sailors and mountain climbers." He might have added circus acrobats, since the hall's height made it necessary to work with a safety net. Each 220-pound fixture is suspended from four cables attached to the balustrade of the oculus above, while a pair of air pumps, behind each balustrade, keep the tubular rim inflated.
Cool and decidedly elegant yet time-consuming and cost-intensive, the chandeliers were, in Descottes's words, a "fantasy" that could not have been realized without the skills and dedication of outside consultants and contractors. He warns that such small companies, willing to experiment until they get it right, are rapidly disappearing. If the day ever comes when lots of people have an inflatable LED chandelier at home, he'd rather, as a Frenchman, that it not carry the label "Made in China."