Maxim’s in Paris is an Aladdin’s Cave of art nouveau

Fashion icon Pierre Cardin spent more than six decades collecting a veritable treasure trove of art nouveau and you can now enjoy a unique, up-close view of them inside one of the most renown of Parisian institutions – Maxim’s restaurant.

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A sofa inspired by Catalonian architect Antoni Gaudi, Tiffany lamps and ornate vases with beautiful women shaped as mermaids and dragonflies are among more than 500 objects, including an original poster and portrait by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, packed together on several floors of the distinctive-looking building decorated with a vivid red awning close to Champs-Élysées and the Louvre Museum in the city’s elegant 8th arrondissement.

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Displayed within the 12-room apartment and restaurant, now classified as a historic monument, are signed works by furniture designer Louis Majorelle, glassmaker Émile Gallé and ceramist Clement Massier. Another highlight is the recreation of a bedroom from the art nouveau era (1890 to 1910) with framed photographs on the walls of famous French actress Sarah Bernhardt.

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Enhancing the enjoyment of seeing such ornate artifacts from that golden epoch is the natural rapartee of Pierre-Andre Helene, tour guide and museum curator.

Pierre Andre Helene, maxim's museum paris

With dry wit and élan, Helene recounts a bucket-load of amusing and insightful anecdotes plucked from the annals of history dating back several centuries, with perhaps a slight dusting of poetic license for dramatic flair. Delicately turning over what must be near priceless objects in his hands with practiced finesse, he explains their individual backgrounds and symbolism.

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Without spoiling the entertainment, it’s enough to say that the intriguing subjects Helene delves into with panache, range from cinema and theater to love and lust to high finance and politics. Threading through many of the colorful stories are details about captivating courtesans who frequented the building and their cunning conquests.

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The building, located at 3 rue Royale, is itself the stuff of intrigue. Constructed in 1775, before the French Revolution, the top floor still reflects the then popular Louis XV Baroque style, also known as ‘Versailles.’

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After Maxim’s was launched as a bistro in 1893, it soon became a ‘hot spot’ for celebrities from all walks of life, ranging from playwright and film-maker Jean Cocteau to Aristotle Onassis, Maria Callas, the Duke of Windsor and his wife Wallis Simpson and nine-times married Hungary-born actress, Zsa Zsa Gabor.

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So overdressed were some female customers, Cocteau is quoted as describing them in 1913 as: “an accumulation of velvet, lace, ribbons, diamonds and what all else I couldn’t describe. To undress one of these women is like an outing that calls for three weeks’ advance notice, it’s like moving house.”

Louis Majorelle, Émile Gallé

In the 1970s, Brigitte Bardot caused a scandal when she entered the restaurant barefoot, at a time when celebrities such as Elizabeth Taylor, John Travolta and Barbara Streisand were also dining there.

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So great is the restaurant’s legendary de rigueur status, it was featured in the opera, ‘The Merry Widow;’ in the 1958 musical film ‘Gigi’ and in the Woody Allen movie ‘Midnight in Paris.’

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In 1981, Pierre Cardin, now aged 95, bought the building from its owners, the Vaudable family, and Maxim’s continues today not only as a fine-dining restaurant but also as a venue for theater and musical productions.

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