Contemporary design finally gets a seat at the Council of Ministers’ table

“Ready, set, go!” Hervé Lemoine’s voice resounded under the glass roof of the imposing Perret storeroom, at the headquarters of the Mobilier National in Paris’ 13th Arrondissement. On display here are four centuries of the styles of powerful men (rarely women) in the decorative arts, from Louis XIV to the present day: Murat’s bed, desks that belonged to Valéry Giscard d’Estaing and Vincent Auriol, Jack Lang’s armchair. So many symbolic objects are housed by this institution, the French Republic’s heir to the Garde-Meuble de la Couronne created in 1663 by Louis XIV and his chief minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert, dedicated to designing and maintaining tens of thousands of pieces of furniture and objects for public buildings.

On September 8, the president of the Mobilier National oversaw the assembly of the “heritage of tomorrow.” Workers were busy setting up the legs and then fitting together the modules of the 13.40-meter long table called Medulla, Latin for “marrow.” It will be the silent witness to one of France’s most famous conclaves: the Council of Ministers, the weekly site of fancies, secrets and often boredom. The table was being prepared to be presented to President Emmanuel Macron on Wednesday, September 14, at the Elysée Palace, ahead of Heritage Days, September 17 and 18, when it was on display to the public.

Assembled and dismantled in 30 minutes

According to the guidelines for its design, the piece can be erected or dismantled in less than 30 minutes. The flurry of meetings and receptions at the palace requires a maximum availability of rooms. Hervé Lemoine felt the pressure. Medulla was crafted per his directives. After five minutes, the requirement was met: the table stood upright, ready for use. “I’ll have to buy champagne for the whole team,” said the senior civil servant, elated by the outcome of the project launched in 2019, one year after his arrival at the head of the institution.

At the time, the president of the Mobilier National expressed dismay to Mr. Macron about the crude appearance of the “skirted table” of the Council of Ministers: simple boards covered with a tablecloth mounted on trestles. Since Charles de Gaulle, no one had thought of creating a specific table for the meetings. “It’s a bit of an eyesore,” said Mr. Lemoine.

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“I agree. The Mobilier National has never offered me anything better,” Mr. Macron retorted.

A competition was launched among young students of applied arts to imagine history’s first Council of Ministers table. The Mobilier National is a place of creation, not just a conservation studio. In 1964, Minister of Culture André Malraux established a research and creation studio within it to try to outdo Italy’s all-powerful design industry. Generations of designers have participated in the furnishing of public buildings, starting with designer Pierre Paulin, enlisted by the Elysée Palace at the time of Georges Pompidou, then François Mitterrand.

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