Above Coco Chanel’s first Paris boutique on 31 Rue Cambon is an apartment that unlocks to the life of this 20th century icon. Chanel spent most of her days in these four rooms—much more often than in her Paris Ritz home where she merely slept, though she never had a “private home” to begin with in the conventional sense.
In this unconventional, bedroom-less apartment, her touch is everywhere, from the gold paint on the walls (which she applied herself), to the suede upholstery on the wide couch—a choice that, like many of her choices, were unusual at the time, but would prove prophetic in the long run.
On January 10, 1971 when Chanel left this world, the four rooms were frozen in time and space. Unchanged, the apartment is now open for visitors to see for themselves Chanel’s avant garde home decor. The ivory white chair which, in 1937, Chanel herself was captured resting in by the German photographer Horst, is positioned in the same place it had been since—it sits like a throne in the palace that is her apartment, whose queen lives on in the minds of fashion devotees everywhere.
She was profoundly convinced by the theory of yin and yang, which is why many of the decorations in her apartment would appear in pairs: a pair of Qing dynasty lacquered screens, for example, are positioned on the two sides of each room. All rooms were equipped with large mirrors, lion motifs, octagonal boxes, and crystal camellia flowers—white ones were her favourite. In the various collections by Chanel, from haute couture to jewelry, and even down to the minor details such as packaging, white camellias became an omnipresent theme. Today, they are as symbolic of House of Chanel as the iconic interlocked double-C logo.
Unlike many who lived in the 20th century, she thoroughly despised the fancy carpets and curtains that were fashionable at the time. Chanel was, instead, captivated by Oriental art. Fascinated in particular by the Qing dynasty’s lacquered screens, she began to collect up to 32 of these folding screens. She split the Chinese screens and fixed them onto the walls as panels to be admired in their entirety, a boldly creative choice. Upon the panels at her apartment’s entrance, golden birds are painted to be paying homage to the phoenix, king of all birds in Chinese mythology. There are also three full-length mirrors and a baroque style Austrian octagonal hanging mirror above a Qing dynasty console, with two deer standing on both its sides. To match the white ceiling above, the beige carpets confer upon the place a modern charm; they are as timeless as all Chanel’s designs.
Chanel’s apartment is filled with crystal balls and lion sculptures, also representative of her astrological sign, Leo. She was a firm believer in destiny, and believed that births, lives and deaths were all foreseeable. The crystal balls and tarot cards in the apartment were simply part of her means to determine fate.
As you go further into Chanel’s apartment, you will find a workshop where most of her time was spent. It was there that she had arranged the lacquered screens at her apartment’s entrance, illustrating the West Lake Misty Rain painting—a painting so skillfully crafted that the lake and its surrounding mountains come to life. The beauty of West Lake itself was once, in a Chinese poem “compared to the Lady of the West, a legendary Chinese beauty: on sunny days, she was “richly adorned” and was “lightly powdered” on the days that rained.
No one knows why Chanel was so fascinated by Chinese objects. On the grand bookshelf of her living room sits a Buddha statue, said to have been gifted from her British lover, Arthur Boy Capel. Behind the Buddha statue hangs an 18th century Chinese painting of female musicians performing. Carved onto the deep red mahogany walls that surround the room is a Chinese-style landscape with red-crowned cranes, forever resting comfortably, away from the mundane world.
Chanel’s creations were, and still are, long-lasting. She once mentioned that she would not create fashion with a shelf life of only two or three weeks, for, in her opinion, women’s fashion should reflect lasting beauty, elegance as well as noble disposition. With a selection of comfortable fabrics, such as jersey, silk, and tweed, she chose to combine simple and practical cuts with fresh design elements. For this very reason, Chanel’s elegance remains in style, even though a century has passed.