In Conversation with Muriel Grateau, Parisian pot person and jeweller extraordinaire, and all-round inventive inspiration. First published in ELLE Decoration in April 2013
I distinctly remember when I first discovered Muriel Grateau’s gallery/boutique in Paris, nestled at the end of the Rue de Beaune, St Germain at the heart of the Carre Rive Gauche. It was 2005 and this all white, silent (no music plays here to distract you from the wares) temple was showing possibly the most perfect porcelain I’d ever seen (think flat, matt, in colours from the palest pink to pure black), 100 shades of table linen, napkins to placemats, with names like Absinthe, Glycine, Pistache and Eau Amande, and the most exquisite collection of jewellery created for women who only wear black: think black diamonds and inky sapphires combined with carved onyz. It was unique in the true sense of the word, and clearly the brainchild of someone obsessed by detail. So when I heard the gallery had been refurbished, it was the ideal excuse for a revisit. And I wasn’t disappointed.
Today Muriel’s signature Senso unglazed porcelain has expanded to include Luna, a set of tableware that looks like gleaming pools of deep green olive oil; platinum-mirrored-finished settings and various other dramatically-patterned platters like expressionist art for the dinner table; Laguna, a trio of glossy black stemmed glassware and Fumo, simple, uncoloured, matt glasses to name just my favourites. There’s still the 100 perfect hues of linen, devised as five stories of twenty, but the jewellery has grown to include a glitter-lacquered Brocart collection of brooches in blackened white gold; and translucent rock crystal joins molten onyz to form rings hand-sculpted with Chinese faces to Medusa heads topped off with smoky quartz cabochons. Even the descriptions sound exotic. A “tourmaline ovale noire” set with black diamonds anyone?
When we meet, Muriel is dressed too in her trademark black from head to toe, and sports her own jewellery, a large, ornately-carved onyz bracelet, plus a chunky watch, “it’s an alarm clock really” she demurs. In fact watches, I find out later, are on her to-do-next list, “a little watch though, very feminine” she says. At first glance she might appear a touch severe, all scraped back grey ponytail and darkened glasses, but to engage her in conversation is to discover humour, self-deprecation and great warmth. As such, rather than the scheduled hour allotted for our meet, our conversation continues over lunch in a nearby restaurant where she is obviously well-know and well-liked. And she flatly refuses to let me pay. So what did I discover?
Aged 17, Muriel was stopped on the street by Helene Lazareff, founder of French ELLE, as she wanted to know where her clothes were from. She was making them herself. “This was before the concept of a stylist existed. Before ready-to-wear”, she says. Thus her formal fashion career began working alongside luminaries such as Peggy Roche as part of a trend bureau, and ultimately onto Milan where by the 80s she was designing 1500 styles a season for her own line and others. “I was the first French designer to show in Milan” she says. And the first to have Carla Bruni walk the catwalk. So why did she leave fashion? “I wanted to pay attention to the living art around the person. There’s always a lot of focus on the architecture or interiors but I wanted to design the pieces you can change. I think I was the first to do this in a feminine way.”
Indeed, having returned to France, her first shop opened in the Palais Royal gardens in 1992 and showed a mix of “clothes to cocoon in” like two or three styles of sweater in 20 different colours, white shirts, little black dresses and her matt tableware in black and white only. “It took me a very long time to master what I wanted in the porcelain. Usually it’s white and any colour added on top, this is the French tradition.” But Muriel wanted the material to be coloured from within, at the beginning of the process, and then to be able to recreate exactly the same shades with each subsequent batch. After much trial and error she succeeded with a local manufacturer and all her pieces continue to be made by hand in Paris. Such complexity is of course reflected in the pricing. Dinner plates start at 95 Euros, each. I imagine myself buying one piece every few months, or perhaps composing a tea set of tray (315 Euros), pot (320Euros) and cremier (105 Euros) as the ultimate gift to myself. After all, notes Muriel, “the things that you use everyday should be the things you spend the most on”. The only difficulty would be deciding which colour to choose. The dark black set or the light black with the slight sheen? Or how about that silky finish pale lilac? “Most people choose one colour but leave with another in their head” she confesses. She herself claims not to have a favourite.
And so to the jewellery. While it might seem an odd thing to display along tableware, Muriel cites houses such as Lalique that started as jewellers and moved onto glassware. She herself sees them absolutely to be connected. “The things that you eat with or the jewellery you choose, it’s very personal. These are artefacts that you use and hold. It’s très particulier, almost a fetish” she adds. But she first saw the opportunity for a range when she noticed people wearing charms that she had designed to hang off her bags. “Friends were wearing them as jewels. I’m not an expert on gems but I became obsessed.” Like her plates, her maker is local and all the pieces are to her own design. They’re also not sold anyway other than her shop either, so if you want to buy them, you’d better hop on the train or plane. But then she doesn’t see this as an issue. She knows that her clientele appreciate exclusivity. “They are people who like art, discreet people.” Stylish people? “Yes, where style is very simple, beautiful, functional and subtle.”
And next on the agenda? “Silverware. I haven’t worked it out yet though” she says. “And back to some clothes, throws, cashmere, more linens for the bedroom that sort of thing, and some small leather goods. It’s about welcoming people to your home. You wear a nice dress, to dressing the table.”
Tell me five words to describe yourself… Shy. Stubborn. Lazy. Perfectionist. Passionate.
What’s your favourite type of music? I like all kinds of music but not in the background. I need to pay attention to it. [Muriel plays no music in her shop.]
What was the last film you saw? I don’t often go to the cinema.
What book are you reading right now? I’m embarrassed to say I don’t read at all! I have stacks of magazines though.
If you could change your nationality, what would you be? Italian. I like Italy a lot because they have a great enthusiasm for creation, innovation and to do new things. In France people are more cautious.
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be? It’s very difficult to choose! The list is very long. Perhaps my need to be a perfectionist?
You’re hosting a fantasy dinner party, who do you invite? People that are fun. Not artists, they’re usually terrible at talking about their art. Not too much fashion. But perhaps Karl Lagerfeld. The architects Oscar Niemeyer and Frank Lloyd Wright. Gerard Depardieu and Marlon Brando. The musician Sviatoslav Richter and the art dealer Leo Castelli.
Do you collect anything? No. Only magazines.
If you were an animal, what would you be? Maybe a cat because it always lies on the sofa.
What do you think you’d taste like? I hope a bit spicy.
Are you religious? Not really.
Do you have any regrets? Of course. But it’s no use to keep them in mind.
What star sign are you? Taurus.
Do you believe in luck? Yes. Absolutely.
Do you have a motto? Le mieux est l’ennemi du bien (the best is the enemy of the good). Alternatively, always look forwards!