What makes something nice? And how has that changed? The definition of luxury—and its evolution across history—is the subject of Luxes, the latest exhibition from the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris. Just opened today, this showcase delves into the many ways perceptions of luxury have changed over time and cultures. With more than 100 objects on display from museums around the world, including the Pearl of Abu Dhabi and Tiffany jewels, the exhibition endeavors into the allure of luxury—and our collective fascination with what is beautiful, exceptional, and rare.
Within the exhibition, highlights of antiquities include an Egyptian makeup spoon—symbolic of divine worship, the Boscoreale Treasure of silver and gold from Mount Vesuvius, and a zoomorphic vase from 3500-3100BC, the oldest artifact shown. The Renaissance era’s luxe of leisure is represented by objects such as a card deck, backgammon board, and rare manuscripts of the times. Then, the opulence of the 16th and 17th centuries is seen in a decorative casket, which was commissioned by Louis XIV and his court for Pierre Mangot. Created by the famed silversmith to Francis I of France, the silver-inlaid box is fully adorned with mother of pearl. The era’s penchant for gilded luxury is also shown in Japanese kintsugi gold leaf ceramics and gold-detailed porcelains from China, featuring a Qilin statuette from the reign of the Qianlong Emperor.
"The Luxes exhibition takes a cultural approach to the idea of luxury, which is not necessarily associated with consumerism. In fact, the history of museum objects parallels the idea of treasures and the museum as a place of exceptional, treasured objects,” museum director and curator Olivier Gabet tells L'OFFICIEL. “The museum's response and connection to the luxury industry is a universal view with artworks from Japan, China, Egypt, Africa, and America, illustrating the global world of today and the place of luxury within it."
The 19th century—known for its creative and technological progress—is on full display in The Salon 1900, the museum’s pavilion with Art Nouveau paneling created by architect and interior specialist George Hoentschel. During this period, British fashion designer Charles Frederick Worth—known as the “father of haute couture”—revolutionized the industry with bespoke styles from his eponymous House of Worth. His designs are shown alongside hallmarks of chic luxe—Chanel’s “little black dress” and Métiers d'Art looks, Jean-Michel Frank’s straw marquetry décors, ready-to-wear ensembles from Hermès, Christian Dior, and Louis Vuitton, as well as iconic jewelry from Van Cleef & Arpels and Cartier.
"In ancient times, luxury was about values, such as religion and the trade of rare materials. For the last century and a half, luxury has had ties to great craftsmanship of both special objects and very simple, transcendent objects,” explains Gabet. “There was a major cultural shift at the end of the 19th century when beauty became equated with simplicity, rather than the opulence of the Victorian era. Social ideals of luxury have changed alongside these modalities, echoing different moments in the timeline and integrating both visions."
Representing the modern moment is a vitrine from Tiffany & Co.'s NYC Fifth Avenue flagship store, which was designed by artists Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. The landscape window display is completed by a diamond bracelet resting just off a wooden dock’s edge. Logoed luggage and accessories also appear to illustrate branded luxury, while the exhibition subtly questions whether brand caché—or a deeper lens—defines what is truly most stylish.
"It is important to assess the reality of luxury to better understand the world of today, such as how time, space, travel, freedom, and love can all be luxurious,” says Gabet. “The exhibition also gives clues that the idea of luxury and the luxury object is something that we want to keep, to transmit and pass down—the idea of heritage makes creativity important for the future. From ecology to diversity, luxury will become increasingly less material and the idea of experience—discovery, individual reflection, and one's own definition of luxury—will become the emphasis in tomorrow's world."
Luxes takes an encompassing view of luxury across the centuries, from the ancient world to the contemporary present. The exhibition surveys many definitions of what is singular and selective by its nature and within a myriad of cultures. In the end, perhaps this grander ideal is best seen and understood through the eyes of time, context, and ultimately, the beholder.
Luxes is on view the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris until May 2, 2021.