- April 29, 2022
After 5 years of absence from international design shows, I decided to bring the van to France. I was supposed to go in January, to Maison & Objet, Paris (regarded as one of the world’s best interiors and design shows) but it was rescheduled and put back to March.
For every exhibition I take part in, months of planning and work goes on behind the scenes. However, it all boils down to the last few days as to when things have to be done and in my case, new sculptures and editions of lights are carefully packaged for the long journey and that inevitable, last-minute crisis. This time, it was reprints of cards that required my driving through Dublin City centre on my way to Rosslare, where I was, last of the vans packed into lane 16, behind some heavily laden Moldovan Sprinters, presumably heading for the homeland with important goods.
The crossing was calm and the Brittany Ferries’ Connemara was austere but comfortable for a good rest after days of running around. My hat and shades look did not pass for the truckers’ discount where checked shirts and the usual deep northern accent seemed to do the trick.
Going through the Police checkpoint and diligently handing in my ‘declaration d’honneur’ for covid and vaccination passport was met with ‘Nah covid is finished, what is this?’ despite the mask-wearing being strongly policed on the ferry.
On the road, through Normandy, the penchant for tree pruning was even more extreme in France, with even stumps being pruned aggressively.
With the clock ticking, my main concern, was the possibility of a breakdown, who to call and what to do should the situation arise, but the villages, ancient houses, and eclectic businesses on route made for a good 5 hours of ease. Hour 6, however, was utterly stressful, as I was met with the Paris rush-hour melee, the fear of missing a junction, and a phone battery that was draining fast.
Arriving for registration and assignment at gate L11 seemed like it would be easy, even jovial, with staff offering coffee, even at 7 pm, just the pick me up to get me through working until midnight. Finding gate L11 was akin to looking under every stone and asking every hi-vis guy ‘Ou est L onze?’ to a usual shrug of the shoulders or an unhelpful gesture (signaling that I was to go around again). Nearly an hour of wasted ramblings led to finding a barrier to an underground section, with a guy who said he was new and didn’t know what was beyond the barrier, made me think of Emmet Kane‘s advice that ‘You will be tortured in the car parks of this show’.
In the end, I found L11, like the Holy Grail, a sigh of relief was passed and operation –unload the van for Maison & Objet- was live.
Once finished, getting to my bed booked in an F1 Hotel just yards from the halls proved to be the Holy Grail no.2, with Google maps bringing me on a grand tour (on foot) of the entire complex only to arrive back where I started. I entered the hall again and recharged my phone only to try and get back to my van which was locked behind the L11 gate. Lost, with no one about, led to security radio banter and a final ‘Why is this guy still wandering around 1 hour after he left?’. I finally had charged my phone and hit the Paris Nord spaghetti junctions to do a 7km journey to a hotel that was just across the fence from the exhibition centre. I dragged myself into the F1 hotel at 1.30 am to plead for a quick ‘check in’ to my room only to get the full registration treatment routine from the concierge, who typed so slow I could not compose myself. In the end, sleep was assured but not delivered with the adrenaline of the day still pumping. The struggle with door entries, pins, and security barriers, just seems it’s, what keeps so many employed in this country.
The 3rd day on the road was calmer, having vented to some French guests, who discussed at speed the intricacies of our location. The difficulties of getting a wire into the ceiling of my stand required hordes of officials, a helpful but rolling up and down the pecking order of one boss, to the other boss, and then the guy on the ground who decides to do something different from what you asked for in the first place. The fact that they had a canvas ceiling for me to hang lights was not explained to me on the midnight shift so now I was in the bad books with the organizer who said that he would fine me for drilling holes, when we had been assured that we were fine to do so before we left. Now that things were being discussed ad infinitum I decided to drill a final hole and be fully disowned. They kept coming over with different crews looking at the work and marvelling at the holes with no rips, no damage to canvas, and all tidy. Finally, the mood softened.
Dinner later was with a French biker, a robotic engineer from Alsace who described his job whilst being interrupted by a boisterous English sales agent who also lives in France and who wanted to talk about rugby (he was told to pipe down by the guests in the hotel restaurant).
All in all, a shock treatment of getting to pace with the push and pull of French metro life.
Day 2 of the build involved another long day and lots of interaction with my neighbours. First was Hubert, the wood and Damascus steel man who with his wife had a mini-disaster when his disc pieces broke and I helped him fix them. Daniel Cavey (USA) and his fiancé Sylvia, (who live in Italy) make voluptuous ceramics, in blue, yellow, and green. Stefanie in her stand, next to me is German, based in the Ardeche, and does amazing feather work. On the other side of my wall were Maurizio and his team from Calabria at OVO who provided lots of warmth and fun including copious offers of Mescal spirit from Mexico via his friend Ivan who had flown in from Manhattan to provide moral support. Maurizio would wear different jackets, red one day and a velvet jacket of silver embroidered rats, complete with tails and communist symbols on the labels. I joked about the Brigade Rosso, and his attire. He introduced his son Edouardo, who at 16 was wearing a similar red jacket and was as strong-willed as his father. Communists at a capitalist fair, who’d have thought. I didn’t really know what the code was or how to work it out.
As the show started the constant staring of French visitors freaked me out at first, no contact, no engagement after all this work! As always the mood was lightened by an Irish Interior designer, Laura from Birr who showed me how to do ‘live’ on social media and gave lots of advice and encouragement.
Going around the Craft section which contained 132 stands of the ‘Ateliers d’Art France’, the competition is still fierce and having a stand in the section seemed the equivalent of having gained a ‘Michelin star’. Only about 10 percent of ‘étrangers’ are let into ‘Craft, les Métiers d’Art’. 4 or 5 from Italy, 1 from Portugal, 1 Spanish, 1 Korean, 1 Turkish, 1 Ukrainian, 1 from Martinique, and little ol’ me from the ‘auld sod’.
There are French-based people like Kartini Thomas who I met at the restaurant, who grew up in NZ then USA and now lives in France and does amazing ceramic sea monsters, which all subsequently sold out.
I got a chance to see the other halls when Chloe (who travelled up on the train from Toulouse to help me out) arrived. In April, Chloe will join me in the workshop for an internship. She allowed me to do a few ‘sorties’ and I got to see; amazing blue sculptures, digital-styled grids in cement by Francois Charles Gennolli, some skate fish mobiles by Hyunjin-Seoul, and the sweeping spherical stainless work of Guillaume Roche who I had admired on my previous visit.
In the end, the more forthcoming visitors were from further away. Japan, Kazakhstan, Qatar, North Macedonia, and Turkey all got conversations going but I was still trying to understand the French who were just walking past. Kartini, who I mentioned earlier, advised that you have to do the ‘Bon Jour’ with vigour to extract a response, and if they are on your stand they may be obliged to answer. I didn’t like this approach but at 6.30 pm we pulled out our secret weapon, ‘Hollands Irish Bar’ which my friend Gary Quinn said he would do on my stand and had organized the booze and glasses. Gary knows a lot about whiskey having authored the ‘Collins Book of Irish Whiskey’. He was my secret weapon. However, when Gary texted to say he had covid and couldn’t come, I just had to roll with it and use his tasting notes. In the end with our ‘exponants‘ friends, the show curator, and organizers, everybody had a rare time checking their ‘3 Swallows Powers’ from their Irishman and our finest First Release Dingle. We all videoed a message to thank Gary and sang happy 22nd birthday to Chloe, this had surely broken the ice.
Having originally planned to be in the CCI (Centre Culturel Irlandais) with Gary, now I stuck to my spartan F1 motorway hotel where I met my previously mentioned, English linen agent.
The daily drudgery of finding a solution to parking and getting the van into gate L11 in time was now my priority. Fred at the helpdesk said I needed to park inside the exhibition park on the last day and get a 1-day ticket (€48) and it would work so that I could get to the ferry home in time. Diplomatic runs to the office were had each day but Fred was the guy to talk to and rather unfortunately, he was off.
In the end, I got to meet Patrizia Italiano from Palermo who was a veteran of Maison & Objet and we chatted about how business was done in Italy and France, now I had more Italian friends than ever. Maurizio had decided to come to Ireland in the summer and I suggested he take up currach rowing, trips away from the aisle led to good chats with Joau who did excellent art in Portugal. We compared trips (1500kms for him) and he confirmed the French were difficult to crack but it brought him much work now in his 9th year on the fair.
Getting over to Signature to see the ‘baby seal seat’ and some more of the giant stands in hall 6 again makes the mind boggle as to the scale and money required for these 100- square meter stands which are appointed like palaces for the 5 show days. I guess a Rolls Royce is required as seen in the car park. The Renault 4 at the entrance, rekindled my love of French cars and the fact that a Monsieur and Madame Renault expressed an interest in exhibiting my sculptures at their place outside Paris made my day.
As the afterglow and camaraderie grew with my colleagues after day 2 of ‘Holland’s Bar’, I also got to see the 2 winners of the annual competition, one of the impossible sculptures and drawings of Toru Kurokawa and the almost ice lolly laminated glass of Johnathan Austeresse was a symbol of how guarded and respected the specific crafts of France are and the word ‘Eboniste‘ came up more than 4 times in my stay. Including a visit from an ‘eboniste‘ and top man in Ateliers de France checking out my stuff. I get nervous of people in suits with no name badge but this was one of those visits. I was been checked out and it seems to have been OK.
The morning of takedown (after much planning), I had managed to get my van as far as the 2nd last barrier. After a chat at the barrier the guys said ‘yes’ and I was a go, but no, he dropped the red and white pole nearly on my bonnet and said ‘non Chef ma dit no!’ Here we go again. Later Paul Le Hen a nice guy from the west coast who had been on our mini bar said to come with me I’ll get you in. He walked out, talked to exactly the same guy and they said ‘go get your van’ and we were in. Paul hopped in my van, we came to barrier no.2, the security guy came out with a wad of sheets and checked every name, on every page and finally found me on the list and we were in. Now the stress was off.
It came to the end, Chloe had to get her train down south and I had begun the strip out, it had not really been a successful show but I knew it was just the start. Driving out of the Paris suburbs, onto the motorway, and into the country, I just wanted to get home. Low on fuel, low on food, and driving in the middle of the night with all villages closed, I came through Evreaux only to miss a turn, just to see a chicken place open. They were turning the tables and it was a regular halal takeaway run by Bangladeshis. In the chat I asked for a cheeseburger and chips, he asked ‘sauce?’ yes, barbecue, he said ‘where do you come from?’ I told him, and he said ‘when I get my naturalization and French passport I’m coming to Ireland’. I thought this sounds like a threat but a nice one. A scooter guy arrived and dropped my food on the counter as if out of nowhere, the main guy popped some free chicken into my bag and I was off. So many on my trip had said they wanted to come to Ireland.
I got back on route and pulled into a layby around 1 am to try my prepared narrow bed in the van which was OK. I got up around 7 and drove to Maux the next town for a fresh baguette, water, and a pain au chocolate in a real boulangerie for the first time in France. I got to the Ferryport in Cherbourg to be 3rd in the queue compared to last in Rosslare. Things were looking up, looking forward to a shower and a snooze.
The moral is, I, as usual thought I knew all that there was to know about France, but I have only scratched a tiny bit into a thick and complicated skin.
To see more photos from my trip to Maison et Objet, 2022 and my current work, visit my instagram page: https://www.instagram.com/shanehollanddesignworkshops/
or visit my art and sculpture website: https://www.shanehollandart.com/