Nice this year is a little different. Sitting on the beach next to the British financed and constructed ‘Promenade Des Anglais’ from the 1800’s, (One would presume that was some time after the battle of Waterloo, otherwise I reckon the atmosphere could have been a wee bit ‘frosty’?!) you normally get quite a fair few of the ‘Anglais’ in the area… this year there were none.
(Editor’s footnote: Le Promenade des Anglais was completed in 1824, nine years after the fall of Napoleon Bonaparte and three years after his death. After a poor harvest and economic catastrophe in 1821, Reverend Lewis Way raised the funds in England to build the promenade, providing much-needed income for jobless local people. Thank you.)
Beginning to question my sanity for taking this break to see family, I overheard a group of Brits and felt compelled to say a friendly hello (why do we do that on holiday ?!). After mentioning my role as Design Editor for ‘The Light Review’ they told me I had to check out Max, a French character based in the old town of Nice, who made his living restoring and selling amongst other things, pendants and lighting products, which in this environmental and consumer crisis we need more of, so I made my way for an impromptu visit.
Sitting in a nondescript corner of the ‘Old Town’ with Andrea Bocelli’s ‘Partiro’ being sung by a busker somewhere in the vicinity, I am sitting outside Max’s shop / workshop and home as some potential clients arrive.
CF : Don’t worry if at any point you need you need to pause,
Rene : They come in the afternoon because they don’t know what else to do, ‘they are tyre kickers’ if they want something, they will ask !
CF : When did you first start and how ?
Rene : Bon, I started this business 38 years ago. I was a French classic literature teacher and they decided to send me to the north of France, and it was terrible; when you die no one even wants to go to the north of France for your funeral! I decided to take the opportunity to change, buying an antique shop in another part of Nice, as a classic Antiques dealer. 20 years ago, a shop specialising in new and old chandeliers, were selling the business. Everything was for sale, so I bought everything; all the old products and spares, I began to restore the chandeliers as I had all the parts.
CF : Its must have been really difficult to know where to start, I mean with no knowledge of these lights and no internet how did you know what you had ?
Rene : At the start I didn’t know what was a Baccarat, crystal from Bohemia, Crystal Saint-Louis. I had some books but sometimes I made some very big mistakes selling some very prestigious and important lights for next to nothing because I didn’t know what I sold !
CF : Of course I think anyone would do the same ! How could you know?!
Rene : Now I know ! It’s nice because I met a man who sold me a photocopy book of all these products. It makes life a lot easier. Baccarat is the best and most expensive crystal in the world! Each piece of the chandelier are cut by hand , with a stone wheel and water.
CF : Where do people find out about you ? Where do you find these chandeliers?
Rene : I don’t advertise; it’s all word of mouth. I find the chandeliers everywhere, at auction, antique dealers, in houses. People call me from all over to sell me these products. Antique dealers call me if the chandelier needs repair or some pieces are missing, if some parts are missing , they cannot sell it as they don’t have the parts or knowledge. I have a lot of spare parts, crystal , arms of these old products. I told you this old shop where I bought the chandeliers 20 years ago, there was a huge number of spares, some very old.
People don’t know what they want, so they arrive here. Then it’s a question of the scale and the space, the measurements of the room, height. Sometimes they have a room the size of this street and ask me for a little chandelier, I say non, non-NON!
CF : It’s a difficult skill when you don’t have drawings, or images. Do you have lighting designers or architects who come to you?
Rene : Sometimes yes. The chandelier I was repairing on the ground when you came in, was sold to an Irish designer, John Rocha, which he has bought this for his daughters house. They wanted something big !
CF : Are you mainly concerned with aesthetic repairs or is it also the mechanical and electrical ? I imagine you must clean everything.
Rene : I rewire the chandeliers, you make one arm, then they are all the same. Sometimes I find the chandelier without electricity, so I am obliged to wire, some products are from the beginning of the 19th century, where they used fabric wrapped cables. You must be careful. If you don’t change them, you will burn the house down!
CF : There can’t be many of these old chandeliers left nowadays, it’s a hundred and twenty years ?
Rene : I often find them in Paris. I order, then receive; the problem is to find the old pieces. For example, I have a Baccarat chandelier with a missing bowl. I need to find an old one. You can buy new ones, but I need an old one. I go to the ‘Marché Puces’ (flea market) in the suburbs of Paris, where there are lot of boutiques and old shops. I know a woman who has a lot a lot of parts. She is terrible because she knows what she has. For a bowl she asks 500 euros, I say please that’s too expensive. She is terrible; she is not very gentle. My friend told me to go to her, she is a chain smoker and will throw you out of her shop if you say something that irritates her or if you dare to disagree!
CF : How old is she?
Rene : 80 years old but she hasn’t lost her brain.
CF ; That is the beauty of your work, it’s not sterile.
Rene : I entered her shop and there were a collection of bowls, I picked them up to look, ‘ Don’t Touch ‘ she screamed! But I want to buy it ? It’s not a reason don’t touch!.
Rene : I don’t advertise either in the paper or on the internet it’s all word of mouth. Every Monday there is an antiques market in front of the workshop / shop, I have small stall and people see streetlamps, chandeliers and when they ask me if I have anything bigger, I bring them here. And you ask why did I choose Nice? It’s because I was born here. Nothing here has changed. It’s always been the same.
CF : I noticed you have some beautiful ornate street lighting, if I was the local authority, I would want to get in contact with you.
Rene : These came from the local council in the first place ! The mayor of Nice decided to change all the streetlamps. He was the son of an earlier long-serving mayor of the town, Jean Médecin, but he was corrupt and fled to Uruguay rather than be arrested. He only came back to France to die! When I found out that the streetlights were going to be changed for these horrible plastic balls (shown in photo right) I couldn’t believe it, so I bought them all! I have some in my workshop, in basements of my friends, some at an old barn in the countryside. I restore them and clean them, there is no comparison to what we have now, they speak of our town more than a plastic ball can ever do. I am always being asked for them, which is lucky as I have a whole city worth of lights to sell!
Rene lives above his 15th century showroom / workshop in something akin to an Aladdin’s cave of art and design. I think it was the first time in a while that I hadn’t seen anything in a space that wasn’t bought in Ikea.
Product life spans are shortening, spare parts are something from a bygone era – remember when your phone battery ran out you could just buy another! Something surely has to change!
I guess the message here is that, in this climate crisis, with our senses being constantly barraged with advertisements telling us to consume ever more products, we could sometimes look to the past to fulfil our design desires.
With the ‘right to repair bill’ just coming into law we should celebrate the fact that with the right design and re cycling approach, we could have something that will be good for at least another 100 years, as some of these beautiful pendants are.
Versace Sofa (below)