In Meet the Hewitts Part 14, the amusing artistry found in the Ringwood Guest Books was highlighted by Matthew Kennedy.
Shopping is never out of season! This snippet looks at a wonderful new shop in the early twentieth century filled with artistic gifts and decor for the home. Created by the Cooper Union Museum for the Arts of Decoration, it was named Au Panier Fleuri.
Margery Masinter, Trustee, Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
Sue Shutte, Historian at Ringwood Manor
Catherine Powell, Research Assistant and Graduate Student, Cooper Hewitt/Parsons Masters Program in the History of Design and Curatorial Studies
In 1905, Sarah and Eleanor Hewitt and Constance Parsons opened a shop called Au Panier Fleuri to sell decorative home accessories inspired by the Cooper Union Museum collections and designed by students from the Cooper Union Women’s Art School. Arguably this shop could be called America’s first museum shop! (See Meet the Hewitts: Part Seven).
The shop was a huge success, and after it was sold in 1922, a $20,000 fund was formed to purchase objects for the museum. Named the Au Panier Fleuri Fund, it was used for almost seventy-five years to acquire hundreds of objects, primarily textiles. (Adjusted for inflation, $20,000 in 1923 would be worth $228,000 in 2015.)
The Hewitt sisters’ good friend, Elsie de Wolfe—known for her elegant taste and knowledge—had been advising friends on art and decoration for years. In 1905, she decided to make a business of creating fashionable interiors for a wealthy clientele and had cards printed announcing her availability. Neither an antiques dealer nor an architect, Elsie “invented” the profession of being an interior decorator. Her premier major commission—the Colony Club in New York City—established her reputation as America’s most notable interior decorator. It was the first large private club for women in the country, and the Hewitt sisters were among the founding members.
Constance Hare was the daughter of Cooper Union President, John Parsons, and, in 1908, married prominent lawyer Montgomery Hare. She was passionately devoted to the Cooper Union Women’s Art School and the museum, and after Sarah’s death in 1930, became Chairman of the museum. When asked the reasons for starting a shop, she said,
The Shop was started because there was a need to bridge the gap between school work and trade or professional work. . . . Since Mrs. Hewitt and her daughters had accumulated the first public collection of Decorative Arts in this country, there was plenty of research material at hand. . . . and there was plenty of need for accessories for the houses of the rich.
The idea was to teach techniques not taught in the school and to put the work on practical objects.
(from a letter to Edward Rehm, Secretary of Cooper Union, April 27, 1937)
This experiment in commercial instruction required capital, and Constance, Sarah, and Eleanor were willing investors. By 1910, the shop was stocked with “painted furniture of all kinds, trays, jardinieres, door and furniture knobs, lamp and candle shades of silk and paper, writing sets, books, screens, decorative wall panels, cotillion favors, etc.”
For the first few years, the worktables were in the museum. By 1913, Au Panier Fleuri had a “small shop on the street level and upstairs workroom.” The location was identified in 1917 by the American Art Annual as 767-A Lexington Avenue, where an average of twenty-four students were employed. 767-A was near 60th Street, around the corner from Bloomingdale’s Dry Goods Store, the Metropolitan Club, Fifth Avenue mansions, the Colony Club (relocated to 63rd Street and Park Avenue in 1915), and near Constance Hare’s townhouse, at 109 East 69th Street. In 1920, the workroom and design shop moved to 120 East 57th Street.
Unfortunately, no photographs of the workrooms or merchandise sold have been found. Cooper Union Museum Annual Reports and personal letters are the only documentation we have of the early years.
In her letter of 1937, Constance Hare recollected:
As the Christmas gift season approached, we would have 18 or 28 girls . . . Lady Mendel, then Else de Wolfe, gave us orders for papier peints and for screens; then came orders for painted furniture and lamp shades. Other women became decorators and used our products — then came a big department store as a customer.
Students were encouraged to make many copies from one of their own designs . . . One design, hundreds of objects made. It was not called mass production then but the principle was the same.
By 1920 the client list grew to include large orders from architects and gift shops.
And by 1922, the shop was so successful, it closed! The reason the shop closed was that the art school graduates no longer needed commercial training and went on to profitable employment elsewhere. “Our chickens came home to roost,” Eleanor reported to the Museum Council. She then called on Constance, “my charming and able partner,” to detail the development and outcome of Au Panier Fleuri’s “miraculous career.” It had grown into a prosperous business of “considerable magnitude” ably marketed and managed by women. Later, in her 1937 letter, Constance Hare wrote that the “museum has shown in the past, and will in the future show in new directions, that beauty pays.”
The shop, which at that time had annual sales amounting to more than $45,000, was sold to a former student for $17,500 and began another life as the Au Panier Fleuri Corporation.
The Au Panier Fleuri Fund was immediately put to good use by the Cooper Union Museum. A 1923 report recorded the purchase of early nineteenth-century tooled and gilded bindings, a collection of oil sketches of birds and animals, and thirty-two watercolor sketches by Bartolomeo Pinelli.
The Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum maintains records of hundreds of purchases acquired through this fund—primarily textiles. Commenting on the importance of Au Panier Fleuri Fund, Matilda McQuaid, Deputy Director of Curatorial and Head of Textiles, said,
The oldest textiles in our textile collection—a bonnet and pair of mitts from Han Dynasty—were bought with funds from Au Panier Fleuri. These funds also helped to make other very important purchases of embroidery and lace that would not have been possible without it. The ultimate success of the shop ensured that the Textiles department had funds to continue purchasing until 2001—almost eighty years of acquisitions!
Was Au Panier Fleuri, which opened in 1905, the first American museum shop? The shop sold original decorative merchandise inspired by and designed from the collections of the Cooper Union Museum. These were not reproductions.
Reproductions in plaster, metal, and on paper from museum collections in Europe and at the Metropolitan Museum had long been available. Indeed, the reproductions in plaster purchased from the Musée des Arts décoratifs formed a large part of the early Cooper Union Museum collections.
Today, the Metropolitan Museum of Art has a small shop off the entrance hall called “The Paper Project.” A wall description begins:
The Met Store was founded in 1910, in the Museum’s Great Hall, selling reproductions on paper of works in the collection. . . .
A reinterpretation of the museum shop, back where it all began.
Au Panier Fleuri opened five years earlier!
Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. Grateful thanks to Wendy Rogers, Registrar, and Susan Brown, Associate Curator of Textiles.
Cooper Union Library. Annual Meeting Reports of the Cooper Union Museum.