Be the Woman You were Born to Be with Guru Kaur

The Art of Living, French Style

Friday, 14 November 2008

As a child growing up in Paris in the 70s my favourite magazine was 100 Idees.  It was filled with the most wonderful creative projects, which conjured up jam-filled kitchens, wearing hand-smocked aprons, appliqued bedspreads and hand painted furniture.  I had an entire set of those magazines, which I loved, but sadly they were washed away when the flat upstairs flooded ours.

Delightfully, Marie Claire revitalised the magazine and I continue to love it.  Earlier this year I crocheted a little bag which looks like a cabbage from it, but mainly the magazine just inspires me to be creative.  Far from typical escapism, Marie Claire Idees has a practical inspiration, and everything about it is ever so chic.  Even if you can't speak French, subscribe anyway. They also have the most wonderful series of inspiringly chic and creative books.

This week I went over to Paris on the Eurostar for the annual Salon Marie Claire Idees.  It was the most revitalising and inspiring day, filled with ideas, chic, and delight.  In the afternoon I took part in a couple of their afternoon workshops too (though the word atelier conjures up something far more artistic and charismatic than our humble English translation).

Set in the majestic Grand Halle of the Parc de la Villette,which is just so Parisian in its design, bringing together the beautiful graceful curves of the metal-work and the modern architecture in a way that the Parisians seem adept at making work, like wearing an antique brooch on a PVC cap.  My favourite book on Paris is by Sempe who combines that old respect for its architecture while simultaneously loving the modern way they love living in its grandeur.

There was quite a buzz outside when I arrived and I was able to breeze straight in (past the queue of at least an hour) because I'd pre-booked.  And oh so French we were given a really jolly bag each too.  This was going to be all that I was looking forward to, and more....

The Salon, because really to call it anything less would be to insult it, was full of ideas and full of people.  Well, women actually.  This was the creative backbone of that thing that the French hold so dear to their hearts: the spirit of France.  And far from being fuddy-duddy and all antiquated in an ancestral, dust-filled attic way, this was full of vitality, joie de vivre and a desire to share that je ne sais quoi to make each of our homes all the better.  This was not a show about aspiring you to buy into the latest look.  Here the Salon Marie Claire Idees was about being inspired to create - with your own hands, what an evolutionary concept.  Against this backdrop of customise, individualise, personalise, make it yours, the main character of the Salon sang its tune: this is how, we'll help you make it happen.

This Salon authentically brings to life its Marie Claire Idees magazine, which I so eagerly await each quarter.  I love the magazine, not least because it has little advertising, which gives it an autonomy to create freely, beholden only to its extremely loyal readership.  It doesn't debase sex to sell.  It promotes a vitality in living, which is so extremely sexy and appealing in and of itself. Far from being a dreamy if only, one day when... news-stand filler, it is about reality and how to embrace it, make the most of it.  It is about feminine values, homely possibility and getting your environment to reflect you in all your own glory.

I was on the Marie Claire Idees stand when one of the editors was there.  How I wish that her English counterparts could have seen her.  She was wearing a little black dress, only this was actually fairly loose fitting in very fine wool jersey, with a narrow belt, well above the knee, which revealed her finely curved, and well loved body in a way that positively oozed with sensuous elan, above knee-length boots and black opaque tights.  Nonchalantly, she had just draped around her neck a few strands of an irregular large beaded necklace.  Her arms moved with a lightness and ease.  Her face?  Oh totally radiant, with barely a hint of any make-up, full of creative satisfaction and sharing.  Yes, her hair was immaculately coiffed in a care-free sort of way.  Age?  Impossible to say: from her demeanour she was most definitely mature, with wrinkles here and there, but what sang forth was a timeless essence which evaded pinpointing to a decade in excess of 40? 50 maybe? She was the epitome of the feminine spirit.

Marie Claire Idees recreated as room sets some of the features from its most recent magazines.  I'm just longing to make the candle-arbre with tea-cups, the pictures which frame real toys as if they were important ancestors, and the white Christmas tree simply decorated with ribbons.  It's not about how much money you spend, it's not even about how much time you spend, it's about how much you create the atmosphere around you, it's that simple.

The original 100 Idees I seem to remember had some very complicated things in them.  I particularly remember a patchwork bedspread based on lots of famous French cheese labels.  It must have taken hours to make and I wonder if any of the readers ever did so.  Maybe they all just dreamed about it like me.  Now though lots of the ideas are totally achievable with a visit or two to B&Q and a rummage through what you already own. Salon Marie Claire Idees wants to get you going, encourage you to start, feel confident that you could: there was an ecole and some ateliers.

I loved the focus of glueing on little pearly beads to pre-cut felt mistletoe to make this festive garland

I went to two ateliers and came away feel so refreshed and cared for. Because care, they do: there's a lot of catching up to do.  Those 1968 riots have a lot to answer for: a whole generation of women forgot to include learning these domestic skills in their new ambitious schedule of taking on a man's world.  And the next generation feel almost cheated that their mothers and aunts can't teach them cross-stitch and crochet because they know how vital it is for them to learn.  Intuitively they know that this is part of what makes them a woman.  The young woman sat next to me is the mother of a boy of 4 and twin girls of 2.  She was here so she could make pretty dolls and children's clothes because they love things made by hand, by mother.  I heard such a longing in her voice.

I loved how this Salon was about style, celebrating the hand-made artistically in context with living. The design and execution was full of effortless effort, natural and spontaneous, even though some of the projects probably took a long time to complete, they maintained their elegance without descending to the chasm of dowdy D-I-Y.  Yes, of course, you're making, because that's its charm, that's what makes it priceless, not because you can't afford someone proper to do it for you.


The Village des Couleurs area was full of paint, stencils and vibrant fun.  On hand were lots of people not to demonstrate, that would have been too prosaic, but to guide you to try, improve and promise to practise for real at home.  Lots of the stands sold the basic things you need for your projects, either by the metre, or even in kit form.  Everything was here, and of very high quality, from picture frames, paint, fabric for patchwork, cross-stitch, cards, lace, buttons, yarn, paper, stencils; you name it, you could find it.

One of my favourite stands, indeed my main reason to go, was that which was selling works made by readers to raise money for the Bee Charity of France (well worth supporting - French honey is delicious).  To see how beautifully these items had been made on the theme of "In My Garden Is..." was worth the trip alone.  My favourite was the hat, made by a woman in Japan - that's how far afield this magazine reaches - jauntily modelled by one of the magazine's staff.  This was truly selfless service of the most inspiring creative kind.

I was glad that I'd taken my own picnic because the end of the queues for the organic cafe and the crepes snaked away into the crowd so far that lunch would have been a long wait.  However, you don't think that I would leave without a little something do you?  Memories of childhood crepes on winter pavements came flooding back, and still I can't choose the filling.  Was it to be Nutella or chestnut?  Decisions, decisions (and no, I didn't have one of each, that would have been a major breach of self-discipline, which in France simply wouldn't do; so why do you think that these women are all so thin and well fed? - they know only to eat enough, but not more).

Just before I left, when there was almost no queue I did go to the cafe.  Any large scale event caterer needs to go to see just how well done catering can be.  I was too full (!) to have a Quinoa and Mozzarella Salad, or  I could have had Sushi, actually there was so much choice - even for a vegetarian - that I really would have had to struggle to decide (luckily the crepe decision had sorted that out).  I did though have an organic, unsweetened apricot compote which was pure nectar.

I left uplifted, inspired to paint our kitchen cupboards in stripes, and wondering exactly how to put a hole in the bottom of a tea-cup.  I'm going to make a wall-hanging to put fresh flowers in (the trick is to have little glass test-tubes to hold each flower individually in water - I got those here) and to decorate our home this Christmas I'm going to bring a branch in from the garden and festoon it with ribbons and fairy lights.

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Guru Kaur x