(International Herald Tribune) The soaring dome, its vast glass cupola glowing with rich color, could be any great European cathedral. And so, in a way, it is: a temple dedicated to the art and pleasure of shopping.
For the French department store Galeries Lafayette, this great upturned bowl of glass merits the much-used title “iconic.” For it has been a symbol of Art Nouveau architecture and of a new age of pleasure purchasing for 100 years.
To celebrate the dome’s centenary, the flagship store on Boulevard Haussmann in Paris has unveiled a 21st-century façade: a luminous cocoon of lighting using the dome as its matrix. The eerie effect of this “Chrysalide” treatment, created by the illumination architect Yann Kersalé, links the interior and its focus on the dome, with shimmering points of light on the shop front exterior.
While that concept projects the store forward to the future, the architect Rem Koolhaas and his OMA research studio, AMO, used the store’s extensive archives to tell the dome’s history. The exhibition displays items by date around a circular, dome-like installation. To learn more about the past, visitors can sit under what look like old fashioned hair salon dryers, where videos are installed.
Other areas have an eye-popping mix of carpet patterns, all taken from past examples in the store, a lineup of newspapers with the original Galeries Lafayette advertising and a wall of framed famous faces, as if in a bar. They refer to innovative collaborations between the store and creative fashion figures like Sonia Rykiel, who was embraced in 1962 before she had even started her own label; or Coco Chanel in whose perfume business the store invested 40 percent.
“It’s about the rigidity of brands and the fluidity of stores,” Mr. Koolhaas said as he toured the exhibition. He was referring to the current situation where the inventive spirit of department stores can be throttled by the big brands, who create spaces devoted to their own visions and designs.
For Galeries Lafayette “100 years under the dome 1912-2012” (through Jan. 26) is also a family affair. The group, which includes other store chains like Monoprix or BHV, had retail sales of €5.6 million, or $7.3 million, in 2011. But its heritage goes back to the two cousins from Alsace, in eastern France, who founded a dry goods store on Rue Lafayette in 1893 and went on to build the monumental store where the Belle Epoque architect Ferdinand Chanut created a circular conception of shopping space.
“People see big stores as dinosaurs, but our story is all about permanent re-invention and if the ‘grand magasins’ are still here, it is because of our incessant interest in looking for partners, finding new things and persuading great artists to work with us,” said Philippe Houzée, chairman of the store’s executive board. His son Guillaume, director of sponsorship, worked with the store’s archivist and with Mr. Koolhaas’s team on the exhibition.
Watching shoppers — predominantly foreign tourists and many of them from China — stand on the edge of the atrium looking up at the glowing stained-glass of master craftsman Jacques Gruber and the iron maker Louis Majorelle, is to see the panoply of shopping history.
Galeries Lafayette was built on the great upheaval of social and structural change in Paris at the beginning of the 20th century. The new buildings altered the landscape of the city, but they were also nests for a fledgling generation of independent women who found work in the stores, while their wealthier sisters used the shopping space as a hub of relaxation and entertainment.
The sheer scale of the project is visible in the photographs on one wall of the modest exhibition. Even in grainy black and white images, there is a nobility to the pictures of the circular construction site slowly filled up by the metallic ring, resting on 10 columns built from the newly invented reinforced concrete. Then comes the industrial sheet glass, the theatrical balconies and monumental staircase.
The store’s archivist, Florence Brachet Champsaur, said that Galeries Lafayette always had been ahead of the curve. She points to the store’s use of the drawings of Georges Lepape, the illustrator for the fashionable couturier Paul Poiret; and the hiring in 1953 of the artist and photographer Peter Knapp as the store’s artistic director.
At the opening of this exhibition, Mr. Knapp leafed through the advertising pages of images he had overseen and said that the rigorous minimalism of his Swiss origins had enabled him to streamline the style of Galeries Lafayette.
A photograph of the duchess of Windsor with Princess Ghislaine de Polignac, as the store’s first creative director, showed another example of the store’s forward-looking approach.
Maria Finders, the consultant on the AMO project, said the exhibition was built on a timeline because it was important to show what Galeries Lafayette achieved in relation to other stores, which also had cupolas or art installations, like its rival next door Printemps.
“We asked, ‘When did art come into this?’ and then found that we were asking the same questions in 2012 as people asked in 1852,” she said.
Ms. Finders wanted to bring “creative minds” back into the store — as well as letting people understand the dramatic intervention of the war years and other historic events. Facsimiles of papers and magazines left casually on tables encourage people to relive past experiences.
But most visitors, having viewed the small and rather too didactic exhibition, will walk out to the edge of the store’s magic circle and do what visitors, whether from down the street or from the Far East, have done for a 100 years: gaze up at the cupola in wonder and amazement at the beauty of human artistry and the skill of human endeavor.