There are some cities we leave behind but which await our return, without us realising it, and without us even suspecting for a single moment that life’s random turns will lead to the next chapter in our story being written there… a day, a few months, or indeed even years later! Ajiri Aki could hardly imagine when she left the French capital after completing her thesis on the perfumer Jean Patou that she would one day be one of the city’s inhabitants. And yet. An American student already deeply enamoured of fine art and antiques, she ended up returning to France having initially left to go back to the United States. A stroke of fate later, and she met her husband Thomas Buchwalder there, thus unknowingly taking a first geographical step closer to the country. Because as well as being Swiss-German, the young man in question has also been working and living in Paris for around a decade! “Partir pour mieux revenir” (“leave in order to better return”), a saying made to measure for Ajiri, who after first trying a long distance relationship, ended up moving to France herself a few months later. And as for the French art of living, Ajiri has equally naturally embraced that too. This born entrepreneur places particular emphasis on giving pride of place to the culture of her country of adoption in her Madame de la Maison project – a brand offering a carefully selected and curated range of antique tableware and household linen. A huge fan of France’s Belle Époque period and the insouciant splendour of its social receptions, she showcases antique items from this period to artful effect on her website and… at her home. Typically Haussmannian in character – reflecting the decorative interests of our host – it houses vintage finds turned up by this adept treasure hunter and also serves as a home to a family that lives at the crossroads of French, Nigerian-American and Swiss-German cultures. A history-rich and inspiring universe into which we have the pleasure to take you today.
I am Ajiri Aki, the founder of Madame de la Maison, a lifestyle brand focusing on art de la table using antiques and our private label of linens. My husband is Thomas Buchwalder, a Swiss German producer who founded Cactus Films. We have been living in Paris together for ten years in the XIth and have two kids, Noomi, 7 and Baz, 4.
I first came to Paris for a few months to research and write my master’s thesis about Jean Patou in the 1920s and 1930s, but then sadly left thinking my time in this beautiful city was over. Nine months later I met my husband Thomas while we were both working on a production job together in New York City during fashion week. It was an epic week with long hours filming runway shows and a big crew. The intensity of this week, 11 years ago, connected us and we’ve literally never been apart since. Thomas was already working and living in Paris for over ten years at the time so after long distance dating, we got married in New York City and Austin,Texas and then I moved to Paris officially.
When I was six years old, my mother started dragging me to garage sales in Austin, which are equivalent to a vide grenier here in France. (Of course less organized and more like individuals selling things in front of their houses). My mother taught me one man’s trash is another man’s treasure and I think this stuck with me. However it wasn’t really until I moved to New York and started to dive deep into a diverse selection of books, old movies, and exhibitions as sources of inspiration did I really start to develop an “eye” for what I love and appreciate. Consistent reading, researching, and learning new things has developed my taste over time.
I can say my first true love was my mother’s wedding china which she kept behind glass for appreciation but never for use. She passed away before she got to use these plates she adored. This affected me a lot and it’s something I share in my campaign for always using the good china, which the French have no trouble doing. But my deep passion came with knowledge. I got my Masters in the Decorative Arts, Design History, and Material Culture. It was such an amazing program that really gave me a holistic approach to design and cultural history. I realized how much I loved what I was learning even though the pace was intense and there was so much to remember. I started to love knowing about the objects that I saw at brocantes. This love turned into a deep passion for the French decorative arts and finding treasures that probably borders on obsession at this point.
When did you decide to establish Madame de la Maison?
I found that inviting people to my house was something that brought me comfort and connection, especially since my early years in Paris were quite lonely. Also we can all name so many amazing memories in our lives that have happened around a table.I started hosting supper clubs and salons with strangers, new friends and visiting friends. At the time I was working on other projects like the book I co-authored, Where’s Karl?, some freelance writing and trying to figure out what my next career move would be. Then I realized that in some form or another since I was young, gathering is something I have always loved and lived for. As William Morris said in the early XXth century, “fellowship is life ” and for me it truly is my fuel for life. I started drafting up how I could create a business that elevated and praised the art of the table and gathering. However I didn’t want to create something that I felt would be more “stuff” in the universe. I took my two passions of antiques and getting together with people and created Madame de la Maison. The additional element was that I wanted people to also be able to rent this so that setting up a nice table or gathering was accessible to all. Et voila Madame de la Maison was born in 2018.
When you go antique-hunting – for yourself or for others – do certain styles, periods or names appeal to you more than others?
Yes many people ask me this question so I had to analyze what I am drawn to. I used to assume what most people do: I like what I like. But then I realized I’m drawn to periods where celebration and gathering were important and elevated. I love late XIXth century items when the industrial revolution made courses and gathering for niche reasons important and possible. During this time people loved dinner parties with so many courses and specialized items to go along with these elaborate meals. I wish I could host a dinner and shuffle people from the salon to the salle à manger to the drawing room and then the boudoir. I love objects produced from a time that celebrated travel also. So yes La Belle Epoque, Les Années Folles, Art Deco, Art Nouveau, and even the post World War II period. Then of course I love all the revivals of these times we see in the 50s-70s. Perhaps I think about it all too much but I love deep diving in these thoughts.
Well first of all our blended culture is clear when you’re in our home and hear English, French, Swiss German, and High German flying across the apartment in the span of 30 minutes. Besides that I am not sure there is anything different from most Parisienne homes. Oh wait yes there are all the food products and spices we both love bringing back from Switzerland and the States. And our books are almost all in English and German.
And how do you reconcile it in terms of your children and your family in everyday life?
I was raised as a child of immigrant parents in Austin, Texas. My kids are now being raised as children of immigrant parents in Paris. We are sadly but honestly in a better place than most immigrants to France, but I can imagine there are a few parallels. I have no idea what is happening sometimes here in current events and school. However I’m really happy for my children to have this experience of being raised in Paris. To make sure they still connect to their Nigerian-American roots we travel home to visit the family once a year in Texas and my brothers come here. We also try to do a lot of face time. We only read books and watch cartoons and movies English. I am pretty militant about buying books that educate them about women’s history as well as black history also.
How did you furnish your living space?
We are definitely the slow and steady type of people. I like to live in a space and slowly get inspired and fill it up. I spend a lot of time at brocantes across France so I find a lot of wonderful items for our space. I also find inspiration on Instagram then go crazy trying to hunt down something similar.
What does it say about you?
Our home is the perfect patchwork of our shared history. Most of the books, which I hauled over when I moved from New York, I collected while studying the decorative arts and working in fashion. You can take one look at the spines and know what I love and where I draw inspiration. My husband is a techy film guy so his projector, computers and equipment are everywhere. I also like collecting little things we find or make on our travels and putting them on shelves or the mantle. I like to walk around my space and have memories flood my thoughts. The antiques we have mixed throughout also fill me with memories of travels where we found items but also it’s clear I have made them my passion and work. We are family with young children so I try to make sure they can be comfortable here too and not feel like everything is too precious.
The art of the table is at the heart of your work. How important are the living and the dining room do you think?
It is very very important. I spend all my time in these spaces with my family and friends. Something that brings me great joy is when people come over and feel 100% comfortable and cozy. I don’t want a space that feels too austere and cold. I want to invite people to my table or my table basse to laugh, cry, make a mess, eat, drink, dance or whatever. I prefer that these spaces don’t feel perfect but really “lived in.”
I believe if you only buy pieces that you find beautiful and absolutely love then when you set a table you will probably always stand back and be happy with what you have prepared. That said a few staple pieces to have: linens in a light color and a dark color, porcelain plates in solids and patters, as well as etched or beveled glassware. A few fun items most people might not think about are apero servers or little bowls for nibbles. I love knife rests to spread on a table when I serve a buffet or even for a seated dinner. I also find that these unexpected little pieces make me insanely happy to use and also my guests enjoy them too. Either it makes them think of childhood memories or they become conversation pieces.
You live in the XIth arrondissement of Paris. What are your favourite places there?
I love my neighborhood and spend a lot of time here. I’m actually in the perfect corner of the 11th because 5 minutes to the right is the Canal St. Martin and 5 minutes in another direction is the Marais. My list has to cross borders a bit like my real life does. For a chai latte or lunch I love The Hood and Cafe Mericourt. Cafe de la Place is my apero spot for sure. Small and local just as an apero spot should be. But a few other food faves: Siseng, Double Dragon, Margo, and Robert. My favorite shops where I look for presents or just to stroll around and always end up buying something are Victoria’s Antiques, Landline Paris, Officine Universelle Buly, and Thanx God I’m a VIP. On rue du Marché Popincourt there is also a strip of brocante shops, with a few rotating vendors selling items. I am also a regular at Ephemere Fleurs and the La Fromagerie Goncourt.
And what are the places you recommend that offer a little taste of America in Paris?
The American Library in Paris and Shakespeare and Company both have great programs with readings and discussion from American authors, which I really enjoy. I also love following Crystal Petit and her Singing Earth Divine choir performances because of the joyful musical moments she creates that aren’t so standard here. Also anytime I hear there is a comedian, speaker or musical theatre performance coming here that will be in English, I am the first one in line for tickets. For sweets Boneshaker Donuts and Jean Hwang Carrant cookies and for lunch or dinner Ralph’s Restaurant and Ellsworth for sure.
Photographie: Valerio Geraci – Texte: Caroline Balvay @thesocialitefamily