Joseph Dirand couldn't have landed a more perfect commission for his first restaurant than Monsieur Bleu, the modern brasserie inside the new wing of the Palais de Tokyo that includes a second-floor private area and terraces. The building is the designer's favorite in his hometown of Paris, and he fondly remembers the frequent childhood visits he and his photographer father made there when it housed the Centre National de la Photographie. And, as evidenced by his spare, black and white residential, hotel, and retail interiors, Dirand is attracted to minimalism. "[The Palais de Tokyo] combines minimal with massive," he says. "It's very straight—everything is square, but also with rounded shapes."
When he begins a project, Dirand first comes up with a storyboard to imagine the space and how people will relate to it. The Palais de Tokyo opened in 1937, so the designer started with the architecture of the 1930s. "It was a time in between Art Deco and Modernism," he says. "Designers still had an'Art-Decorative' way of working, but a new era was starting where everything was direct and pure." Dirand was inspired by photos of Adolf Loos' composed, black and white interiors, warmed by luxurious materials. "For me," he says, "that was the link to the architecture of the building."
Vertical zones delineate intimacy and drama
Dirand found another piece of the puzzle during his travels. He noticed a certain kind of restaurant—a modern and monumental brasserie—that can be found in New York and London but had been missing in Paris. "I didn't set out to create something fashionable," he says. "I wanted to make the new French classic restaurant, something that travels through time and gets better and better." To establish a brasserie-like feeling of intimacy inside the soaring, 30-foot-high room, Dirand divided the space into two horizontal zones as defined on the walls.
In the lower zone, green velvet banquettes are set within green Connemara marble frames. Beyond, wood paneling painted black aligns with the gaze of people who are seated so that they feel embraced. To dramatize that feeling, the upper zone of the walls accentuates the height of the room. It reads as empty vertical space—either rendered in fluted white plaster, a nod to the Art Deco typology; or brass and bronze-colored metals, chosen to brighten the space. The ceiling is painted black to seemingly disappear.
Dirand was compelled to fill the soaring space overhead with just the right element. He remembered seeing images of the hanging lamps designed by Michel Boyer for the French embassy in Brazil, and he contacted the Boyer family for permission to reproduce the ethereal lamps that seem to float in mid-air as they cast indirect, warm light onto the walls. There are no down lights in the restaurant, and thus no shadows cast on anyone's face. Many of Dirand's decisions stemmed from his desire to curtail the intimidating effect of the architecture and to make people feel powerful, sexy, and at ease.
"The most important thing was to try to create something truthful," he says. "Something that is not just about design or being purely decorative." Every element has a reason for being there: the Saarinen Executive Chairs—designed by Eero Saarinen for Knoll—and the banquettes feature a refined palette of grays and greens that echo the colors of vegetation and the Seine River. The softness and glamour of the banquettes contrast with the vertical emphasis of the space and the graphic, black-and-white marble and oak floors. The vintage Lalique glass mirrored panels on some walls reference traditional brasserie décor, but also encourage diners to indulge in voyeurism from the safety of their private bubble.
And there is plenty to see. Five months after opening, there is still a month-long wait for a table in a city where the locals are not keen on waiting. "The success in such a short time is very unusual for Paris," Dirand says. He is flattered when people say they love the design, but he cares more when they say it is a space that was missing in Paris.
Perhaps they're also angling for a glimpse of Monsieur Bleu, the mysterious fictional muse based on Dirand's idea of a 1930s intellectual. The "bleu" references Yves Klein and possibly Picasso—after all, the restaurant is inside a museum building. "He's a dandy and this restaurant is a dandy—a very black-and-white character with a touch of eccentricity," Dirand says. "He's very well-educated, but a little crazy."
Key Design Highlights
- The designer drew inspiration from both Art Deco and Modernism, as well as minimal interiors by Adolf Loos.
- Wall surfaces are divided into two zones to emphasize the height of the space while establishing an intimate plane for dining below.
- All lighting sources are indirect to avoid casting shadows, and create an inviting and flattering environment for diners.
- The cool color palette mimics reflections on the surface of the nearby Seine River.
- Designer: Joseph Dirand
- Client: Monsieur Bleu
- Where: Paris, France
- What: 3,230 total square feet on two floors
- Cost/sf: Withheld at client's request