Homes Around the World

I Lived in Paris 25 Years Ago, and Here’s Why I Just Can’t Get Rid of My Chic French Clutter

published Aug 15, 2022
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I’m all for decluttering, currently America’s leading indoor sport and the chief reason no one has time to plan for the future. Just this morning I tossed two issues of The New Yorker

But I’m stymied when friends ask how much longer I want to hang onto mon clutteur français though: vintage odds, ends, and ornate molds that I managed to acquire while living in Paris.

Twenty-five years ago.

Credit: Deborah Baldwin

That’s a long time to hang onto a wooden-handled silk-leaf mold (shown above), cast in iron and brass — handy when making silk flowers for a 19th century hat but of uncertain use today.

Luminous old tools and utensils became something of an obsession as I roved around Paris each fall, dipping in and out of traveling brocantes — seasonal pop-up fleas, complete with traveling cafes. Perhaps feeling a lack of personal history in this foreign place, I craved possession of material goods that had once belonged to someone else. 

What is it with the French and their uncontrolled passion for molds, which extends from shaping charlottes, terrines, brioches, and tartlets to the molding of even children into upstanding citizens? Madeleines are made to look like scallops, aspic gets the decorative ring treatment, and carved wooden stamps used to have their way with butter. 

Credit: Deborah Baldwin

Chocolate hasn’t been safe since the 1830s, when someone had the bright idea of solidifying it, especially during holidays. Fashioned into fanciful shapes by paired front and back molds, chocolate is grist for Easter rabbits, Christmas St. Nicks, and lots and lots of fish (poissons d’avril — April Fool’s). The closest American approximation is the Jell-O mold of the United States that a house guest brought us when we were living over there. She figured we were homesick.

During the pandemic, I got a chance to reflect on the presence of so many French what-nots while moving about our Manhattan apartment with a lamb’s wool duster. (New York City soot clings to objets like a French tee.) This also gave me a chance to meditate on what happens when a normally sensible person enters the realm of French secondhands. 

C’est une maladie!” one bystander hissed — “It’s a sickness!”— as she saw me head toward a pile of chocolate molds overseen by a vendor with an eye for dazed foreigners. I was enchanted by a mold of a diabolic rabbit riding a hapless fish (Easter, April Fool’s — or both?) and I had to have it (shown above), even though it was missing its back-side partner. 

Credit: Deborah Baldwin

At one point I’d actually thought I could use these things, having failed to realize that flea markets are awash in tin molds because they long ago lost the ability to release their contents. Real chocolatiers, it turns out, use plastic.

It’s mostly delusional to think you can put period pieces to contemporary use. I guess I could load peppercorns in my itty-bitty hand-cranked Peugeot Frères coffee mill — created at a time, the vendor gravely informed me, when poor people were buying beans by the tablespoon — but only maybe. Friends have meanwhile suggested that I probably no longer need five glass Ricard carafes, culled from cafes where Ricard is no longer much in demand and pictured by moi as single-stem vases. 

Credit: Deborah Baldwin
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Don’t make me relinquish a certain wooden, marble-topped washstand though, purchased from a vendor who was so mystified by my inability to bargain that he practically offered to help me walk the thing home. Partnered with a rusty wine-bottle carrier I found at another flea, it handily provides homes for my vintage French wooden fruit basket and that almost-could-be pepper mill I mentioned.

The more time that passes, the harder to let go. So maybe I’ll declutter later on, when summery days aren’t calling. Come to think of it, fall may be the ideal season to let go, in the cool months before cabin fever makes you start wondering — again — why you are surrounded by items that no longer feel essential. They once seemed to generate genuine joy, and now that you are more settled in, you wish you could remember why.