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We talk to English designer John Whelan about being the Englishman behind one of Paris’s most iconic design revivals.


Behind the Design

We talk to English designer John Whelan about being the Englishman behind one of Paris’s most iconic design revivals.

How long have you lived in Paris?

I was in Paris for the past, from 23 to 33, but just moved back to London. Out of all my international friends, I was the last man standing!

So, after 10 years, how Parisian do you feel out of 100?

About 10% (!) The French are so different to the English, and I have to say that I never fully adopted their ways, even if I did speak fluent French and could certainly blend in.

What is your go-to neighbourhood?

For my sins, I’m increasingly getting into the 16th arrondissement. It’s calm and leafy with beautiful bourgeois architecture and populated by elegantly dressed people. ‘Cravan’, which has just opened there, is probably the best bar in Paris.

What are your favourite places to hang out?

I like to drink at Le Progrès in the Marais with my mate Niko and watch Parisians watching other Parisians. We would then normally go to our favourite restaurant Chez Omar to laugh at the bitchiness we had just witnessed. I recognise that this is no better behaviour, perhaps I have become a Parisian after all!

If you could sum up your experience as an Englishman in Paris in 3 lines?

A comedy of errors! Our approach to work is very different. Our sense of humour is very different. Our approach to courtship is very different. Living and working in Paris was a struggle, and fortunately, I was able to see the funny side as I frequently flopped. But failure allows one to grow, so I suppose it was useful.

How did you come to be the man behind this design revival?

Without wishing to sound corny, I’ve always dreamed about restoring these French brasseries, which were tired even when I arrived 10 years ago. I thought to myself, “who is going to be the guy who gets to do them?’ and fortunately it ended up being me. I suppose I willed it to happen by assembling a portfolio of historic design that put me in contention for these projects.

Most interesting/ unusual thing you’ve learnt during this project?

That ‘celadon’ or ‘sea green’ is an extremely difficult colour to photograph. Go to Bouillon Julien and try and take a photo of what it actually looks like. Almost impossible.

Is the Parisian artisan scene still alive and kicking, and how would you describe it?

I think that there are signs that a mini-Renaissance is underway. A few young designers (myself included) are returning to traditional techniques and stimulating the demand for decorative paint, hand-sculpted plaster and wood etc. It’s still very niche though and there’s a long way to go before we return to the opulence of the pre-Modern era.

What (or Who) is the most remarkable thing you’ve discovered about Paris during this project?

I became fascinated by the founder of Bouillon Julien, Monsieur Edouard Fournier. Not only did he open the restaurant (that featured one of the most ambitious designs of all time), he also designed and built the building that housed it. His vision was holistic, democratic and pioneering.

What inspires you about living and working in Paris?

I’m inspired by Paris’ past, not by its present, which is fortunate because living in Paris is like living in a giant museum. At every turn, there is evidence of former greatness right before your eyes, and this inspires my work.

What does this trend/movement say about Parisian culture and its evolution?

It says that Parisians are increasingly willing to entertain ‘concepts’ of the past, and that perhaps the culinary wheel didn’t need to be reinvented after all. Good honest French fare in a remarkably decorated interior and bargain basement prices is a formula that is hard to beat. Should this be read as evidence of the increasing rejection of pretentious post-Modernism in culture? I think so.

What’s next?

I’ve got a great restaurant project in London coming up that I can’t talk about in detail currently! I’m also working with my girlfriend Leonora Chance on reviving her family’s ancestral company as a lifestyle brand that should launch in September 2019.

What ‘je ne sais quoi’ did you bring to this project as an Englishman in Paris?

When the restaurant reopened I overheard an American couple talking and the chap said to his lady, ‘Goodness, it’s like a Wes Anderson set in here’. I took that as a massive compliment as I’m a big fan of old Wes. His colours are always a bit wrong, but that’s what makes them so right. Is that the case here? Perhaps!

Mr Whelan’s Insider Paris

  1. Cravan – 17 rue Jean de la Fontaine – Paris 16
  2. Le Progrès – 1 Rue de Bretagne, 75003
  3. Chez Omar – 47 rue de Bretagne , 3e, Paris
  4. Bouillon Jullien – 16 Rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis, 75010