Meet Alexia Leleu, the Woman Rekindling the Torch of Maison Leleu
More than a century after its creation, the renowned Parisian decor brand Maison Leleu continues to write its history with Alexia Leleu, the great-granddaughter of founder Jules Leleu. Today, endowed with the exceptional heritage of Leleu and her own passion for creating, Alexia is carrying on her family legacy.
A Brief History of Maison Leleu
Originally founded in 1910, Maison Leleu combines art, luxury, and craftsmanship. Jules Leleu was a master of Art Deco style and between 1910 and 1973 the Maison inscribed its name on the largest decorative projects. Unique design, limitless inventiveness, and keen attention to finishes define the excellence of Maison Leleu.
Paule, Jean, and André, the three children of Jules Leleu, all play a role in the history of Leleu, as they worked closely with their father in the creation of the collections. It was this set of designers who integrated their research and realized furniture, fabrics, lighting, wallpapers, and carpets with extreme refinement.
Since reigniting Maison Leleu, Alexia has launched furniture, lighting, and rugs based on archival drawings along with a collection of her own. Read on to meet Alexia, learn more about the intriguing history of Maison Leleu, and hear what Alexia envisions for the future of the brand.
Lh Exclusive Interview with Alexia Leleu
Love Happens: After spending almost 10 years working in the pharmaceutical industry, what sparked your desire to leave that world and revive Maison Leleu?
Alexia Leleu: Do you want the long or the short story!? We have always grown my siblings and me with the family’s history. Our dinners were punctuated with anecdotes, and stories about the major projects that Leleu had made at this time. From the decoration of the legendary ocean liners, the “France” or also the “Normandie”, to the design of the dining room of the “Elysée” palace…very quickly we were exposed to beautiful things, and to have a critical outlook on art. We would regularly attend auctions at Drouot, etc…
At that time, I hesitated a lot to pursue interior design studies; however, also enjoying the scientific side, I decided to study Pharmacy. After my 6 years of study, I continued with a master’s at ESSEC business school. I worked for 9 years in the pharmaceutical industry in different positions. But the family DNA was stronger and 4 years ago I began to research why “Maison LELEU” had to shut down in 1973. (Indeed, it was very secretive within my family and we did not talk about it…)
That’s when it ALL STARTED!
It took lots of research, and I finally discovered with the help of articles of that time, that we had decided to shut down for tax purposes as a result of the Persepolis worksite for the Shah of Iran…
It was from there that everything changed. I wanted to re-discover Leleu by my own means and with a more mature eye. Reading books on Leleu, meeting former collaborators… so many things that have punctuated my daily life.
It was only at that moment that I was able to appreciate the importance of Maison Leleu in the history of art…and that I started looking for the archives of our company.
A living memory of the original Maison Leleu
After months of investigation, I found an extraordinary woman that I had briefly met before: Françoise Siriex.
Françoise, who was over 90 years old, was the living memory of the “Maison Leleu”. She was the close collaborator of my great-uncle André Leleu for 25 years. Thanks to her, I put my hand on immense old books containing a real treasure: the LELEU cartoons with carpet drawings and colorations. All accompanied by some samples and original wool pom-poms. A fabulous discovery!
I also found boxes filled with papers, documents: I read everything until I discovered a letter from my ancestors yielding the rights of the brand to Françoise Siriex who should if possible re-transfer them to a member of the Leleu family. And that’s what she did, convinced by my determination to revive Maison Leleu in the respect of its values.
For me, the signal was clear. I had to continue and carry out my project. In 2017, I made the leap! I had the duty to continue this exceptional heritage…
Lh: How does it feel to be working in the world of design, I can only assume it is very different from pharmaceuticals?!
Alexia: Yes, it’s true, it’s a very different environment! However, I must admit that my rigorous scientific training helps me on a daily basis in this adventure. I think that everything we learn, during our life, is useful for the future. In addition, my experience in a Laboratory such as Bristol Myers Squibb, a large multinational, is a real plus. This gives working methods that are entirely applicable to other fields.
I really enjoyed my “first life” in the pharmaceutical area, serving patients, setting up clinical trials for rare diseases. It is very fulfilling to turn towards others.
Now that I work for Maison LELEU, a company created by my great grandfather, it’s a “waking dream”: Continuing family history, walking in the footsteps of my ancestors, and reviving their magnificent creations. And it is so enriching to develop new knowledge and more in art!
Lh: How did your sister Marie become involved? Who else is on your team?
Alexia: The team has grown now! Franck, my partner, who manages the entire production aspect of the furniture and lighting! Also, a team of graphic designers, a quality expert based in India for our carpets, and another for the furniture and lighting that travels through France and Italy. And of course, my sister, who is currently training to know if she also wishes to evolve in this environment; because a career change is never an easy choice.
Lh: What did you know about rugs before you began the process of selecting designs from your great-grandmother Paule’s archives? How did you decide what to change and what to keep original?
Alexia: Absolutely nothing! It took me many months to understand the complexity of this environment.
I researched a lot: books first, then I went to see manufacturers to understand the process of making a rug from the first to the last step. Finally, of course, I also asked for help from experts. With famous auction houses, producers as well as the Galerie Marcilhac (art deco expert in Paris), we have appraised LELEU period rugs in order to define all their specificities. Together, we defined precisely what “LA QUALITE LELEU” was.
The Persian Knot
All the LELEU rugs are hand-knotted and we use a very particular knot: the Persian knot. It is an asymmetrical knot while the Thibetan knot is a symmetrical one. The Persian knot gives this unique perception of blur pattern, distinctively LELEU. In addition, we choose New Zealand pure virgin wool, braided in 16 strands of yarn! It is the only way to get this soft and fluffy quality dear to Paule Leleu.
Furthermore, as often happened in the past, I still use the original and exclusive Paule’s color swatch and our production stays in India, where the ancestral Persian hand-knot is used and mastered.
The First Rug Collections
When it came to Paule’s archives and designs, the choice was very hard! I had in my possession more than 700 archives, each more beautiful than the other. So I decided to let my heart and my own sensitivity speak for my first rug collection “Itinerance”.
I wanted this collection to be a real invitation to travel like the trip I had made looking through my family’s archives. Travel in time, travel in space…
This collection presents 4 themes: “LABYRINTHE” – “CIVILISATION” – “TRIBAL” – “GALAXIE”. ITINERANCE collection combines tradition and elegant modernity.
For the 2nde collection that I am calling “ Flashback” Collection, there are 5 themes: “TRADITION”, “ETHNIC”, “GEOMETRIC”, “AVANT-GARDE” and “MODERNISM”. These themes represent different periods in Paule Style. Indeed, Art deco is often defined as a very streamlined and geometric style. But there are also many influences like influences coming from the primal arts of Aztec, African, Asian…Art Deco style also uses a floral or also a very modern repertoire. Flashback embodies all the influences that have touched art deco.
Lh: What led to the decision to introduce a collection of your own designs? And why did you select Notre Dame as your inspiration?
Alexia: When my destiny pushed me to leave science for Art, I discovered a new facet of my personality. Indeed, I think the creation is in my DNA, and what I prefer in this new adventure is really to create. It’s the “design” part that excites me the most.
So, I wanted to create my own collection by staying in the spirit & in the codes of my family: elegant design, combined with the excellence and the know-how that have imposed our company as a reference in the decorative arts.
Like art deco, I think Notre Dame marks in terms of architecture and largely participated in spreading the French refinement throughout the world.
The drama of Notre Dame has greatly affected the French people. This emblematic monument full of history has always existed for us and radiates throughout the world. I visited several times, this monument exceptionally beautiful.
The stained glass windows of Notre Dame always amazed me a lot and they inspired me to pay tribute to this monument through a new collection. It was only a starting point and I did a lot of changes to their design but with this new collection, I’m trying to keep alive these stained glass windows, linking tradition and modern design.
Lh: Tell us about the recent launch of Maison Leleu’s furniture and lighting collection. How did you decide on the pieces to include? How did you decide what to change and what to keep true to the original designs?
Alexia: It was also a difficult choice! Maison LELEU, founded by my great grandfather, Jules LELEU, in 1910 and having closed its doors in 1973, has gone through several stylistic periods and offers typical art deco, but also Modernist, 50’s, 60’s and 70’s pieces. So I wanted to show an overview of all of our styles. Then, in the same way as for rugs, with my own sensitivity, I made the selections: objects with strong and timeless designs.
For this collection, we are giving birth once again to the unique LELEU designs through a customized reinterpretation of the finishes, essences of wood, fabrics, and metal. Indeed, with Franck who has been evolving in this business for more than 20 years, we have for each of the pieces reviewed the dimensions so that our pieces are adapted to “today’s lifestyle”. We also offered different finishes, which allow making a new proposal totally different from the original designs. The only element on which I do not compromise is the respect for the proportions which are essential in the Art Deco style!
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Lh: Craftsmanship is essential to your brand’s heritage – how did you find the right people to weave your rugs and bring the furniture and lighting designs to life?
As Jules LELEU used to say “A furniture should be as beautiful on the inside as on the outside”. So indeed, the importance given to the craftmanship is essential for us.
For the rugs, we have minutely appraised period rugs in order to identify the know-how to use. Leleu had its hand-knotted carpets made in France until the 1950s when all the hand-knotted manufacturers disappeared in France. It was then India that they chose to continue the creation of their rugs, ancestral cradle of hand-knotted carpets, for more than 20 years. This is the first reason why I also chose this country.
Then LELEU used a very rare knot: the Persian knot. Today, only two countries have mastered this knot: India and Iran. So I naturally turned to India, where they masterfully use the ancestral Persian hand knot. Then, I had to meet several factories and carry out a very large number of tests in order to choose the best manufactures capable of reproducing “LELEU quality”.
The Furniture & Lighting
French know-how for the creation of furniture and lighting is widely recognized internationally. This is why for this part, I have our creations made in France in large part. The other part being made in Italy which is also a pioneer country in the use of certain materials. Then, I looked for the best cabinet makers, upholsterers, etc. and made a certain number of prototypes in order to define which workshops I chose for wood, bronze, etc. In this process, I also found some old manufacturing plants with which LELEU worked at the time. For example, ALM déco, a Parisian lacquerer who is one of the “Living Heritage companies – EPV” who bought the most prestigious lacquerer of the time, Saïn et Tambuté to whom Jules LELEU regularly called.
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Lh: Why did you decide to make all of Maison Leleu’s designs limited editions?
For more than a century, the creations of Maison LELEU attract art lovers and collectors, after seducing the most influential people in the world as the Japanese emperor, the Shah of Iran, etc…
LELEU creations are much more than simple decorative objects but have real heritage value and are considered as true masterpieces. In addition, the rigor that we have to give to each creation, and our desire to have our creations made by companies whose craft skills are ancestral makes each of the new LELEU editions a unique object. Further, like my family before, I want to personally check each of the pieces we create. Thus these reasons led to my decision to only produce limited editions containing a very restricted number of pieces.
And to go even further in this process, I also chose to have a very restricted number of pieces. Each of our creations is numbered and signed… (from 8 pieces for certain collector’s furniture such as the Hercule armchair to about 500 for the Igor chair for example).
To Finish, special series with finish adaptations, unique creations, and new designs are also proposed on-demand.
Lh: What do you believe is the most valuable lesson you’ve learned since you resurrected Maison Leleu?
This is a very difficult question! I would say that this experience allowed me to understand that it is not the end goal, that we set, the most important. In the pharmaceutical industry, my journey was clear. I was making a very good living and I just wanted to climb the ranks, to get positions with more and more responsibility. By giving birth to Maison LELEU, I realized that we must not be blinded, we must remain flexible and curious because we are not immune to stop an experience and get into another wagon. Finally, the important thing is the WAY; the path that we travel between our different successive objectives.
Lh: How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your business?
I think that the COVID epidemic has deeply affected us all. In this intense situation, many companies have suffered enormously. Many of our projects have, of course, been put on stand by. Some were canceled completely which is very frustrating because we had already worked a lot and these projects promised to be absolutely magnificent. However, since the end of the containment, we have taken over a few projects that we had undertaken and the activity seems to be picking up slowly. So we don’t have to complain about other sectors.
To finish, this period also forced us to reinvent ourselves, to think differently, etc. I think for example of the Hotel Industry which saw a certain number of budgets suppressed during this crisis. This pushed us to innovate certain manufacturing processes, to find different ways to create our exceptional pieces in order to always be able to offer them LELEU refinement and very high quality while meeting their expectations and their budget.
Lh: I love your partnership with SAVED creating blankets and pillows from archived designs, do you plan on any other collaborations like this? Do you have other product collection launches in the works?
Thank you for SAVED! It was our first partnership!
Furthermore, Maison LELEU is working on fine fabrics and wallpapers and also tableware services. To do this, we work hand in hand with famous partners to benefit from their know-how and expertise.
Fabrics & Wallpapers
For fabrics, and wallpapers, we have chosen a prestigious French editor: “La Maison Lelievre”. Indeed, with exceptional know-how for generations, this family factory realizes magnificent collections in subtle matters and strong themes around art, travel, history, French heritage.
Our first “LELEU-LELIEVRE” collection was due to be released in September 2020. However, with the COVID-19 epidemic, our launch will certainly not be until January 2021 unfortunately. Our LELEU fabrics and wallpapers, made in France, will also be reinterpreted from our wallpaper and fabric archives.
In addition, following a number of requests from decorators, we also developed a collection around tableware services with HAVILAND and their porcelain factory in Limoges. For this, we have selected archive designs of LELEU rugs which we have reworked in order to adapt them to this sector.
Lh: Will the new Maison Leleu offer interior design services at some point?
I wish to give Maison Leleu the place it occupied before its closure in France and internationally. The rugs were the first step in this direction. Since January 2020, furniture and lighting are the 2nd step. And soon: wallpapers, fabrics, and tableware services!
Maison LELEU was an exceptional designer and editor of luxury decoration but also and above, offered a real interior decoration service. My dream would be to be able to propose also this. So, this is, of course, something that we are considering and we already have in the team a space planner specialist.
Lh: Is there anything else you would like to share with us?
Yes, I think that I am a part of a generation that has led to reinventing itself. We need to be adaptable and not be afraid to change direction. Today there are multiple online or other training courses that can allow us to train and acquire new skills. This is a real chance!
To relaunch “Maison LELEU”, I had to get started without dedicated experience or training, quit my career, and my old life. However, to prepare this, I studied in the evening in a Design & Art school: “l’Ecole Boulle” in Paris.
It is indeed very important for me to master each new field that I launch. Thus, I trained in the methods of creation of carpets, but also in cabinetmaking, in the history of art. For wallpapers and fabrics, I also train to better understand all the specifics of this sector.
It was also important to me to be really educated on tools and techniques for creating so I trained myself using online tutorials on photoshop, Indesign, etc.
My message is that the world offers us the capacity to reinvent ourselves. Everything is possible in your career even a 180 ° turn!Alexia Leleu
A Peek Inside the Fabulous and Inspiring Mind of Alexia Leleu with the Lh Design Questionnaire
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
My family, my friends, a garden and a glass of fresh wine from my favorite grape variety: “Le loin de l’oeil”!
What is your greatest extravagance?
Ho!! Good question! I need some time to list them!
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Having two babies in the same year: Maison LELEU and my daughter, Olivia; and that while chasing my son, Arthur who was 2 years old!
What profession does your alter ego have?
He does several things but he is above all a film director.
The project you will never forget.
There are two actually:
(1) My first jewelry store: “CARTIER” in Paris; for which the architect Isabelle Stanislas trusted me when we had just relaunched “ Maison LELEU”.
(2) Cheval Blanc Paris, located in the Samaritaine historical building, in the heart of Paris for which I produced the carpets in the corridors and rugs for some suites. I will never forget Margot Anastasescu from the LVMH team who entrusted me with this very large and magnificent project.
Your favorite business tool or resource.
My Eraser! But being really honest: Photoshop!
The most timeless design.
“Art déco” of course!
The biggest business faux pas.
Forget these values for profit…
“If you’re offered a seat on a rocket ship, don’t ask what seat! Just get on.” Sheryl Sandberg ( COO Facebook)
Love happens when…
When you find your wealth outside yourself. To meditate!
By Anna Beck Bimba