The professor’s education in the history of furniture and other everyday objects continued as a young academic in Paris. To take breaks from her research at the old National Library, DeJean would pop over to Druout, a venerable auction house down the street that staged multiple sales each day. She’d skip lunch, eating a yogurt on the way, to get there in time for the auctions’ previews, which ended at one o’clock. She absorbed information from watching dealers and specialists discuss the furniture as they flipped it over and inspected it from every angle. Though she never imagined at the time that she would write about the history of furniture, this was a harbinger of the kinds of research she’d find herself doing for the book she thought of as The Sofa—a working title that immediately met with resistance, DeJean recalls.

“People kept saying, ‘No, you can’t call it that.’” They felt she needed to widen her scope. So gradually she looked into other aspects of the portraits that had first engaged her and thought about what else made it possible for people to sprawl in one country while those in the next country were sitting as if they had books balanced on their heads. “In fact, the clothing was different in France than in England—the fabric, the rooms in the home in which the furniture was positioned. All these things. I worked from the sofa up. That’s how it took shape.”

On one research trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, a curator brought out a dress from 1725. “At one point she went to check something on the computer,” says DeJean, “and I tell you I have never been so tempted in my whole life to just slip my arm in.” (She didn’t.) Another highlight was a visit to the 18th-century Chateau de Montgeoffroy in the Loire Valley, which had been in the same family since the manor house was built. Nearly everything was original, and the place was the embodiment of the architect-designed interiors DeJean writes about in a chapter of Comfort. The woodwork had been planned in concert with the furniture.

“They still have the sofas,” says DeJean. “And you see them and you see how the woodwork and the shape of the room frames them.” While at the chateau, waiting for the next public tour to begin, DeJean and a friend spied a woman walking up to a side door with grocery bags. DeJean approached her and told her she’d been working with an expert in 18th-century textiles on how to date fabric, and he’d mentioned this chateau still had some of this fabric. “I asked, ‘Would I see the fabric on the tour?’” DeJean recalls, and the woman replied it was only in the family’s private rooms. The woman ended up being the Marquise of the estate, and she offered DeJean a private tour. “When we got to her bedroom,” DeJean recalls, “she still had the 18th-century closets and doors, which are so beautiful. I was so excited.” DeJean and the Marquise now email one another, and the Frenchwoman has invited her back next summer with the promise of an even better tour.

 

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