Thursday, 27 January 2011

Au Bon Marché – selling the store

Despite being located far from the Grands Boulevards at the Sèvres-Babylone intersection on the Left Bank, Bon Marché was the pre-eminent Parisian department store for 50 years between 1870 and 1920. It wasn’t the first and it wasn’t necessarily the largest but in volume of business, marketing and innovation it outstripped all rivals. So grand was its reputation that in the English speaking world the name of Bon Marché was routinely co-opted by home-grown retailers to add a little Parisian sophistication to their operations. A further distinction was inspiring Emile Zola’s monumental novel, Au Bonheur des Dames (1883) in which the character of Aristide Boucicaut, founder of Bon Marché is the basis for Octave Mouret, hot-blooded proprietor of Zola’s fictional store. Zola’s turbo-charged descriptive prose ascended to new heights when it came to describing the vast profusion of luxury goods arranged in spectacular displays that tumbled down the full height of the store’s central atrium for the celebrated January sales event, the Blanc.

Management was organised on a military model of command and staff were subject to a rigidly enforced code of conduct that extended outside the store and into their private lives. Wages and salaries were modest but generous sales commissions were paid to those with a flair for selling. Transactions were exhaustively recorded and analysed to develop new product ranges and expand the volume of sales. The art of selling was planned in minute detail and new standards were set in terms of advertising and publicity. The services of the most fashionable poster artists were engaged with the aim of placing the name of the store in front of the public at every crossroad, every mainline train station and on the sides of trams and buses. Lavishly illustrated catalogues were regularly published and maps, guides, agendas and illustrated collectors picture cards in which Bon Marché was carefully positioned at the centre of the universe were freely distributed. Masters of Zola-style prose declaimed the wondrous extravagance and the monumental dimensions in a tidal wave of superlatives in full page newspaper advertisements.

The poster designs of René Vincent (1879-1936) helped define the Bon Marché image and his contribution is described in this extract from Commercial Art, September 1926. Vincent’s posters employ the clean lines and slender forms of 1920s Japonisme with few concessions to the novelty of Art Deco. He turned to poster design around 1920 after a career as a satirical illustrator in magazines such as la Vie Parisienne and l’Illustration. His most distinguished work was illustrating for l’Imprimerie Draeger, printers of Fine Press Books and master typographers. Despite the enduring popularity of his images with on-line poster retailers there is no published survey of his work.

Henriette Touillier Feyrabend et al, Quand l’affiche faisait de la réclame, Paris, 1991
Michael B Miller, The Bon Marché, Princeton, 1981

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