A Historical Look at Café de Flore

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From world-famous ateliers to designer hotspots, Historical Interiors is your weekly column for iconic decor, rare residential imagery, and cultural fashion landmarks.

Paris is littered with historical landmarks. There’s the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, the Le Bon Marche (the world’s first high-end department store), the Notre Dame—the list is endless. But none encapsulates or reflects the Parisian way of life as authentically as Café de Flore. Situated on the corner of Boulevard Saint-German and Rue Saint-Benoît in the sixth arrondissement, the Flore, as it’s so lovingly called by the patrons who frequent the establishment, is one of the oldest coffeehouses in Paris.

“Café de Flore was the essence of all that was desirable on the Rive Gauche of Paris. It stood on the corner of Saint Germain life, an irresistible mix of café society, literary, artistic, wanton, fashionable ambitions,” wrote Alicia Drake in the opening of The Beautiful Fall, a tell-all of the fashion scene in 1970s Paris. “It was a mirrored place of entrances and encounters.”

And it’s been that way pretty much since the day the Flore opened its doors. Founded during the Third Republic in 1887, the café was named after a sculpture of Flora, the goddess of flowers and spring, which lived on the opposite side of the boulevard. It’s for this reason flowers and foliage of all sorts bloom from the second-floor wrought iron terrace, perfectly framing Café de Flore’s pretty scripted signage. The exterior boasts historic Gothic architecture inspired by the 13th century, complete with expansive windows (perfect for people-watching) and sweeping canopies.

Inside, a red leather banquette lines the Art Deco-style brass mirrored walls, which have, at times, displayed masterpieces from prominent artists, like Claude Rutault, Natasha Lesueur, and Franck Scurti (artists, too, have had the creative freedom to change up the décor, including placemats and light fixtures). But for the most part, the no-frills tables, the red cushioned seats, the scaled patterned tiles have all remained unchanged for decades.

It’s here that at the turn of the 20th century, French author Charles Maurras set up camp on the first floor of the Flore to write his book. In 1913, poet Guillaume Apollinaire and André Salmon transformed the café into a publishing house, which became the birthplace of literary art magazine Les Soirées de Paris, and eventually, the catalyst for the Dadaism movement. Surrealism and Existentialism were also born from discussions inside the Flore’s storied walls.

By the ‘30s, high-profile writers, artists, filmmakers, actors, and philosophers all flocked to the Flore, including Albert Camus, Léon-Paul Fargue, Yves Tangut, Raymond Queneau, and Pablo Picasso, who would sit for hours on end, pen their novels, draw inspiration, mingle with one another, contemplate, and observe. During World War II, the café was untouched by German occupation, providing an escape and a sense of freedom during a tumultuous time.

„We got completely settled here: from 9 a.m. till noon we worked here, then we went for a lunch and at 2 p.m., we came back and talked with friends till 8 in the evening,” wrote French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre about life at the café. “After the dinner, we arranged meetings with friends here. It can seem strange, but we are at home at Café de Flore.“

After the war, Arthur Koestler, Ernest Hemingway, Truman Capote, Lawrence Durell, Simone de Beauvoir, and Juliette Gréco were regulars, and eventually, the fashion set found itself right at home at the Flore, the most famous being Karl Lagerfeld. In the ‘60s, the German designer spent his days between the Café de Flore, the Brasserie Lipp, and a swimming pool called Piscine Deligny. Every morning, he walked the five-minute distance between his apartment and the Flore, sat alone at a table on the ground floor, flipped through an issue of Vogue, and “from his corner table he watched all the comings and goings, the new faces and transforming attitudes,” Drake wrote. “He saw it all and he noted every nuance, every change in gesture.”

Yves Saint Laurent’s entourage of muses was almost always there, too—Betty Catroux, Loulou de La Falaise, and Clara Saint—though the designer himself almost always opted out of such appearances. And on the other side of the room sat the Americans: models Pat Cleveland and Corey Tippin, and artists Juan Ramos and Antonio Lopez.

“In Flore, people are less ugly than anywhere else,” Gréco once commented. Perhaps it’s why countless legendary photographers were so taken with the place, including Helmut Newton, Richard Avedon, Peter Lindbergh, Mario Testino, and Annie Leibovitz. Perhaps it’s why the Flore served as the setting for a number of runway shows, like Chanel, Yves Saint Laurent, Chloe, Sonia Rykiel, and Paco Rabanne, and fashion campaigns, including Louis Vuitton, Longchamp (featuring Kate Moss shot by Mert and Marcus), and Chanel.

Today, the iconic café continues to buzz with activity and energy: hurried waiters, the constant stream of tourists and locals, the unrelenting hum of conversation. And while it’s not cheap to order a shot of espresso, a flute of champagne, a cup of hot chocolate, or even a croissant at the Flore, it’s relatively known that what you’re paying for is the experience—the chance to step foot in an institution from which great literary works were born, to sit on the same booth as all the legends before you sat, to be a tiny part of Paris history.

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