La Maison du Pastel

La Maison du Pastel is the oldest pastel manufacturer in the world. The pastels are made entirely by hand and in the same tradition as they were when it was founded in the 1700’s.

In 1880 Henri Roche, a chemical engineer, chemist, biologist, gold medalist of the societe de pharmacie took over the Maison.  He was very interested in art and a former student of Pasteur, who worked with Pastel himself.  He developed regular contacts with Degas and Cheret, and also Whistler who submitted to him their desires regarding pastel.

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Today La Maison du Pastel is owned and operated by Isabelle Roche – a distant cousin and Margaret Zayer.

It is my absolute favourite place in Paris.  The true artisan craftsmanship, heritage and pure love of colour is like stepping into a world from another time.  It is also the place I came to develop my colour palette for Gris.  It’s the most magical experience when all the boxes start to come out and you see the subtle gradations of the same colour. Each time I go back, it feels like I am seeing it all for the first time and It’s equally magical every time, like I’ve been transported to another world. It has been my great pleasure to have spent hours there at a time choosing colours and spending time talking to the amazingly passionate and dedicated Isabelle and Margaret.

Thank you for those special times.

Q.  Isabelle what made you change your life from working in the petroleum industry to taking over La Maison du Pastel?  That’s a huge decision and complete life change. 

When I was in my late 20s, I went through a major existential crisis. I had been to Africa a few years before and looking at my life from a distance, I had realised it felt empty and purpose-less: I had everything I could want materialistically but I was deeply unhappy. It was around the time that my three great cousins were looking for someone to take over La Maison du Pastel and it just felt like that was exactly what I should be doing. It essentially brought together everything that I was looking for: the making by hand, the personal contact with artists, the amazing history of La Maison du Pastel, and its beautiful product. I was in awe looking at the old boxes of pastels. It was all very meaningful.

Q. Isabelle how much pressure did you feel to continue the level of excellence of this incredible heritage?

When I took over LMP, it had an excellent reputation among a small circle of significant artists and art specialists, and it was indeed a huge pressure and responsibility to be able to sustain the level of excellence. I had an engineering background with no art practice and a very limited knowledge in art history, and it was very intimidating. I felt for a long time that I wasn’t up to the level of what I thought LMP should be. When I met Margaret, she brought all her passion for colour and creativity, and I now feel like LMP is what it should be.

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Q. Isabelle you took over the Maison in 2000 and worked for the first 10 years on your own.  Can you tell me what that time was like?  How did you manage the atelier, making the pastels, running the business?

The first 10 years of working on my own were extremely challenging. When I took over, there were only a handful of artist-customers left and the business was not doing well at all. The eldest of the three sisters, Huberte, who was 85 at the time and had been heading the business after her mother’s death, actually tried to deter me from taking over. She felt that I was better off with my steady, well paid job. But when she died, her two sisters became desperate for someone to step in. The three of them were quite shy and reserved. They were comfortable with the artists they knew, but hadn’t done anything to make the pastels known to younger artists. This means that as the artists had grown older, the circle of clientèle had shrunk significantly. Furthermore, as the sisters had grown older, they had started making fewer fabrications. The consequence was that by the 1990s, the level of stock of pastels was very low (in 2000, I was out of stock of many important colours, such as reds). I also soon realised that the pigment manufacturers whose addresses I’d been given didn’t exist anymore. So there were many challenges! I was also going through very difficult times in my personal life, so running the business was both a burden on my shoulders and at the same time my reason to get up in the morning. Those were very tough years!

Q. Isabelle you lived in Paris and you moved to the country and just begun?  Who taught you the process and craft of making pastels?

The first few years, I was living in Paris and going to the countryside to make the pastels. My great cousins handed me the recipes and one of the sisters, showed me how to make the pastels and shared the little tricks of how to roll them, how to correct the colours etc.

Q. Isabelle today they are still made in the same way?  Can you talk about the process and what is involved?  How long does it take to produce one colour?  How many gradations do you make of each colour?

Yes, we still make the pastels in the same way that they were made in the late 19th century. What has changed is that the pigments we find on the market today are not necessarily the same as they were in the past, so we have had to adjust the recipes that were handed down to me.

The main component of pastels is pure pigment, to which we add a binder to hold the powder together as a stick. We start by weighing the pigments; we then add water and feed the paste through a grinder. We do this for the colour on one hand and white on the other and then mix the colour and the white in different proportions to make gradations (every colour range we make has nine gradations). We then place the paste in a cloth and press-out the water in order to have a sort of Play-Doh consistency, and then we roll each individual stick by hand. We have a video on our website that shows all the different steps in making the pastels.

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Q. Margaret how did a young American student come to be involved in La Maison du Pastel?

I have always been a self-proclaimed art materials geek, so when I discovered the existence of LMP on the blog of an American artist, I was naturally intrigued and impressed by its history as well as Isabelle’s.  From what I recall, the article shared by this artist (dating from 2001) painted the shop as historic and elusive, and the pastels precious enough to merit the Paris-wide journey taken by the protagonist to hunt them down for an artist friend.

Probably a couple of years went by and I found myself spending a college term in Spain with a lot more free time than I was used to. I thought I could spend Spring break in Paris and pick up some pastels at the shop, but that idea eventually spiralled into a letter of motivation where I expressed wanting to lend a hand any way I could to Isabelle and the institution she single-handedly saved (even if that meant only cleaning the shop!).

It ended up being the right place, right time, right people for both of us.  We worked very well that summer and the rest is history…

Q. Margaret, years later you develop the colours that we see today.  How did this happen?  Can you talk a bit about your own background of art?

My own background can be summed up as someone interested in creating art but not necessarily wanting to work as an artist.  When I was very young, that translated into an interest in jewellery design.  At college, I discovered photography and printmaking (both intaglio and stone lithography), and in another life I probably would have pursued a career as a stone lithography printer.  LMP ended up being a good fit for me as it is centred on the disciplined craftsmanship I sought, but allowed me to take advantage of my hands on work as an artist (with all that entails), as well as my modest background in art history.  Besides, I have always loved using pastels and completely fell in love with Rochés!

I think I was probably interested in making colors from the very beginning, having been exposed to the process my first summer when Isabelle dabbled with the idea of making either a new pink or a new purple.  After I returned to the atelier for several weeks in the winter and it became clear that I would be returning definitively after graduating from college later that year, Isabelle entrusted me with a foundational knowledge of the process.  I ended up purchasing several dozen pigment samples and essentially transformed my dorm room into a lab during my last term at college, feverishly testing colors and giving myself a crash course in how the pigments could work.  At least one of those early tests was scaled up and eventually became our 5810 Turquoise range.

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Q.  Margaret, where does your inspiration come from?

When I first began testing colors, my primary motivation was attempting to reproduce colours from the historic collection of 1,650 nuances in the 1930s.  But I soon strayed, and the direct influence of nature crept in rather quickly.  We spent many of my early years at the company chasing down colours from the countryside where we live, or from the flowers boldly punctuating the very meticulous gardens in Paris where we also enjoy walking.

Nowadays, it is a bit more varied.  We’ve conquered most of the flowers whose colours taunted us in the past.  And although we still wish to recreate most of our historic ranges, we don’t hesitate to find inspiration in new pigments, from requests at the shop, or in rather clinically assessing our range (sometimes in the process of preparing a full collection) and becoming aware that there are clear gaps between colours that we would like to close.

Lately we’ve been spending a lot of time in our archives, which has become another rich source of inspiration.  I had long wanted to make an Indian yellow range, and after discovering a modern pigment that allowed me to create a colour I thought resembled the colour I had in mind, I could cross check my results for accuracy, both with samples of historic pigments in our possession, as well as a handmade watercolour colour chart from the early 1840s.

It used to be a bigger deal when we would create colours that didn’t exist in the past.  However, at the time when Henri Roché took over what would become LMP, he promoted the pastels as being a marriage of fine traditional craftsmanship and modern innovation (via new pigments and his qualifications as a chemist).  So whenever we can merge our craft with modern materials to create new colors, or even in the pursuit of historic-looking colours, I find it not only exciting, but faithful to the spirit of our Maison.  We play, we take risks, and above all we try to make colours for every type of artist who might come to our shop.

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Q.  Margaret and Isabelle how do you source pigments?  Do you get them from all over Europe or do you have a handful of trusted suppliers?

Margaret: When it became clear that I would be taking over the role of formulating colours, I became a little more outspoken when it came to developing a solid base of pigment manufacturers.  Little by little I started researching, and eventually established contacts with trusted manufacturers all over the world to get to where we are today.

Q. Margaret, you have created colours for some very well known artists including one of my favourites Richard Serra.  Who have been some of your favourites and why? 

Well, it was an absolute honour to be able to provide material for Richard Serra. In that case, it was his gallery (Gagosian) that first offered him a box of one of our blacks, an intense, slightly bluish one.  When he eventually reordered it, we decided to offer him a stick of an even more intense one, our darkest black (9181 Extra Black) sensing it could be an even more suitable option.  It was a color that we fortunately already had up our sleeves and prided ourselves on, as it’s the darkest black that can be found in the pastel medium.  In fact, we physically cannot make a darker black.  From then on, he ordered large quantities of this extra intense black in a large format for a series he was working on, which we fortunately had the pleasure of viewing in Paris.

I also get great pride from working with the generation of artists who were previously served by our predecessors, as they have embraced me and all of the new colours we have been creating with incredible generosity and open arms.  Several of these artists are also our friends: Pierre Skira, Claude Bauret-Allard, and the late Irving Petlin to name a few.  There is one story I like about Petlin for example.  Petlin had the habit of taking us out to lunch (at an excellent Vietnamese restaurant) whenever we were in his neck of the woods, and we wanted to offer him something to thank him on one occasion.  He worked with a rather classic palette of colours and I thought it would be interesting to offer him some golds.  Well, he looked at them in a way that said “what am I going to do with these?” but low and behold, a few months later, he called us to say that something finally clicked.  From then on, half of what he took from the shop were golds, and they illuminated his late works in a way that made you think it was the light of god.

Q.  Isabelle and Margaret, what is the most difficult colour to create?  I suspect it must be the blacks?  The super carbon blacks are so mesmerising, I couldn’t take my eyes off of them last time I was there. 

Margaret: Of course the 9181 Extra Black is an absolute nightmare, but worth it for what it can bring to artists.  It contains a rather exceptional carbon black that makes it intense and greasy and prone to sticking to every surface it touches.  And the sticks have a tendency to crumble in your hands if they are the slightest bit too dry for rolling.

The metallics are also quite difficult to roll into sticks, but are at least easier for clean up.  They tend to be quite fluid but can also be crumbly, and usually take twice as much time and effort to roll into sticks as more traditional colours.

Q. Isabelle and Margaret, your pastels are now sought all over the world.  You are on to do lists for tourists in Paris.  How does that make you feel after all the challenges over the years?   

Isabelle: It feels like all the pain and hard work was worth it! More seriously, we put a lot of love and care in what we do, and it’s heart-warming to know that some people are sensitive to it. The most rewarding thing to me is when people have a good and special time at the shop, when it becomes a meaningful experience.

Margaret: I think the more we build, the more things speak for themselves, be them the colours of our range or our social media pages.  That is not to say that we don’t still put a great amount of effort into what we do, but it is a relief that more and more people come to us expressing interest.  We don’t believe in advertising (not that it would do us good in such a niche market), so word of mouth remains essential to our survival.  As much as we would like to believe we have total control over things, we’re coming to accept how much we don’t, and must trust in the belief that we’re doing what we feel is right.