STEM in a STEAMer Trunk: A STEAM History from the Archives of Louis Vuitton
STEM in a STEAMer Trunk:
A STEAM History from the Archives of Louis Vuitton
The Fondation Louis Vuitton is a billowing collection of glass sails, galleries, and terraces - all tossing the boundaries of inside and outside to the winds. It’s a ship, afterall. In architect Frank Gehry’s own words, “a vessel symbolising the cultural calling of France.” With homage to the symbol of Paris found in its Coat of Arms, Gehry’s glass ship honors the legacy of Louis Vuitton. With its motto, he recalls the spirit of the founder and the company that has survived a century and half of palace intrigues, industrial revolution, and world wars. Fluctuat Nec Mergitur: “She is tossed by the waves, but does not sink.
History can be told from many perspectives - from that of nations, religion, art, science, business, or industry. Whether we divide historical knowledge by period or topic - from medieval to modern, or maritime to aerospace - each historian has a unique story to tell. Cutting across divisions of both time and topics, the corporate history of Louis Vuitton offers students of all ages a unique view of the past one hundred and fifty years. As seen from the perspective of Vuitton travel bags strapped to the tops of stage coaches, stowed aboard cargo holds of trains and ocean liners, and packed into gondolas of hot air balloons, car trunks, and the baggage compartments of planes, the history of Louis Vuitton is a story of the evolution of travel and the people who made history as they journeyed to increasingly far-distant destinations.
In cities across the globe, Vuitton presents its heritage in creative events that merge museum exhibition and corporate advertising. Vintage trunks and stories found in the company’s archives inform exhibits which document Louis Vuitton’s journey from his home near the Swiss border to the growth of a company that is now synonymous with luxury. Beautiful to look at, the exhibits also offer a history of Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Mathematics - of STEM in a STEAMer trunk.
When Louis Vuitton left his home near the forests of France’s Jura Mountains, he carried with him a knowledge of wood gained among les copeaux, the woodchips of the family’s sawmill. “One day well fed and the other one hungry,” the fourteen year-old traveled by foot to reach Paris, stopping during the nearly year-long journey to earn enough money to continue his way to the capital. There, Louis became an apprentice luggage packer and layetier or box maker in the atelier of M. Marechal, aa favorite of Parisian couturiers and royalty.
By day, Louis cut, planed, and shaped white poplar trunks and cases according to the wishes of his customers; during the short evening hours, he taught himself to read and write. Soon known as an expert box maker and packer, Vuitton was selected in 1853 by Napoleon III as official layetier to his wife, the Empress Eugenie.
To Vuitton came the task of creating boxes and carefully packing the delicate ball gowns, crinolines, hats, jackets, and shoes selected by the Empress as she prepared for travels to Egypt, Constantinople, or closer to home, the Villa Eugenie in Biarritz.
“Decameters” of fine taffeta and tulle balls gowns such as those pictured in Empress Eugenie Surrounded by her Ladies in Waiting passed through Louis’ hands, into Vuitton-crafted trunks.
In the sixteen years that Louis had been in Paris, he had watched the construction of the first passenger railway from Paris, which opened in 1837. Just one year later, two ocean liners would vie for recognition as the first steam-powered ship to cross the Atlantic without sails. In April 1838, the Sirius arrived in New York hours ahead of the Great Western which set a record time of 15.5 days. In a largely forgotten chapter of industrial history, improvements to the steam engine had “brought power to the factory door,” eliminating the need to locate factories near increasingly remote sources of water power. Cities grew as more and more workers were gathered in urban industrial centers. At the same time, the improved engines dispersed populations. “Le steamer” and “le train” replaced the horse-drawn carriage and coach and expanded trade routes and travel across the globe.
In 1854, profiting from his growing prominence, Vuitton opened his own business, relocating the workshop just five years later to Asnieres, a village favored by Impressionist painters. At Asnieres, where Vuitton trunks and special orders have been created for over century, hand-crafted trunks and “one-offs” reveal changing aesthetics as well as advances in technology, material science, and product design.
Vuitton introduced the first of many product innovations in 1858 - a waterproof flat-topped trunk. Unlike conventional round-top trunks that were designed to shed rain when strapped to the top of a stagecoach, Vuitton’s trunks, covered in varnished canvas, protected their contents from weather and were easily stacked in trains and the cargo holds of the new ocean liners.
As the automotive era opened with mass production of automobiles in France and the United States, the firm began making waterproof and dustproof trunks designed to fit on the back of cars. Fold-away seats and cases for spare tires followed, along with car trunks designed to store medicines and mechanics’ tools. In what would become a long history of support for automotive excellence, Louis Vuitton outfitted two great expeditions undertaken between the world wars - the Court-Treatt trans-African car expedition in 1924 (the first successful attempt to drive a vehicle from the southern Cape of Africa to Cairo), and the first crossing of central Asia by car in 1931 (“Crosière Jaune” or the Yellow Crossing sponsored by Citroen). Making a grand leap from the zinc and aluminum trunks commissioned by explorers more than a century before, Vuitton collaborated in 2014 with BMW to create carbon fiber, thermoformed luggage cases for the first-ever, plug-in hybrid BMW i8.
When hot air balloons made human flight possible, Vuitton invented the watertight Aero trunk for balloon gondolas, “guaranteed to keep the gondola afloat if they fell in the sea.“ Further capitalizing on the popular infatuation with flight, Vuitton designed bags and purses made with the rubber coated silk used for hot air balloons.
From the Victorian Era forward, the look of Vuitton travel bags would evolve in response to changing aesthetics and widespread copying. Vuitton artisans transformed the design of Louis Vuitton luggage and discouraged counterfeiting by replacing the original gray canvas with a series of fabric designs, including the trademarked Damier pattern (French for checkerboard) and in 1896, the famous LV monogram canvas, inspired by Japanese Mon designs originally used to identify an individual or a family. With the development of soft sided luggage, Vuitton began collaborating with prominent artists. Stephen Sprouse appropriated current trends in street art, covering the famous monogram canvas with graffiti and creating unexpected controversy for the house’s creative director. Later, Takashi Murakami created the special edition collection, Monogramouflage, and in a collaboration that would foreshadow Frank Gehry’s historic commission from LVMH, the Award winning Canadian-American architect designed a rectangular handbag. Not surprisingly, he gave the rigid box a twist.
A story of material and technological innovations and changing aesthetic tastes, the history of Louis Vuitton is also a story of individuals who helped shape history. In the Asniere workshop, Vuitton artisans designed “one-offs” for kings who rose to power and others who fled powerful positions as democratic movements fueled revolutions. Vuitton supplied travel cases for KIng Alfonso XII who ascended to the throne at the end of the First Spanish Republic and for the future Czar Nicholas II, the last emperor of Russia, who would oversee the construction of the trans-Siberian Railway before his forced abdication. The Aga Khan, Imam or spiritual leader of Nizari Ismailis, ordered Vuitton trunks. So did Ismail Pacha, Viceroy of Egypt who oversaw the construction of the Egyptian portion of the Suez Canal. Empress Eugenie and, no doubt, many more of the dignitaries invited by Ismaili to the grand festival celebrating the opening of the canal packed their belongings in Vuitton trunks. When Prince Youssoupov traveled to America prior to the Bolshevik Revolution, he carried a jewel case made by Vuitton to transport precious stones removed from Russia. For Savorgnan de Brazza, an Italian-born French explorer who discovered the source of the Congo and led the way for French colonization in Central Africa, Asniere craftsmen created “a trunk which unfolded a bed with a horsehair mattress, two blankets and four sheets.” For the maharajah of Baroda, now part of India, they crafted a Vuitton case fitted with equipment for afternoon tea on tiger hunts.
Prominent Americans often returned from Paris with Vuitton cases, as well. Members of the Vanderbilt family whose shipping and railroad empire had made them one of the wealthiest families of the nineteenth century, travelled with Vuitton trunks and bags. After Charles Lindbergh’s famous transatlantic flight in 1927, the pioneering aviator returned to America with the Orteig Prize for the first non-stop flight between New York and Paris and two Vuitton suitcases. At a time when travelers carted thirty to fifty pieces - not pounds - of luggage, the French-American soprano, Lily Pons traveled between opera houses with a set Asnieres-crafted travel trunks, which, according to travel writer Harold Stephens, included “one that had not the usual 30 pairs of shoes but, as her feet were so tiny, 36 pairs.” Fashion designer Coco Chanel, famous for the little black dress; the legendary silent film actress and producer, Mary Pickford; and the swashbuckling film star, Errol Flynn - all were Vuitton customers. Bringing the Vuitton history into the present, Beatrice and Eugenie, Princesses of York, carried Vuitton bags as they joined film and fashion stars at a Vuitton and Vogue collaboration held recently in London.
“[C]onstantly adapting…yet … firmly informed by the past,” Vuitton’s focus on tradition and innovation is shared by the Fondation Louis Vuitton. Opening a new chapter in the history of Louis Vuitton, the Fondation is rooted in France’s artistic heritage, while dedicated to “creation in the present.” In the words of President Bernard Arnault, the Fondation is a “new space that opens up a dialogue with a wider public and provides artists and intellectuals with a platform for debate and reflection.” True to its mission, the Fondation President commissioned several new pieces of artwork by established artists and boundary-bending newcomers. One of the commissions, Adrian Villar Rojas’ site-specific sculpture is installed on the Fondation’s west terrace, above the forests and gardens of Paris’ Bois de Boulogne. There, in a building that incorporates “a taste for walks punctuated by surprises,” Rojas’s sculpture, “Where the Slaves Live” is, indeed, a surprise. The massive “living sculpture,” whose title recalls the Latin root of the word vernacular, is composed of multiple layers of earth and manufactured materials that will decompose over time, subject to “the capriciousness of nature.”
Like the sculpture, itself, the concept for “Where the Slaves Live” layers multiple meanings, recalling not only the colonization of foreign lands, but also the country’s historic relationship to the French language, institutionalized in 1635 with the founding of L’Academie Francaise.
“Where the Slaves Lives” confronts visitors with a silent reminder of France’s vacillating opposition to slavery, which the French abolished, re-established, and in 1848 again re-abolished in her colonies. On the terrace of Gehry’s magnificent glass ship, Rojas’s sculpture recalls the ships that carried slaves and the fate of many at sea. Set in a building that is synonymous with wealth, privilege, and luxury goods, Rojas’ work has the potential to stir the kind of debate and reflection intended by the mission of Fondation Louis Vuitton. By using the word as Rojas does - as a reminder that in verna and vernacular, slavery is at the core of France’s intellectual history, its language, and the mission of the Academie Francaise - the artist ramps up the potential for debate and reflection. Today, one of the aims of the Academie is to “protect the French language from foreign, notably ‘Anglo-Saxon’ invasions,” but that goal has not always been central to its mission. Since its founding in 1635, the Academie has been tasked with a much more fundamental aim: to guide the French language from “from the vulgar (or vernacular) state of language to that of language equal in dignity to Latin.” As used by the Academie in reference to language, the words vulgar and vernacular become synonymous, both meaning “the common or usual language of a country.” Both obscure the meaning of verna - a home-born slave.
Like trunks and travel bags, works of art and language need to be unpacked. Whether it’s Vuitton bags, words, or sculpture, history provides a key. As the corporate history of Louis Vuitton demonstrates, luxury goods - whether we can afford them or not - reveal the exquisite workmanship, the material and technological innovations, the changing aesthetics, and the cross-sector collaborations that set standards throughout an industry - the same factors that serve as an end goal for STEAM - for arts integrated education as it has been practiced since “man came to … the time for thinking things over, to the dance, the song, the story.”
Iwan Baan, Frank Gehry - Fondation Louis Vuitton, 2014, Photo 12, Forgemind Archmedia
Frank Gehry, “The Building,” Fondation Louis Vuitton, accessed 14 December 2017
The ship represents the powerful corporate organization of Les Merchants de L’Eau, the water merchants, from the middle ages. “The first mention of the Coat of Arms of Paris appears as early as 1190 when Philipe Augustus gave the design to the city shortly before embarking for the Holy Land.” Wikipedia, “Coat of Arms of Paris,” last modified 4 September 2017, 01:52
In La Malle aux Souvenirs, Henry L. Vuitton explains the early use of the term layetier. “If today the term “layette” refers only to the clothes of a newborn, to understand the exact activity of this honorable artisan, we must remember that the word comes from old French “laie” which designates, until the 18th century, a small chest of wood where one keeps jewelry, clothes, or documents of value.” Translation mine.
Henry L. Vuitton, La Malles aux Souvenirs The Trunk with Memories(Paris: Menges,1984), 14.
Published online August 15, 2016 according to the restrictions of Bibliothèque Nationale de France which makes 15% of the book available electronically.
Gaston-Louis Vuitton, “Coat of Arms, Maison Louis Vuitton,” drawing, Louis Vuitton, LV Now, “Destination: Grand Palais,”
Gaston-Louis Vuitton, who designed the coat of arms was the grandson of Louis Vuitton, founder of Maison Louis Vuitton.
David Ring, “Crinoline,” 2014, ink on paper, Drawing made by David Ring for the Europeana Fashion project
www.europeanafashion.eu. The drawing was commissioned to represent a concept in Europeana Fashion’s visual fashion thesaurus which was developed under the coordination of the Royal Museums of Art and History, Brussels. David Ring created the drawings in the library of MoMu – Fashion Museum Province of Antwerp and this is also where they are currently kept.
The word “crinoline” comes from Latin crinis hair, in the sense of French crin horsehair + linum – thread, the manuafacturer’s name intended to express its compostion with a warp of thread and a woof of horsehair. Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (1971), s.v. “crinoline.”
Franz Xavier Winterhalter, The Empress Eugenie Surrounded by Her Ladies in Waiting, 1855, oil on canvas, 118.1 × 165.4 in (300 × 420 cm), Musée du Second Empire, France. Franz Xaver Winterhalter served as official court portraitist during the reign of Napoleon III.The Empress Eugenie Surrounded by Her Ladies in Waiting
Iwan Baan, Frank Gehry - Fondation Louis Vuitton, 2014, Photo 12, Forgemind Archmedia, https://www.flickr.com/photos/eager/15109026533/in/photostream/ Frank Gehry, “The Building,” Fondation Louis Vuitton, accessed 14 December 2017, http://www.fondationlouisvuitton.fr/en/l-edifice.html The ship represents the powerful corporate organization of Les Merchants de L’Eau, the water merchants, from the middle ages. “The first mention of the Coat of Arms of Paris appears as early as 1190 when Philipe Augustus gave the design to the city shortly before embarking for the Holy Land.” Wikipedia, “Coat of Arms of Paris,” last modified 4 September 2017, 01:52, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coat_of_arms_of_Paris. In La Malle aux Souvenirs, Henry L. Vuitton explains the early use of the term layetier. “If today the term “layette” refers only to the clothes of a newborn, to understand the exact activity of this honorable artisan, we must remember that the word comes from old French “laie” which designates, until the 18th century, a small chest of wood where one keeps jewelry, clothes, or documents of value.” Translation mine. Henry L. Vuitton, La Malles aux Souvenirs The Trunk with Memories, 14. http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k3333481w/f9.image Published online August 15, 2016 according to the restrictions of Bibliothèque Nationale de France which makes 15% of the book available electronically.
Gaston-Louis Vuitton, “Coat of Arms, Maison Louis Vuitton,” drawing, Louis Vuitton, LV Now, “Destination: Grand Palais,” http://us.louisvuitton.com/eng-us/articles/destination-grand-palais Gaston-Louis Vuitton, who designed the coat of arms was the grandson of Louis Vuitton, founder of Maison Louis Vuitton.
David Ring, “Crinoline,” 2014, ink on paper, Drawing made by David Ring for the Europeana Fashion project (www.europeanafashion.eu). The drawing was commissioned to represent a concept in Europeana Fashion’s visual fashion thesaurus which was developed under the coordination of the Royal Museums of Art and History, Brussels. David Ring created the drawings in the library of MoMu – Fashion Museum Province of Antwerp and this is also where they are currently kept. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ACrinoline.jpg The word “crinoline” comes from Latin crinis hair, in the sense of French crin horsehair + linum – thread, the manuafacturer’s name intended to express its compostion with a warp of thread and a woof of horsehair. Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (1971), s.v. “crinoline.” Franz Xavier Winterhalter, The Empress Eugenie Surrounded by Her Ladies in Waiting, 1855, oil on canvas, 118.1 × 165.4 in (300 × 420 cm), Musée du Second Empire, France. Franz Xaver Winterhalter served as official court portraitist during the reign of Napoleon III. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AWinterhalter_Franz_Xavier_The_Empress_Eugenie_Surrounded_by_her_Ladies_in_Waiting.jpg Wikipedia, “Timeline of Railway History ,” last modified 9 December 2017,20:22, Henry L. Vuitton, La Malle aux Souvenirs,16-17.
George Rosen, “The Conservation of Energy and the Study of Metabolism,” in The Historical Development of Physiological Thought, eds. Chandler McC. Brooks and Paul F. Cranefield, A Symposium Held at The State University of New York, Downstate Medical Center (New York: The Hafner Publishing Company, 1959), 243-263, esp. 245.
Located a few miles northwest of Paris, the village of Asnieres would become a favorite of Impressionist painters, including Seurat, Monet, and Van Gogh.
Louis Vuitton, LV Now, “Louis Vuitton and BMW Partner to Create Luggage for the Future,” 04/02.
Tiffany Tan, “ Journey of a Trunk,” China Daily, last modified 1 June 2011.
Wohl, R.A., A Passion for Wings: Aviation and the Western Imagination, 1908-1914 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press,1994), 97-125, quoted in Xiaogang Chen, ed., Advances in 3D Textiles (Oxford, UK: Elsevier, 2015), 293.
The Handbag Spa, “The History of Louis Vuitton and Information Guide,” 31 March 2017.
“Mon may have originated as fabric patterns to be used on clothes in order to distinguish individuals or signify membership of a specific clan or organization.” Wikipedia, “Mon (emblem),” last modiifed 2 December 2017,“https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mon_(emblem)
Dominic Cadogan, “Louis Vuitton’s Best Cult Art Collaborations,” Dazed (13 April 2017).
Also see Spotted Fashion, Brand Guides, Fall-Winter 2014, Louis Vuitton, “Louis Vuitton Monogram Iconoclasts Bag Collection Reference Guide,” 10 September 2014.
Harold Stephens, “Do You Have A Louis Vuitton?” ROH Travel Weekly, Thai Airways International, accessed 14 December 2017.
Also See “Louis Vuitton,” International Directory of Company Histories, Accessed 14 December 2017.
“Lvmh Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton Sa - Company Profile,” Reference for Business Encyclopedia, accessed 14 December 2017.
Stephens, Harold, “Do You Have A Louis Vuitton,”.
Stephens, a travel Correspondent for Royal Orchid Holidays at Thai Airways International and the author of more than 25 books and about 4,500 newspaper articles, does not include sources for the many Vuitton stories included in the article. Some of the information was, no doubt, gathered first-hand by Stephens on his visit to the Asniere atelier, which he mentions in the article.
Martha Cliff, “Princesses in Print…Eugenie and Beatrice attended a Vogue Event at Louis Vuitton on Tuesday,” Daily Mail.Com, 21 November 2017 16:22, last modified 22 November 2017 03:24. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-5105261/Beatrice-Eugenie-attend-Louis-Vuitton-event.html
Michael Burke, Vuitton Chairman and CEO, “[E]ach generation of Vuitton has been very of-the-moment. We’re constantly adapting, and yet we’re always firmly informed by the past. Those are not contradictions. This is what the [Grand Palais] exhibition shows.” Quoted by Miles Socha in “Trains, Planes and Automobiles: Vuitton Decodes Its History in Paris,” WWD (3 December 2015), accessed 14 December 2017.
Bernard Arnault, “The Objectives,“ The Foundation Louis Vuitton, accessed 14 December 2017.
Martin Argyroglo, “Adrian Villar Rojas -Where the slaves live © Fondation Louis Vuitton,” photograph, Forgemind Archimedia, Licensed for noncommercial use under Creative Commons.
Henry Samuel, “The Académie Française: Custodians of the French Language,” The Telegraph (11 October 2011 06:37), accessed 14 December 2017.
Also see “Missions,” Academie Francaise, accessed 14 December 2014.