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When author and tastemaker Ajiri Aki first came to Paris as a student to work on her master’s thesis for a few months, she had no idea her path would eventually lead her back. Born in Nigeria and raised in Texas, Ajiri was working in fashion in New York when she met her Swiss husband, Thomas Buchwalder. After a long-distance romance the couple were married in 2011 and decided to settle in Paris, where Thomas was already working as a film producer.
Although Ajiri found expat life a little lonely at first, she soon found her feet by hosting supper clubs and “salons.” In 2018, her love of entertaining led to the creation of her unique lifestyle brand, Madame de la Maison. “Gathering was the way I made a community here in Paris and I was inviting friends over all the time and a friend said to me, ‘you’re so good at this and you love doing it’, so I decided to turn what was my passion, inviting people to my table, into a project, into my work.”
Initially the idea was to create table linens. “I knew I wanted to work with 100% linens and found a factory and had some samples made. I’d already been collecting antiques for a long time and I thought if I was already creating linens for the table, why not create a whole universe for the table? There’s already so many wonderful things out in the universe so why make new ones, as far as plates go.”
Art de la Table
Ajiri’s love of antiques runs deep. As a child, her mother would drag her around Austin to flea markets and garage sales, where she learned early on how to spot hidden treasure. After graduating with a degree in Fashion Promotion, she went on to study the Decorative Arts at Bard Graduate Center in New York. And with the move to Paris, she was suddenly in her element. “I was always interested in the decorative arts and it was really wonderful to come to France to actually see things at the flea markets that I focused on in my papers or lectures.”
And Ajiri is always on the lookout for beautiful and unusual antiques. Today, Madame de la Maison offers antique tableware and linens all carefully sourced and curated by Ajiri. “I love the Marché aux Puces de Saint–Ouen and there’s also the ephemeral flea markets that change locations across Paris.” She also offers a finders service for clients planning a special event, she will track down the perfect pieces for the occasion.
Joie de vivre
The backdrop for Ajiri’s work is her stylish 11th arrondissement home where she loves to gather with friends. With its pretty Parisian features and Ajiri’s impeccable taste, her apartment is effortlessly elegant, but Ajiri is keen that her guests always feel cozy and comfortable. She credits her Nigerian roots with her love of celebration and believes that coming together with friends and family is vital for our wellbeing.
And it’s this ethos that led to her new book, Joie: A Parisian’s Guide to Celebrating the Good Life. The idea was born out of her frustration with lockdown, when she was suddenly unable to invite guests into her home. “I just wanted to dig deep and find out what is the joy we are missing out on.”
Another driving force behind Joie is her heartfelt belief that we should actually use the things we love. In her personal essay, A Case for the Good China, she recalls how her mother’s beautiful wedding china was always kept locked away in a dark cabinet while the family dined on plastic plates. One Easter, young Ajiri managed to convince her mother into using the good china for a party. Delighted, she set about laying the table.
“It was a glorious ritual that I had never experienced before! I joined my mother in setting a plate in front of each chair at the table and placing the appropriate cutlery beside each person’s plate.” But as she stood back to admire their work, her mother abruptly changed her mind and packed it all away again, warning that it was bound to get broken. Her mother sadly passed away when Ajiri was 12, without ever enjoying her precious china.
With both Madame de la Maison and Joie, Ajiri is urging us to use the good china. And while both her website and her book are brimming with beautifully photographed tabletops and pretty crockery, her message runs deeper than aesthetics. It’s about creating a space to connect with the people around us and finding joy in little things.
With the holidays fast approaching, we asked Ajiri for her top tips for setting a beautiful table:
- “Remember that it’s about the people and not perfection. It’s about coming together and having a good time and gathering.”
- “Add a linen, putting a linen down is always a great way to elevate a great moment, whether it’s a linen napkin or table cloth or a runner.”
- “Don’t be afraid to mix and match. Just keep a common thread, whether you’re mixing and matching blues or mixing and matching greens. Or a combo of blue and green. And set the table the night before or the morning of, so you have one less thing to do and you won’t be stressed out.”
You can find more tips at madamedelamaison.com and in Ajiri’s book JOIE: A Parisian’s Guide to Celebrating the Good Life, which is out now.
Lead photo credit : “Joie” Copyright © 2023 Ajiri Aki Photograph copyright © 2023 by Jessica Antola. Published by Clarkson Potter, an imprint of Random House.