Ajiri Aki’s apartment is a chest of collected treasures. In the living room, the marble mantel holds at least nine varieties of flowers, both fresh and dried, each in its own flea-market-chic vase. There’s a crystal tray of chestnuts and an ornate golden stand displaying vintage Paris postcards. An olive-green runner is draped on a rustic wooden dining table set with mismatched china and a sterling rack of buttered toast and porcelain egg cups with soft-boiled eggs. For Aki, founder of Madame de la Maison, a linen and antique tableware boutique, even a morning meeting is imbued with a spirit of joie, the title of her book – a guide to cultivating joy every day, à la française.
“Joy is not the same thing as happiness,” explains Aki, 43, while expertly guillotining an egg. “You can be unhappy and still tap into joy. You can be grumpy and still tap into joy. In fact, when the French do la grève, they’re out there drinking and singing,” she says with a laugh. It’s finding pleasure wherever you are – even in the midst of a protest. It’s l’art d’être, the art of being, an idea that Aki explains in the first chapter of Joie. It’s breaking out the fine china for a weekday breakfast. “For the French, joie is their North Star. There’s no joy in constantly longing for something. It’s about finding peace with your life and exploring.”
The author, who was born in Nigeria and moved with her family to Austin, Texas, when she was five, has had ample time to observe the French and their particular approach to living well. While studying decorative arts at the Bard Graduate Center in New York City, she spent a summer in Paris, immersing herself in the world of French couturier Jean Patou, the subject of her master’s thesis. Since returning to the City of Light in 2011, then newly-married to a Swiss-German executive film producer, Aki has given birth to two children and slowly infiltrated the culture. But, she admits, the early days were challenging. “People back home were like, ‘Paris is so beautiful,’ but it can be lonely if you don’t find your tribe. Looking back, I wish that I had taken more advantage [of this free time] because now my life is so busy with kids. I could have gone to see more exhibitions and done more solo trips. I wish that I would have embraced that solitude and been more of a flâneur.”
A Pandemic Project
The flâneur, or wanderer, is one subject Aki covers in Joie, along with the importance of the (legally enshrined) lunch break, linen tips from a French grandmother, and why saying “no” is an act of self-preservation. Like many book projects (and children), Joie was conceived during the pandemic. During the first lockdown, in the spring of 2020, Aki began mapping out a proposal about a concept that she had become fascinated with since becoming a Parisienne. “I started thinking: What is it about French culture that has changed me? What lessons have I learned about finding joy?” Ever a student of life, Aki embraced the research process, which entailed dozens of interviews with France-based tastemakers like baker and cookbook author Frank Adrian Barron and wine educator Tanisha Townsend, the founder of Girl Meets Glass. “Cultural history is so interesting. Conversations about how people do things in America versus in France – is one better than the other? I like the conversation that comes from questions like that.”
Common threads between her heritage and her adopted home began to emerge. Take fellowship: “That was something in me, from Nigerian culture – the more, the merrier. While it seems so hard to penetrate a group of French people, I noticed that there’s an element of them like Nigerians in the sense that they like to gather with their pack – the big family dinners or epic long lunches.” She continues: “Understanding the culture made me appreciate the people and living in France so much more.” The book, which comes out in English this April, is already a #1 New Release on Amazon. Paris-based American journalist Lindsey Tramuta calls it “a visual and inspirational masterpiece,” “a well-rounded window into the French way of life.”
So, what does the future hold for the entrepreneur and author? Most immediately, a couple of licensing deals – antique-y door handles and French-inspired paper goods. The details are still being ironed out, but Aki’s vision for the long term is crystal clear: “I want to keep making products that will bring people together – beautiful things to have around when you’re gathering and having joyful moments.”
Joie: A Parisian’s Guide to Celebrating the Good Life by Ajiri Aki, Clarkson Potter, April 18, 2023.