Dinner in Ibu and Lionel Poilâne's dining room, three floors above the world's most famous bakery, combines classic and modern styles to create something that transcends both. Lionel, of course, is the traditionalist who reminded the French of their culinary roots when, at age 20, in 1965, he took over his father's bakery on the Rue du Cherche-Midi, in Paris's sixth arrondissement, and refused to make baguettes, which are often more picturesque than flavorful. Instead he baked the wide, round loaves now known around the world as pain Poilâne. These sturdy four-pound disks look like something medieval pilgrims would have packed for the Crusades, with a thick and crunchy crust, a slightly chewy texture and the tang of slowly risen sourdough.
While Lionel was building an empire on a foundation of traditional baking, his wife was developing her own style. Born of Ukrainian parents, Ibu spent her first thirteen years in Poland, then moved to New York City, where she earned a degree from the Pratt Institute of Design. Thanks to professors like Joe d'Urso and Ward Bennett, she acquired an austere Bauhaus aesthetic that she has never abandoned. After graduation, she designed store interiors for Bloomingdale's in Manhattan and Burdine's in Miami. Eventually she opened her own shop in Paris, Ibu Gallery, specializing in art jewelry--some of her own design, some by other modernists, such as Ted Muehling. After years of dividing her time between Paris and New York, Ibu now lives full-time in France and runs her own design studio. Recent projects have included a collection of bronze furnishings sold by Christian Liaigre and, for Chanel haute couture, a line of 18-karat-gold jewelry inspired by the simple form of the circle.
The Poilânes' contrasting styles coexist happily in the 16th-century building where Lionel began baking bread at age 14, and which Lionel and Ibu now own. The ground-level shop is pure nostalgia, with naïf paintings of wheat fields on the walls and piles of bread on the wooden shelves. Upstairs, however, Ibu's minimalist aesthetic shows in the transformation of a warren of tiny apartments into efficient spaces for Lionel's staff and her own design studio. It's also expressed in the whitewashed library she created for her husband's 2,000 books on bread and baking as well as his mementos, such as the framed cotton sacks that once contained American flour sent to postwar France through the Marshall Plan. (Now, with 5,000 mail-order customers in America, Lionel sends bread back.)