Spend a few minutes at Ateliers de la Petite Enfance, a new nursery school two blocks from Paris’s Luxembourg Garden, and you might not initially notice anything out of the ordinary. In one corner, a two-year-old boy slathers orange fingerpaint on just about everything except the blank sheet of paper he’s been given, while at a nearby table, another boy kneads a block of clay into an amorphous blob that he triumphantly declares is a birthday cake. Gradually, however, a discerning eye will spot a few unmistakable signs of pre-K fabulousness. The blue cotton smocks, with their tiny front pockets, look very A.P.C., the label known for low-key Parisian cool; the kiddie-size chairs are by Alvar Aalto. The school’s logo is a multicolored tree created by fashion designer Jessica Ogden, who also serves as a part-time art teacher.
Welcome to Paris’s hippest private preschool, open since January in the heart of the 6th arrondissement. The school’s name—A.P.E. for short—draws a clear connection to its cofounder, A.P.C. owner and designer Jean Touitou. But for Touitou, a former Trotskyite who made his name creating rigorously untrendy, logo-free pieces inspired by proletarian workwear, issues of style are often inseparable from questions of politics and philosophy. And A.P.E. is his attempt to offer a creative alternative to France’s by-the-book state schools, which have stuck with the same rigid teaching system for decades. As for the Aalto chairs and the chic gray cotton-cashmere blankets that are handed out at nap time, Touitou believes that a child is never too young to develop an appreciation for quality goods. “Even if you grow up to be an accountant, it’s better to be surrounded by beautiful furniture than by ugly furniture,” he says.
A.P.E. began taking shape last summer, when Touitou and his wife, Judith, were looking for a school for their daughter Lily, now three. State-run French preschools, with their 30-to-1 student-teacher ratios, were out; Judith lobbied for a private Catholic school in their Left Bank neighborhood, but Jean, who was raised in Tunisia by Jewish parents, has, as he puts it, “a big philosophical problem with monotheism.” Ultimately he and Judith teamed with Géraldine Lefebvre (the director of Lily’s day care center at the time) and two other associates to launch A.P.E. in a space that Jean had been renting on rue Cassette. Several kids followed Lefebvre from the day care center to the new school, whose 25 slots have been filled.
Though it was designed by architect Laurent Deroo, the man behind A.P.C.’s edgily minimalist boutiques, the space is packed with primary colors and makes all the appropriate concessions to its function. “This is a nursery school, so you can’t just put in a concrete floor because it looks good,” says Touitou, a wry and soft-spoken 56-year-old who delivers most of his comments with a world-weary half smile. Deroo installed several multi-function built-ins, such as plywood closet doors that double as climbing walls, to encourage the kids to use objects in innovative ways. A satellite space, opening around the corner this spring, will serve as the school’s arts workshop, with a mini stage for concerts and plays.