En­gi­neer­ing Beauty

Struc­tural brawn and dec­o­ra­tive splen­dour marry in the work of vet­eran French de­signer Hervé Van der Straeten

Hong Kong Tatler - - March -

w hat do Tom Ford, Steven Spiel­berg and Princess Marie-chan­tal have in com­mon? Aside from names that can pro­cure last-minute reser­va­tions at Nobu, they’re all avid clients of fur­ni­ture de­signer Hervé Van der Straeten, who is famed for bold, ar­chi­tec­tural pieces that bridge the di­vide be­tween in­te­rior de­sign and con­tem­po­rary art.

The Parisian de­signer’s work—his oeu­vre also in­cludes jew­ellery and light­ing—evokes the alien and the an­cient, and his meth­ods are both cut­ting edge and painstak­ingly tra­di­tional. Bronze, alu­minium, wood, al­abaster and goatskin parch­ment are hand­wrought, pol­ished, carved and stretched to cre­ate con­soles, mir­rors and chan­de­liers. “A piece is per­fect to me when it com­bines a strong con­cept with a high level of craftsmanship that seems in­vis­i­ble,” Van der Straeten says from his home on the Île Saint­louis on a cool, grey day in the French cap­i­tal. “Tra­di­tional man­u­fac­tur­ing has al­ways been nat­u­ral to me even though it is against all of to­day’s norms. It is costly and ter­ri­bly time con­sum­ing but the re­sult is that it gen­er­ates pieces that are rare.”

Rare—and valu­able. Van der Straeten’s oneof-a-kind and lim­ited edi­tion works reg­u­larly sell for six fig­ures (we’re talk­ing US dol­lars), and, like works of art, are in­creas­ingly sought af­ter on the sec­ondary mar­ket. “Over the last few years pieces of my fur­ni­ture have started to be pre­sented at auc­tion by pri­vate col­lec­tors and the re­sults are usu­ally very good. Any­thing good does not lose its value over time.” Does he con­sider him­self an artist or a de­signer? “I do not pay at­ten­tion to this dif­fer­ence of terms and do not think there is a hi­er­ar­chy be­tween the two. A de­signer cre­ates ob­jects which have a func­tion. This is what I do, so I am per­fectly happy to be a de­signer. On the other hand, I do func­tion like an artist pro­duc­ing my pieces in my own work­shops. I con­trol ev­ery step of the cre­ation and the man­u­fac­tur­ing.”

He may be pas­sion­ate about craftsmanship, but that doesn’t mean he shuns tech­nol­ogy. He uses 3D print­ing, for in­stance, but he never con­sid­ers a work com­plete un­less it bears his fin­ger­prints. “I like to sculpt the shapes for my work by hand first, then we scan the ob­ject and du­pli­cate it us­ing a 3D printer. Some­times we even cre­ate the mod­els, 3D-print them, then work them by hand again to give them more soul and more soft­ness.”

Van der Straeten in­tended to be an en­gi­neer like his fa­ther. As a boy he whiled away hours con­struct­ing houses out of Lego. In these struc­tural ex­er­cises, he be­came in­creas­ingly fo­cused on find­ing so­lu­tions that em­bod­ied his ideals of beauty and el­e­gance. He mus­cled through a year of an en­gi­neer­ing de­gree be­fore en­rolling in art school. “At en­gi­neer­ing school I learned to cre­ate proper plans and con­ceive in­tri­cate things. Then I went to the École des Beaux-arts where I learnt to be to­tally free and for­get about rules,” says the 52-year-old, who grad­u­ated with a de­gree in paint­ing. “I was en­cour­aged first to be ex­tremely strict, then to be ex­tremely free. I guess this is in­ter­est­ing, in ret­ro­spect, be­cause you find these com­pet­ing philoso­phies, these ten­sions, in my work.”

That much is ev­i­dent in Empilée Con­sole, a table com­posed of slanted pieces of lac­quered wood and mink pati­nated tex­tured bronze, which Van der Straeten con­sid­ers to be one of his best works. “The blocks look ran­domly and ir­reg­u­larly dis­played, but the piece is highly en­gi­neered,” he says. “It looks strong but it also has a sense of move­ment and

light­ness. This is one of the most im­pres­sive pieces be­cause it is el­e­gant, graphic, there is a sense of move­ment, a sense of author­ity, and there’s some­thing joy­ful about it. These are all of the el­e­ments you find in my body of work.” Is his mind dom­i­nated by the left or right brain? “The two sides get along very well and are good part­ners. On top of this, I’m a Li­bra so I’m al­ways look­ing for har­mony. The cre­ative side fools around with sculp­tural con­cepts, shapes and colours, and the other side makes it hap­pen pre­cisely.”

In spite of the math­e­mat­i­cal pre­ci­sion of his pieces, much of Van der Straeten’s work is in­spired by what he refers to as ac­ci­dents. “A lot of my de­sign comes from the scrib­bling I do when I’m on the tele­phone,” he says. “I think it’s in­ter­est­ing to study the scrib­bles one cre­ates in this kind of semi-present state.” Pieces like Miroir Cos­mique and Lus­tre Mic­mac were both in­spired by such doo­dles.

Per­fec­tion is a re­cur­ring theme in con­ver­sa­tions with Van der Straeten. He was quoted in a 2013 Wall Street Jour­nal pro­file say­ing he is “ob­sessed” with achiev­ing this lofty, sub­jec­tive ideal. Be­yond a strong con­cept with a high level of craftsmanship,


he feels an ob­ject is flaw­less when it “at­tracts you and glows in a mys­te­ri­ous way.”

I ask where his ob­ses­sion orig­i­nates. He tells me one need only look to the his­tory of the French dec­o­ra­tive arts, re­plete with tales of ar­ti­sans striv­ing for per­fec­tion. He is par­tic­u­larly in­flu­enced by the elab­o­rate fur­ni­ture of the 18th­cen­tury baroque pe­riod, which was made with metic­u­lous at­ten­tion to de­tail. Ja­panese aes­thet­ics also in­flu­ence him. “I love their mix of mod­ernism, their re­spect for tra­di­tion and their pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with sim­plic­ity. Ja­panese de­sign is all about hav­ing one strong idea and bring­ing it to life with per­fect craftsmanship.”

His in­fat­u­a­tion with per­fec­tion also stems from the fact he be­gan his ca­reer as a jew­ellery de­signer. Since grad­u­at­ing from art school in 1985, he has made jew­ellery for Chris­tian Lacroix, Yves Saint Lau­rent and his own epony­mous brand. He also con­cep­tu­alised the bot­tle for Dior’s J’adore fra­grance (“It’s an in­trigu­ing ob­ject,” he says of the bot­tle pop­u­larised by ac­tress Char­l­ize Theron. “With its long, elon­gated neck, it evokes fem­i­nin­ity, an­tiq­uity, and yet it’s very mod­ern”).

How does jew­ellery de­sign re­late to per­fec­tion­ism? Are jew­ellers no­to­ri­ous for be­ing per­fec­tion­ists? “No, but as a jew­ellery de­signer you work on a very small scale. You’re cre­at­ing some­thing pre­cious, some­thing worn by women, so you tend to think in terms of pre­ci­sion, soft­ness, move­ment. It has to be del­i­cate. You think in terms of tiny ob­jects, of

de­tails that span half a mil­lime­tre, so when you be­gin work­ing on a larger scale your ob­jects tend to keep this level of pre­cious­ness.”

Van der Straeten opened his gallery in the Marais dis­trict of Paris in 1999. By 2004 he had his own bronze and cab­i­net-mak­ing work­shops. He has al­ways worked for him­self. “I’m very lucky to have al­ways been in­de­pen­dent,” he says. “It’s very sat­is­fy­ing as a de­signer to have to­tal free­dom over what you can do.”

In 2008 he was ap­pointed a cheva­lier in the Or­der of Arts and Let­ters, and in 2012 he be­came a mem­ber of the Comité Col­bert, an or­gan­i­sa­tion founded in 1954 by Jean-jac­ques Guer­lain to pro­mote the lux­ury sec­tor. His work is in nu­mer­ous gal­leries around the world, in­clud­ing the Flore Gallery in Brus­sels, the Karsten Greve Gallery in St Moritz, Switzer­land, and the Ralph Pucci Gallery in New York.

This month, Van der Straeten’s work fea­tures in the open­ing ex­hi­bi­tion of Ralph Pucci’s new 10,000-square-foot gallery in Los An­ge­les. He will also be part of a ma­jor ex­hi­bi­tion at the Na­tional Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art in Paris from March 23. He will show three ob­jects, which will be part of a di­a­logue with art deco pieces of fur­ni­ture as well as con­tem­po­rary cre­ations from Sèvres and Van Cleef & Ar­pels jew­ellery from the 1930s.

Van der Straeten de­scribes him­self as “cu­ri­ous” and his in­spi­ra­tions “eclec­tic.” In the end, he says, true per­fec­tion in de­sign hinges on the in­ter­min­gling of com­ple­men­tary and con­flict­ing in­flu­ences. “Any­one should feel free to mix what­ever they like,” says the de­signer. “An in­te­rior should show its owner’s per­son­al­ity in­stead of try­ing to erase it by mak­ing it look per­fect and dull. An in­te­rior is more mu­si­cal and whim­si­cal if dif­fer­ent pe­ri­ods and styles com­bine and some­times fight.”

This ap­pre­ci­a­tion for dy­namism and con­flict is ev­i­dent in the dis­parate pool of his idols—ger­rit Ri­etveld, Shigeru Ban, Charles Ren­nie Mack­in­tosh, Josef Hoff­mann and Pierre Chareau. The Mies van der Rohe pav­il­ion in Barcelona is in his view the “epit­ome of el­e­gance and moder­nity.” Is it im­por­tant to look to the past to in­no­vate? “Cre­ation does not gen­er­ate it­self from noth­ing­ness,” he says. “It is cru­cial to em­brace and un­der­stand the cre­ativ­ity of the past. It gives more soul to any cre­ation and links it to our col­lec­tive mem­ory.” Rev­er­ent and re­bel­lious, Van der Straeten is ce­ment­ing his place in our col­lec­tive mem­ory, too.

CAP­TION LEDE Cap­tion xxxxx xxx xxxxxxx xxx xxxxxxx xxx xxxxxxxx xxx xxx xxxxxxx xxx xxxxxxxx xxx xxxx xxxxxxx.poressi dolup­tis do­lo­rum et even­tem­pos dusapid quatem­porero te nam, qu­ostin cturen­dandi opta in none­sendae. Nam re volorio opta et veri simen­du­cia sed qui illupta ssi­me­nis sit molen­den­dit mo­lent

TALK­ING PIECES The owner of this apart­ment in the Faubourg Saint-an­toine dis­trict of Paris dis­plays a se­lec­tion of Hervé Van der Straeten’s pieces, in­clud­ing his Cap­sule foot­stools, Chi­noise lamp and Trace side ta­bles

CLASS ACT A Louis XVI sofa is the sole clas­si­cal el­e­ment in this Parisian apart­ment’s liv­ing area. The Cap­sule foot­stool, Mon­drian cof­fee table, Epines floor lamps and pot sculp­ture are all by Hervé Van der Straeten. The mo­bile is by Xavier Veil­han

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