Structural brawn and decorative splendour marry in the work of veteran French designer Hervé Van der Straeten
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,
RARE—AND VALUABLE. VAN DER STRAETEN’S ONE-OF-A-KIND AND LIMITED EDITION WORKS REGULARLY SELL FOR SIX FIGURES AND, LIKE WORKS OF ART, ARE INCREASINGLY SOUGHT AFTER ON THE SECONDARY MARKET
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