The French designer and furniture maker Hervé Van der Straeten – known for his bold forms, innovative materials and exquisite execution – takes us on a tour of his Paris gallery and explains his latest collection, entitled Manipulations.
By his own admission, Hervé Van der Straeten is manipulative and controlling. Though he is referring to his work as a designer as opposed to any unattractive character traits. For not only is Van der Straeten utterly charming, but he also creates striking furniture and lighting by pushing the boundaries of shape and material, meticulously supervising the entire production process at his own workshop and gallery in Paris. “It’s a very egoistic way of thinking and only for my own pleasure,” he says of his way of working. “But at the end I get some very strong pieces that like.”
Those pieces range from a gleaming console made from a pile of tubes that appear to defy gravity (“In a lot of my pieces there is this idea of movement”), to spectacular chandeliers crafted from a type of glass usually used on skyscrapers (“You really feel like you’re in a mirrored maze”), both of which are found in Van der Straeten’s new collection entitled Manipulations.
Bold shapes are his signature, sculpted from materials that he describes as his “friends”: bronze, unusual woods, rare marbles, crystal, stainless steel, glass, carbon fiber, and aluminum. “There are always new materials in my work,” he says of his drive to discover interesting textures, colors and irregularities.
An ultra high quality of craftsmanship is another Van der Straeten hallmark, as is an impeccable finish, both of which have attracted the attention of the world’s leading decorators and collectors, as well as his contemporaries (in 2009 he was awarded the Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French government for outstanding achievement in the arts). Pitched somewhere between furniture, sculpture and design, his work defies categorization, even from himself. “I just design what I like,” he remarks.
A graduate of Paris’s Ecole des Beaux Arts, where he studied painting, Van der Straeten, 45, made a name of himself during the 1980s designing jewelry under his own name as well as for leading fashion houses. While he still designs a jewelry collection twice a year – made using his signature hammered brass with a gold finish – his focus has been furniture and lighting since he opened his gallery in 1999. He collaborates frequently with the fashion industry and famously designed the J’Adore Dior fragrance bottle. Last year, he crated the bottle for Helena Rubinstein’s Wanted fragrance and he has also produced major parts of Roger Vivier stores around the world.
Whereas once Van der Straeten was something of a secret, his work is becoming increasingly well known. As such, he is busier than ever: Manipulations just opened at his Paris gallery, more new work will be revealed by the gallerist Ralph Pucci in Los Angeles in March, and the Pierre Berge gallery in Brussels will exhibit specially commissioned pieces in April.
Despite his success, Van der Straeten continues to strive to improve. Is he a perfectionist? “Absolutely. As long as you have the feeling that you can improve something, it’s interesting to improve,” he says of his quest for precise volumes and innovative materials. He sums up his style: “It’s a mix of a modern way of working and a traditional way of making.”
What is your definition of luxury?
Freedom and serenity.
If luxury were an object, what would it be?
A chair from Gerrit Rietveld.
If luxury were a person, who would it be?
My best friends.
If luxury were a place, where would it be?
If luxury were a moment, when would it be?
A nap with my cat.
Tell us about your latest collection, Manipulations.
Manipulations is a play on words. This show is about manipulating different materials and also about manipulating the mind because in my pieces you have some sort of visual tricks. For example, there is a console made from a pile of tubes and the viewer doesn’t quite know how it all happens or if it’s going to fall apart. Also, in this show there are more pieces that are very elaborate in terms of craftsmanship.
How would you describe your work?
My pieces are strong but I don’t like them to shout. They have to be perfect and clever and have their own character. I like an idea to be developed in a very strong way with only few materials or sometimes several. The idea is to have a powerful piece. Of course, a lot of my pieces look like they are very logical, evident and simple, but a lot of work is required to achieve that. When I first started my objects were all fluid and wavy shapes. Now it’s a mix of the material itself and the form, which is geometrical and architectural these days. It’s always evolving.
Do you consider your designs to be sculpture or furniture, or something else?
I don’t think of my pieces in terms of sculpture or furniture. I just design what I like to design and since I have total freedom because I have my own gallery and my own workshop, I don’t think in terms of strategy or what people would like to see. So I am able to push the research and design, the experimentation with materials and exploring a very high quality of craftsmanship. This freedom creates some very strong pieces.
At what point do you decide on which materials to use?
Most of the time the shape comes first. I’m a type of constructer, I would say. I design a form and then I think of the material after. The choice of the material is to reinforce the look of the structure. With the Crystalloid Console made from cubes, we have something that almost looks like pyrite, a metal stone made out of crystallized iron. So I thought that it would look good in nickelled brass and also in silver.
Which are your favorite materials to work with?
Materials are like my friends, I keep picking up more. My old friends are bronze, lacquer and parchment. When I opened my workshop for cabinet making I started to use all types of ebony and rare and precious woods like Madagascar ebony. I keep adding new materials like iridescent glass or bronze with a silver finish. One interesting material is aluminum mixed with bronze, which I think is unusual. You get this very intense color because of the special treatment. I also use anodized aluminum, which undergoes a special process where electricity and chemicals are passed through the metal and it is tinted from the inside.
Do you ever commission materials?
These are limited edition pieces so I don’t have the ability to develop materials because it costs a lot. But I do interfere with the process and on every detail preceding the creation of the materials. With the lacquer, I work directly with the lacquer people to get this irregular color on the chairs. I work on the materials but I don’t create them.
How close are your original sketches and ideas to the final pieces?
The drawings are very close to the final result because I sketch the pieces and then work directly with my drawing room and then we make the three-dimensional mock up. Since I follow every step of the process, it’s very close to the first little quick sketch. Sometimes I use some rough sketches that I draw when I’m on the phone, which come directly from my subconscious. I use them a lot because sometimes they’re interesting.
You studied painting, were successful as a jewelry designer and now make spectacular furniture. How has your work evolved?
In fact, very early on I was designing lamps and furniture and was designing jewelry on the side. It just happened that the jewelry became very successful in the 1980s, so I started to do more. But if I look at my sketchbook, I always wanted to do furniture.
Which is your favorite piece from your new collection?
I would say the Crystalloid Console with the cubes is one of my favorite pieces. For me, it’s really an achievement in terms of shape and material. Also, I achieved the shape with the computer. Of course, I did a sketch but the drawing was achieved by working on the screen. It was the first time that I really finished a piece with this kind of tool because it’s very intricate and you can’t really design it without the program.
What drives you to create ever more intricate pieces?
There’s a very strong tradition in France of making furniture very well and if you’re interested in furniture you look at the way it’s made. If you’re passionate with your work then you always want to push the boundaries of what could be better. Since you only live once you might as well do things well.
How much of your work is bought by collectors?
Most of the time the people who buy my pieces are people who want a very strong accent in their house, or people who are very passionate about decorative arts and are collectors. Those are my very good clients and they come before each show to see what’s new.
What do you collect yourself?
I have very eclectic tastes for myself. I have some 18th century furniture, contemporary art, things from the sixties, and some pieces from Xavier Veilhan. As long as the pieces talk together and discuss, I think it’s interesting. It’s even more interesting to create a strong contrast and a conversation like I try to do in my gallery, which is something I also do at home.
A TOUR OF THE NEW COLLECTION
Soulages Writing Desk
For me this is one of the best achievements in terms of high quality cabinet making. It is kind of an homage to Pierre Soulages because it’s like his black stripes. This cabinet is made from a mix of solid ebony and paduk, which is an African red wood. The inside of the secretary is all cased with parchment, which is goatskin or lambskin that is processed to be very smooth and transparent. There are lots of little details: the pulls in ebony, the little drawers, a light, and a secret compartment. The hinges are transformed into a type of jewelry that surrounds the furniture so that you don’t have the idea that it’s a hinge. You get the idea that it’s a little obi belt on a kimono.
Here we have a console made out of nickelled brass, which is really like a type of silversmith work. It’s all made out of cubes that interlink with each other. On a lot of pieces in this show I worked around the idea of accumulation, repetition and multiplication. This comes in an edition of six, which will also be made in sterling silver.
Pipe Show Console No.372
Here the functionality is a bit hidden although it is there because even with the tubes, you have a flat top so you can use it to display things. It might not be the most practical thing, but it does work. In a lot of my pieces there is this idea of movement and dynamics. You feel like the tubes might be shaking and moving, while at the same time if feels very steady and has this sense of authority in a way.
This is a console made out of a new material, which is a half mirrored, half iridescent glass. It’s an interesting mix because the brass and marble are quite traditional materials but the glass itself is more industrial as it’s used mostly for all-glass buildings. The glass has been treated very precisely to produce reflections and colors that range from green to blue to purple to pink. It’s a traditional design for me because you have a very stable frame but you get all the movement and irregularity in the feet. It’s always a combination and contrast between something messy and something organized. I’m very happy with this piece.
I used the same: a half mirrored, half iridescent glass for this chandelier. It seems that it’s floating because you can’t see the way the pieces are attached. What’s nice is that you feel like you’re in a mirrored maze at a fun fair. It is made in an edition of eight pieces.
This is the first chair I made. They’re based on cubes and created from parchment, bronze and lacquer. In a way it’s like a three-dimensional Mondrian painting, which you can see if you look at it from different angles.
Here we have a cabinet encased with slices of obsidian stone, which are held together by pieces of brass. Inside, it’s wood with leather. You just see the design but all the details and craftsmanship is hidden. There’s a lot of engineering needed to have these simple looking pieces!
These chairs are cast in aluminum with a special irregular lacquer. They’re also being made in a very nice wood.
Manipulations, An Exhibition of New Furniture by Hervé Van der Straeten
January through April 2010
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