Hubert Le Gall, a Paris-based powerhouse of deft design, takes the home with a sense of humor, creating imaginative furniture with artful aspirations and practical applications.
Definition of luxury:
Freedom, of course.
If luxury were:
A moment: The moment when I'm in my bath. I'm relaxed and have time to think, it's where I get the most inspiration.
A thing: Something useful, using art in a functional way. With a priceless vase, breaking the museum glass, and using the vase.
A place: A sunny beach far from Paris, with nothing to do.
A person: The person I live with. I'm not going to get myself in trouble!
Hubert Le Gall is the quintessential Paris creative – a blow-in. Originating from France's second city, Lyon, Le Gall – a chatty, fair-haired man with expressive eyes in his early forties – came to Paris as a student to follow a curriculum far from the universe of art, and never left.
One of the ironic nuggets of Le Gall's life story is that he resides in Montmartre (a Paris art cliché) and that his atelier once belonged to Pierre Bonnard (an actual art reference). His immersion in the world of art is not accidental, for although Le Gall is a designer his work is informed at every level by a dual artistic sensibility and a true appreciation of craft.
At first glance Le Gall's work could be described as humorous, and there's certainly a broad vein of fun running through commodes sprouting livestock heads or fire dogs shaped like genitalia, but beneath the surface that 2-D delight is backed up with depth and detail. Not just detail, but a laborious, hand-crafted, logic-defying way of working that means one of the aforementioned commodes, though relatively small as commodes go, weighs in at 250kg. It's made of bronze. Good luck dusting under that one.
Of course not everything that Le Gall creates requires a crane to move it, and, running through July 31st, a concise exhibition of his work in the Louvre des Antiquaires – a three-storey warren of tiny antique stores in the center of Paris opposite the Louvre Museum – sets out to give a overview of the striking output of this much-admired but not over-exposed designer.
"In Paris I found a willing clientele really quick, and that was what was important for me," Le Gall explains of his decision to remain in the French capital following his studies. Despite studies that were based in the world of number crunching, Le Gall's desires were not for life in a suit-clad world. He did, apparently, do a stint as an insurance salesman though. "Oh, no, no, let's just forget about that!" he replies, waving away the query with his hand humorously. It's clearly not the first time this subject has arisen.
"I've always done what I wanted, but at a certain moment after I did my studies that I realized that unless I did what I really wanted I wouldn't be happy," he explains. "At the start I was painting, then it became, 'Can you do a table?' and I did a table. 'Can you do a chandelier?' and I did a chandelier. And, little by little, I realized that I liked that. But I was lucky it worked. There's a time to obey, and a time when you must disobey."
Though he may technically have disobeyed his parents over two decades ago with his foray into art and design, his obedience to form with a function is absolute in his work. "I think today there's a big porosity between the worlds of art and design. I've always inhaled the influence of art when it comes to creating. Looking at the inspiration behind my daisy table, it was more about Warhol and his daisies that it was from nature," he says, gesturing to a table comprised of bronze daisies, the petals uniting to form the table top, trompe-l'oeil shadows woven into the carpet beneath. It's an ingenious concept, but at the end of the day, as a table and carpet, it's still a useful creation.
"Today there are a lot of artists dabbling in design, but not functional design. It still remains a artwork," he bemoans. "What interests me is to be in the art world and to step outside to do things with a purpose. Maybe that purpose isn't always immediately evident," he says, gesturing toward a photograph of a bookshelf unit designed in the playful shadow of Roy Lichtenstein's influence. A sun shooting rays breaks over the horizon into a sky with two fluffy clouds. It looks like a two-dimensional artwork but in fact it's a glorified bookcase, deeply set and providing lots of space and surfaces for off-kilter book storage and display. "See, it's art that's become an object, and that's what interests me."
"Transposition" is a word that crops up constantly when Le Gall is discussing his work. He clearly likes the notion. Everything is constantly becoming something else, sort of. A heron stabbing through the surface of a pond becomes a lamp-table combo, a blown-up flowerpot trailing green foliage opens up to become a double seat, that bull commode – and there's also a similar one-off creation featuring a bison's head and arrow-decorated interior – reflects the gilded inside of the beast's head as the face of a toreador, the drawers opening to a lining of bull's blood red. The list goes on.
With commissioned pieces taking up to a year to make Le Gall might be forgiven for wanting to adopt an easier production schedule like one of his heroes. "Ingo Maurer, he has a lightness that I would like to have, but he manages to keep it in big production. He's a god to me," he says, awed. Yet he's fond of limiting himself to limited editions of five or eight. And not without reason. "People are really looking for that now. The clients I have today are people who, ten years ago, could have bought Giacometti or Royère. In the auction market there are armchairs in editions of a thousand selling for unbelievable prices. It makes you wonder what's going on. So when you work in really limited editions I think people are far more reassured," he explains.
The market has changed in other ways too as people have started to look to the now and not to the past. "Before people only bought 18th century and antiques, eventually the 20th century, but then only dead designers," Le Gall notes. "And it's true that in the last ten years people are really buying work by contemporary designers, which is tough for the 18th century but good news for us. It's that which drives creativity."
But even one-offs, ironically, can be a double-edge sword. "Sometimes it's good to do a run of 25, because strangely if there's only one then people can get worried that they made a bad buy. But if you make 25 and no more, then at least someone who bought one can be happy that they're not alone!" he laughs.
One of those one-off pieces was a commission for a cabinet with one sole clause – that it double as a bar. The result looks, in Le Gall's words, "like a Renaissance cabinet", but its decorative panels are printing blocks for a 19th century book on French history carved in yew wood stained with green wax. The effect is immediately precious and ornate. Though not half as elaborate as the gilded bronze interior that recalls a Byzantine church after a nuclear meltdown. "It's an exercise in style, but what interests me in such things is not just to work with this reference but to give it a playful edge with a transposition of materials and forms," he explains.
Taking out and removing the lid of a nut bowl masquerading as an ornate chalice he laughs, "It's the Holy Grail!"