The furniture and interiors designer Mattia Bonetti excels in employing a richly diverse range of styles into his highly personalized commissions and collections.
The Swiss-born, Paris-based designer is known for his agile ability to incorporate various styles and moods into his fantasy-inspired work.
From a black and gold altar for Metz cathedral in France to a table evoking trees for a private client in New York, Mattia Bonetti is a sought-after name in contemporary design. So much so that one of his limited edition "Abyss" tables sold at Sotheby's in New York in November 2006 for $204,000.
What attracts his array of clients is his knack for tuning into their personality and reflecting this through astutely developed pieces. Taking in the baroque, whimsical, elegant, retro and organic, Bonetti's free-spirited style knows no boundaries yet still bears a signature mark. His collections range from colored wood and Plexiglas pieces for Galerie Cat-Berro in Paris to a sideboard designed like a birthday present for David Gill Galleries in London or denim armchairs and lamps for Galerie Italienne in Paris.
Born in 1952 in Lugano, Switzerland, Bonetti became known in the 1980s through his collaborations with Elizabeth Garouste. Their projects included the headquarters for Christian Lacroix, perfume containers for Nina Ricci, carafes for Ricard, and Montpellier's tramway in the south of France.
LuxuryCulture caught up with him in his ground-floor studio in Paris. Maquettes for his designs are displayed on the windowsills. His gorgeous large-scale lamp, cast from one piece of porcelain recalling the Ming dynasty, stands in a corner. A miniature limited edition "Fuck Face" sculpture by the Chapman brothers is on the mantelpiece, alongside an invitation to John Currin's show of pornographic paintings at Sadie Coles' gallery in London. A selection of drawings for a vase lies on the desk.
Dressed in a striped T-shirt and jeans, he chats animatedly about how he approaches so many diverse commissions and collections.
You've said that, for you, designing is like a country walk that leads to lots of different paths rather than like driving in a straight line down the highway.
There are lots of parallel paths that can cross into each other or not. It's chance that makes things happen. You see a pretty flower and stop in your tracks, or perhaps you continue on your way. It's possible in life to backtrack, and I can redo things that I might have done five or six years ago. I try not to do it very often, but I have absolutely no problem with revisiting things. My pieces are created in total freedom, and from one collection to the next I allow this freedom to change. It doesn't bother me that different things can cohabit in the same place, or even in different places, although I admit that it can seem schizophrenic. But there is still the link with color and with what was made before. There are the chromosomes that we find again.
Your work mixes ideas from lots of different periods and styles. Do you consult books much to do your research?
Sometimes I might look at books for decorative details or references. Books for me are cultural baggage. There are times in life when we can be very touched by certain colors or lights but it's not always the same, otherwise there wouldn't be any evolution.
You've said that you regard your pieces as art objects. Do you regard yourself more as an artist or a designer?
I honestly consider myself as a designer who has gestures, forms and materials. I respond to the needs and functions of the objects that I create. And I can express something, and have an attitude and an artistic gesture, in the space between functionality and form. I've always created furniture for people close to art who want pieces that you can't find everywhere, whereas in the stores, most of the time, you find re-editions from the 1930s and the 1940s.
I read that you always present your clients with two sets of drawings so they can choose between two proposals.
Yes, often there are two or three proposed projects. There was an auction in June at Wright Auctions in Chicago where a whole ensemble that we made for the dining room of some clients in London in the 1980s was sold. I collaborated with them to show as much as possible how the work was made, because it's interesting to see how it's developed through the selection procedure, what the client finally chose and the alternative that wasn't chosen. This is rarely shown. So I showed the drawings of the two proposals, with the drawings of the table, chairs and lamps.
When a client asks you to create a part of his universe, what guides you the most? Is it the interior architecture or the person's personality?
Both, in fact. The personality obviously, and the things that he likes and possesses, and what direction he wants to go in. He explains what he wants through referring to what I've done already. For instance, he'll show a picture of a table that I've done and say, "I like that a lot." Or he'll say that something else was too baroque and not in the direction that he wants to go in and say, "I want something more minimalist."
A client doesn't say, "You must do this or that," because I'm known for changing a lot in my work. There's really a panel of very different things that don't correspond to each other.
Do you have a longstanding relationship with some of your clients?
Yes, absolutely. The clients come back periodically; I keep them. We arrive at a sufficiently close relationship to understand each other and the clients evolve with me. We walk together but advance at a different pace. Even if you don't know the people, you feel that they are sensitive to contemporary creation. There are also new clients that arrive and old ones that leave.
How did you approach your commission for Metz cathedral, and is this your first cathedral project?
This is my first project in a cathedral, yes, but I've already done projects in churches. We did the altar, the lectern and the candlestick holders. It's for spiritual preoccupations; there aren't any notions of merchandising or of a market. They [the priests] didn't ask for discretion but interiority, a message and spiritual elevation. There's the notion of spirituality in the pieces but it's more than furniture. The altar becomes God once it's sacralized.
What projects are you working on?
I'm in the middle of doing some drawings for a big French silverware company, which has asked me to make a vase. We started by making sketches for eight or nine vases, then we chose four and finally just kept one. The sketches allow us to show the proposals to our clients, whether it's a private person or a brand.
I'm also working on a hotel in New York that's opening in October. I'm making the chairs and benches in the restaurant and half the furniture for the lobby: the lamps, a mirror, armchairs and stools. We tried to get involved in the project without forgetting our personality and tried to imagine things that could please the largest number of people.
I'm going to do the furniture for an apartment in London and a project with Paul Kasmin Gallery in New York. There will be several hybrid pieces using different materials and languages. When you have several artisans working on the same piece, it's like the work of a conductor. You have to direct the music well, otherwise the result is catastrophic. You have to be attentive to details and how things are made. You need to calculate the size of each element in the piece and divide out the tasks. The project changes during the production process.
Do you collect design?
No. I buy something from time to time, but nothing very important.
If you could own five pieces of art, what would you choose?
A Cycladic sculpture which would be 3,000 or even 5,000 years old; a beautiful, big metal sculpture by Jeff Koons; something by Matisse; a page from a Persian manuscript from the tenth century; and a painting by Titian.
If you had an imaginary museum, what would you have inside? Which architect would design it? Where would it be?
Many things from lots of different disciplines: painting, sculpture, textiles, photography and drawings. I'm less interested in museums dedicated to one thing than ones that are mixed. I like old museums with traditional, ancient hangings that are not too illuminated and which are places for unexpected discovery, as if you had to go and search for things. I dislike it when a museum becomes a place of consumption as if you're finding an object in a shop.
One museum I particularly like is Palazzo della Ragione in Verona, which was renovated by Tobia Scarpa. He's transformed old buildings into modern ones with delicate but strong gestures. I also admire what Renzo Piano does, from the Pompidou Center in Paris to the Beyeler Foundation in Basel and the Menil Collection in Houston.
What's your definition of luxury?
Something approaching a dream or a daydream, when we forget about ourselves.
That strikes me as too little, actually.
Something that I find in nature, like a flower, or a shell in the sea.
A natural place, especially not one that is man-made.
This is a unique piece that was made for a private client in New York. He wanted a piece that recalled nature because it's near very big bay windows. It took around six months to make because the language of the leaves was very hard to find. There were so many details to finalize that we were constantly having to go over to New York. Look at how some of the branches traverse the piece of furniture. It's a real sculpture. We made a maquette and a plan, then we had to make the bronze, the sheens and the colors.
Mattia Bonetti's exhibition is at Galerie Italienne, 46 rue de Seine, 75006 Paris, from September 10 through October 15, 2008. T. +33 (0)1 45 49 21 68. www.galerieitalienne.com