By GABY WOOD
OUT BEYOND PÈRE LACHAISE CEMETERY, in the Parisian suburb of Bagnolet, is a narrow road called Future Street, where 28 master craftsmen are busily reviving the past. Bronze is being burnished at one end, entire tree trunks are stacked at another and between them hang gigantic metal chandeliers, wrapped up for delivery—like prehistoric finds on their way to a museum.
This is the workshop of Hervé Van der Straeten, designer of some of the most coveted furniture in the world. One-off pieces, or objects made in editions mostly limited to eight, they are breathtakingly luxurious and built from materials rarely heard of in this century: sheepskin parchment, Gabonese ebony, alabaster. And although his brass-circled convex mirrors and silver-plated crystalloid console tables seem to have sprung fully formed from Van der Straeten's mind, they actually take hundreds of hours to make.
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For years, Van der Straeten has pioneered this single-site craftsmanship, while other designers have farmed out work piecemeal. Adored by such notable interior designers as Muriel Brandolini and Jacques Grange, bought by collectors from the United States to the Middle East and acquired for France's presidential palace, these precious objects will be on view in New York, when Van der Straeten's work is shown at the Ralph Pucci gallery in January.
In the designer's 2,800-square-foot gallery in the Marais district of Paris, the craftsmanship on display is exceptional, but so is the unexpected effect on the senses: the smell of waved sycamore; the dizzying detail in the interior marquetry of a cabinet; the springy, almost living softness of creamy goat-skin parchment. "I like it because it's very clear and there's a real depth to it," Van der Straeten says of the latter. "It's a little bit like a piece of butter." The work involved in creating such pieces determines the prices—$100,000, for example, for a limited-edition sideboard—and they are valued in a context that justifies the price tag: namely, contemporary art.
"What's interesting now is that the design field is also attached to the art world," Van der Straeten says, sitting beneath a Jason Martin painting hanging above one of his console tables. "The contemporary art world is really taking over a certain level of taste—internationally—and this gives a lot of energy to the design field. A lot of our clients collect contemporary art, and they want furniture that can be in dialogue with it."
Van der Straeten came early to this idea. He opened his gallery 12 years ago, so that he could show all the different strands of his work, and he is keen to emphasize that the notion was not born of a cynical attempt to sell things for more money. "These days," he explains, "a lot of people think, OK, let's make some limited editions and sell some expensive furniture. But my interest was always in manufacturing my pieces myself. The idea was that the manual work would always give a more pleasing result than any industrial process. So it's contemporary design made in a traditional way."
Van der Straeten refers to his pieces as "hybrids." And, in fact, not all of his processes are traditional: He favors a form of metallic lacquering borrowed from the automobile industry; he works in stainless steel, anodized aluminum and, recently, plexiglass. Some of his regular shapes are outsize crystals, and one cabinet is covered in bright-blue rubberized spikes—it's as if Yves Klein had considered working in Kryptonite.
“"I don't think about tradition—I think about quality. If you want quality, you end up looking at tradition."”
Van der Straeten, the youngest of three boys who grew up in a suburb of Paris, was taught to draw in perspective by his father, an engineer. "Though I didn't end up becoming an engineer, knowing how to design an engine is interesting to know for my job today," he suggests. "It's like preparing your brain to have a 3-D program." His parents had a book about the 15th-century painter Jan van Eyck, whose Flemish roots Van der Straeten shares, and whose famous Arnolfini Portrait comes to mind when looking at the designer's convex mirrors.
Van der Straeten was always drawn to the imaginative and the decorative: a gigantic Salvador Dali spoon with a life-size car in it; the designs of Art Nouveau. He attended the École des Beaux-Arts for a time, but even before he'd finished his degree, the jewelry he made by hand—figurative pieces of monsters, dragons and little ghosts made of gold leaf—was being sold at Bergdorf Goodman and shown on the runway by Yves Saint Laurent, Jean-Paul Gaultier and Christian Lacroix. He dropped out of school and moved on to mirrors and lamps; before long his work became more monumental.
Jewelry—which has now evolved into architectural pieces that he describes as "a little laboratory for exploring shapes"—still makes up 10 percent of what he sells, and his work has taken on miniature mainstream form: He designed the bottle for Dior's perfume J'adore and the case for Guerlain's Kisskiss lipstick.
When asked if he sees himself as preserving tradition or breaking with it, he replies that neither of those things is uppermost in his mind. "I don't think about tradition—I think about quality. If you want quality, you end up looking to tradition. And if you want to evolve in your design, you have to look to the past. I'm not a spokesperson for arts and crafts, just because I want quality. On the other hand, it's very satisfying to work with a team—it's nice to see that they are proud, and that it's a real collaboration."
“Only the best carpenters were allowed to use ebony. They became ébénistes. Modest as he is, these are Van der Straeten's skilled antecedents.”
The word for cabinetmaking in French (ébénisterie) comes from the word for ebony, and dates from the 17th century, when cabinetmaking became so elaborate as to require a word to distinguish it from mere carpentry. Only the best carpenters were allowed to use ebony, which was very rare: They became ébénistes. Modest as he is, these are Van der Straeten's skilled antecedents. Though his clients may be international, in France he has been claimed by the nation: He's been made a Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres (he keeps the medal hidden in a box on his bookshelf); his work has been awarded the coveted Living Heritage label; and many of his pieces have been purchased by the Mobilier National—an institution that has existed since the 17th century to provide furnishings for the king of France, which now collects, preserves and archives objects of French manufacture, from Poussin tapestries to Van der Straeten's alabaster lamps.
Fittingly, Van der Straeten lives—with his partner, the shoe designer Bruno Frisoni—in a former cabinetmaker's workshop in the Faubourg Saint-Antoine, the district historically devoted to such pursuits. Although the space contains pieces of his own, he has mixed these with mid-century Danish furniture and some 17th- and 18th-century antiques. "I have a Spanish-carved wood-gilded mirror—very extravagant and very strict at the same time—and a Regency period desk, black and gold," he says. He always advises people that pieces shouldn't match ("you have to keep the tension between them") and aims, in his own home, for an atmosphere that is, as he puts it, "both peaceful and stimulating."
In the Bagnolet workshop, Van der Straeten shows me his sketches, and the scientific calculations by which they are rendered with astounding faithfulness to the original thought. In the front office, he toys with some samples and picks up an unevenly dyed marquetry. "I like this prune-colored straw," he says to his cabinetmaking workshop manager, Stéphane Delage. "Can we actually do that?"
Delage wrinkles his nose. "Not really," he replies, undecided, "it's very unpredictable. It was actually a test for black that went wrong."
"That went right!" Van der Straeten says, laughing. Then he looks up and shrugs, his eyes alight with a new idea. "The beauty of accidents," he says.