In the world of Hervé Van der Straeten, pieces of furniture can move, and they can move you. Last week in Chelsea, the opening night of a new 35-piece collection from the Paris-based furniture designer lit up the 15,000-square-foot loft space at Pucci International, among the finest furniture galleries in the United States.
Like at major art openings, four pieces sold. Priced specifically for the design trade, they included a Plexiglass console for $41,600 and a bronze and black lacquer banquette priced at $64,100.
“A new Van der Straeten collection is the furniture event of the year,” said gallery owner Ralph Pucci, who has been throwing event openings since 1984, when Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat popped by an exhibition of works by the recently deceased Andrée Putman, then a design icon. “He is at the top of his game, like a great artist in his prime. The materials are simple, but what he does with them is so complex. The quality of the craftsmanship has reached perfection. People respond to it.”
That’s an understatement. If any piece of furniture can make you think, it’s one by Van der Straeten. He’s light-years ahead of the Jetson lines of midcentury greats. He’s not obsessed with the mysteries and market popularity of wood. He’s beyond any conformist fixation with shape.
Van der Straeten has done what no one of his ilk has done before — he has given emotion and mobility to inanimate objects. They seem to move toward the viewer, away from the viewer, up and down and all around, at once.
They roll, saunter, almost inch and at times twirl. They contract, cry, smile and exhale. A bronze sconce drapes a wall like fabric. A red lacquer console with bronze accents shaped like tears seems to weep or mimic rainfall caught in a frozen moment. A Plexiglas console is almost robotic, captured in midstep.
An arch-shaped lacquered piece made of such a deep aubergine or garnet reminds one of ancient aqueducts, but crawls like an upright caterpillar. A squiggly bronze floor lamp could be a friendly, playful cartoon character.
Van der Straeten, who designed the “J’adore” perfume bottle for Dior and was named a chevalier in the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, France’s highest cultural honor, doesn’t get concerned about whether people think his work is art.
‘I don’t like the idea of furniture as art,” he said, watching people eye his work. “They might complement art, but I think it is more that the pieces have a dialogue with people and other objects. I hope the work has dignity and strength.”
Van der Straeten works in a studio near Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. He employs 35 craftspeople, skilled in bronze, parchment, lacquer, other metals and precious woods such as Macassar Ebony. They weld, carve, apply high-gloss and brush materials carefully. Van der Straeten never uses a computer, preferring to sketch by hand.
He oversees the production of all objects, some of which end up in the homes and on the yachts of the most wealthy people on the planet. Neither Pucci nor Van der Straeten would name buyers, but foreign royalty (Monaco, maybe) is a good bet. The work is flawless.
“I have total freedom to design what I want, how I want,” Van der Straeten said. “I can take risks and create shapes and designs that challenge me. I am almost selfish with how I try to create things with a level of taste and elegance.”
As the room became crowded, people congregated in the center, leaving space for the pieces to breathe.
Deep garnet, white marble, soft parchment and the gold hue of bronze intertwine, appearing almost human in form. If you bump into a lamp, you might want to say, “Excuse me.”
There’s no reason for that. But man, it would be nice to own one of these things.
By Jason Sheftell
Photographs by Jeff Bachner