Chicago Tribune from Chicago, Illinois on June 5, 2005 · Page 15-12
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Chicago Tribune from Chicago, Illinois · Page 15-12

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Sunday, June 5, 2005
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123456 12 CHICAGO TRIBUNESECTION15NRWSUNDAYJUNE5,2005 HOME&GARDEN By Mitchell Owens New York Times News Service PARIS — Back in the 1930s and ’40s, the French design world thrilled to artists who made modern objects that combined up-to-the-minute allure with the authenticity of traditional crafts: hand-wrought bronze, layers of painstakingly applied lacquer, meticulously matched and polished wood. Skills like that may be dying out, but the designer Herve Van der Straeten is doing his best to keep them alive in France by producing furnishings and accessories whose originality rivals the kind of vintage rarities that tend to show up only at auction. “A single piece of furniture usually is the product of three or four people,” said Van der Straeten, 39. Like old-time operations, Van der Straeten oversees a team of precision craftsmen who toil only on his creations. Centralization is an uncommon luxury these days; many designers often lug furni- ture around to a series of independent artisans. “You have to have everything together like that, all the craftsmen under one roof, otherwise you will go crazy,” Van der Straeten said recentlyat his showroom in the Marais. “You can’t control the quality unless you have your own workshop.” Material first, not design David Kleinberg, a New York designer who recently commissioned Van der Straeten to design a lantern-style chandelier for a house in Connecticut, compared his work to that of Line Vautrin, a cult figure of the 1950s who was fabled for her hand- wrought jewelry, cigarette cases and mirrors. “He has that same sense of working from the material first, not the design,” Kleinberg said. “He knows he has a man who can produce amazing lacquer work, so Herve thinks, ‘What can I create that will show off that skill?’” Van der Straeten has begun to make his presence known in New York. His signature stool — a podlike seat that can be left gleamingly metallic or encased in lacquers that give it the look of a giant candy — is part of the furnishings of the Roger Vivier boutique at Saks Fifth Avenue, which opened last month. Some of his furniture and accessories, including patinated bronze pots for orchids, are now stocked at two high-end shops in Manhattan — Homer and Maison Gerard. On Thursday, one of Van der Straeten’s latest inventions will be unveiled in Manhattan: a sculptured gold case for Guerlain’s forthcoming line of lipsticks. Expected to cost around $30, the lipstick will be easier on the wallet than the $36,000 cabinet made of plum-black lacquer lashed with gilt bronze that is standing in Van der Straeten’s Paris showroom. Olivier Echaudemaison, the artistic director of Guerlain’s cosmetics division, insisted that the lipstick, which will appear in stores around Aug. 15, was a perfect Van der Straeten commission. It will herald Guerlain’s return to its 1930s glory days, he said, when the company was noted for its patronage of designers and artists like Jean-Michel Frank and Diego Giacometti. Breaking the pattern Designing lipstick cases, let alone chandeliers, was not how Van der Straeten originally envisioned his life. His father and brother were engineers, so it was presumed that Van der Straeten, who grew up in a suburb of Paris, would follow in their footsteps. A few months into his first year at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, however, “I realized engineering wasn’t for me,” he said. At the age of 19, he dropped out of school and went into business as a jewelry designer. Today he is one of the leaders of a Neo-Baroque design movement, a school of often extravagant decorative arts that came to prominence in the 1980s through the furniture and lighting of Elizabeth Garouste and Mattia Bonetti in France and Oriel Harwood in England. Van der Straeten’s 2,700-square-foot showroom on Rue Ferdinand Duval exhibits a single collection of 25 to 30 objects each year, most produced as limited editions. He also is producing a table lamp that will be part of a retail line of contemporary designer objects commissioned by Alexandre Biaggi, the influential Paris vintage furnishings dealer. Part of Van der Straeten’s ap- peal is his use of aging craftsmen whose skills are dying out. One of his designs, a large convex mirror with surfaces that curve like a silver bubble, demanded the special skills of a retiree. “I’m always thinking of the techniques,” said Van der Straeten, whose thematic collections typically result from doodles he makes while talking on the telephone. And when he cannot coax artisans like the mirror blower out of retirement, he scours the Ecole Boulle, a prestigious design school, for young artisans who understand his desire for mixing up materials to “contrast the very smooth with something a bit rough,” like glassy lacquer trimmed with artfully pitted metal. Not everything off his drawing board, however, has resulted in instant swooning. In his office stands a Parsons-style console table made of bronze and surfaced with a panel of pony hide; its legs are braced with a stretcher made of a stout length of chain. Tough but elegant, the striking design failed to impress a visiting American. As Van der Straeten recalled her saying: “Take off the chain. It looks too S-and-M.” He didn’t, and it doesn’t, but, he admitted, the table still hasn’t sold. “Maybe she was right?” Van der Straeten said ruefully, “I don’t know. But I like it.” New York Times photos Paris designer Herve Van der Straeten sits on his signature stool — a podlike seat that can be left gleamingly metallic or lacquered. French designer revives craftsmanship of past These wood and bronze Silvestre tables were designed by Herve Van der Straeten. He is doing his best to keep alive the skills of producing furnishings and accessories that rival vintage rarities. 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