Graduated in 1985 with a Master’s degree in architecture and urban planning from Cornell University in New York, collaborator for nearly sixteen years with Andrée Putman, Elliot Barnes has to his credit the development of several private residences, showrooms and offices around the world. whole. Also a bassist, this jazz enthusiast designed the redevelopment of the famous Parisian club Le Duc des Lombards in 2008 and the decor of Ruinart’s head office in Reims in 2010. On this occasion, he developed, among other things, a so-called Wine paper wallpaper, a mixture of grape skins with hemp and linen, as well as the Granito floor, made from crushed champagne bottles. Because the Franco-American architect, a lover of decorative arts, is always on the lookout for experimentation.
[This article is in addition to the interview published in issue 210 of Intramuros: “Elliot Barnes or decorative arts on edge”]
Endless Summer , Fold, Starfish or Onde … The work of the skin in the form of leather occupies an important place in your creations. Where does this fascination come from?
It all started with Onde in 2014. I wanted to consider the leather as a structure and not as an element that covers. I studied it by manipulating it, bending it. I also thought of Franck Gehry: in the 1970s, he did a lot of work with corrugated cardboard, especially with his famous chair (note: The Wiggle Side Chair). For me it is a masterpiece. I really like this approach of diverting things from our daily lives. It immediately offers another language to objects. This notion of diversion is part of my origins which link me with Andrée Putman but also with my beginnings in architecture. I don’t have a real fascination with leather . Let’s say I’m in love with finishes and I like to have a kind of calm and controlled extravagance. This notion of covering is in line with what we interior designers do, that is to say covering or dressing up spaces. So there is a conceptual link behind all of this. But in reality, this exploration of leather started in 2013, for AD Interiors at the Hôtel de Miramion. Instead of dressing a room with traditional woodwork, I wanted soft materials like leather. I tried to pleat it like Japanese origami. I wanted straight lines arranged like fans. When you start to handle leather, a whole reflection takes place, the objects come shortly after. And then it depends on the collaborators you meet. The upholsterer Philippe Coudray made all the panels for this show. It is always a question of dialogue.
Indeed, Pierre-Yves Le Floc’h, very discreet upholsterer, did not only want to confine himself to the traditional craft, but also to explore new techniques. You have become a shock duo.
It’s kind of genius. He speaks very little, he listens, he will say two or three things and we feel confident. Then he comes back with the first models and I am amazed. Today luxury brands call on him because he brings them know-how, expertise and above all this requirement that I appreciate.
The Écume table, a unique piece, seems to stand out from your production.
It’s a slightly extravagant piece that acts as a sort of counterbalance to pared-down pieces, like Endless Summer . It brings together many techniques including that of leather, cutting, the plating of this salt paper, as well as the search for transparency of the glass. All of this designed, mastered and assembled by Pierre Yves, without forgetting the glass work by Judice Lagoutte with this magnifying glass that changes the scale and creates a surprise effect. Who says “leather” says “skin”. I questioned this kind of associations quite freely to the point of wanting to tattoo leather. But it didn’t work because the leather, already dead skin, doesn’t go well with the tattoo technique. This motif at the bottom of the table takes up forms from Hindu culture, in particular the yogi. For the shape, the idea was to lay the leather on the edge so as to create a solid base on which the table rests. Écume is a unique piece, but it brings together ideas that we will bring out for other pieces. It serves as a dictionary of materials, shapes and details.
You like to incorporate an ornament into your rooms, including this inlaid rosette on the Écume table or the spheres on the base of Endless Summer. What is your vision of the place of ornament?
To be honest, I’m more of a modernist in the sense that I like things pared down. If there is ornament, it is by bringing it out of the material, such as shagreen or gypsum, or even the natural veining of marble slabs, for example. Arranged in curls or an “open book”, something strong emerges. It’s very loose. By this I mean Adolf Loos (1870-1933) who, in his opus Ornament and Crime (1908), speaks precisely of not adding things. But as there is happiness in contradiction, it was still necessary to add in this so refined room a touch with these polished brass spheres. Today the bench exists in a version without spheres.
How do you seek inspiration?
It is a process of letting go. Let myself be carried away by a word, a noise, a light and from there, dive into my head and look for free associations. The intonation of a word can make you think of something and link it to an object, like the Poinciana collection with the Delisle house in 2017. We had presented it at the Hôtel de la Monnaie at the Salon AD the same year. I had to decorate a living room in homage to Jean Varin (1607-1672), an important engraver of the Mint under Louis XIII. However, certain engravers’ tools reminded me of those used by upholsterers who work with leather, which led me to look for a relationship with leather. Together with Jean Delisle and Pierre-Yves, we all tried to sheathe the structure of the lamps. As a source of formal inspiration, I looked at the tools of engravers including the handles of the punches. I then reworked them in the manner of the greatly expanded art of the 1960s works of Claes Oldenburg (b. 1929). I then proposed to Jean Delisle to name this collection Poinciana . His collaborator, Ornella, a musician like her husband, in turn made the link with the hit Poinciana (1936) by Nat Simon. This association of punch / Poinciana and very free references amuses me.
You are a bass player yourself. Does music inspire you with forms?
For me it is a process. Let me explain: when you’re a double bass player in an ensemble, especially in jazz, you have a leading role, but it stays behind the scenes. Very often we think that it’s the drums that sets the tempo, but in reality it’s the double bass player. When I set up my agency, I just liked being the backstage guy who orchestrates everything so that my team can in turn create solos. We are here and we all work together. This atmosphere of music and improvisation really nourishes the work. It’s a jam session. When I interview people, I often tell them this story that happened to Miles Davies when he was recording a record in the 1950s. During the preparation, one of his saxophonists comes to see him asking him “Miles, what notes do you want me to play” and Miles Davies replies “play what the fuck you want! (play what the fuck you want!). It’s true ! you are musicians, do not ask which notes to play, play! There are never bad grades as Herbie Hancock used to say. So here, do not come to the office to ask me what to do. You are a professional, designer, interior designer, then propose! And if it really doesn’t work, we’ll talk about it. No one can teach you to create. Either you create or you don’t. On the other hand, you can be taught the context in which you are going to create. And this context of art and history is five thousand years old. As a creator, I believe it is your duty to know it. This is what nourishes your vocabulary, your language and gives you the means to improvise freely… and therefore to create!
On the site of the Ruinart house, you explored new materials from authentic elements such as Wine paper. How did you come up with the idea?
When visiting the site, I was impressed by the silence that reigned over these 26,000 square meters comprising gardens, land, production buildings, all accompanied by a questioning as a creator: what could I bring to the most old world spirits house? I then realized quite quickly that it was not necessary to bring but to export things. I spoke to the president at the time, Stéphane Baschiera, explaining to him that everything I needed already existed on this site. For the mineral, I could extract the stone from the chalk pits, reuse the old barrels to have wood or use bottles for the glass. But at one point, I had a budget and aesthetic concern to cover a wall. I wanted to make wallpaper, or in my mind, who says paper says plant, who says plant says vine, who says vine says grapes… So, by free association of ideas, I chose to make paper based of grapes. By doing research we realized that it did not exist. I then contacted a winegrower in Burgundy who had experimented with pressing grape skins. There were plenty of problems with the first samples. The paper was starting to mold, the seeds stuck… Then I met a craftsman in Burgundy who specialized in making paper with flax and hemp. This mixture of grapes and flax gave consistency to the paper but also created a new link with the history of the monks of Dom Pérignon. Their water bottle had corks held together with hemp strings. So mixing grapes from the Ruinart vines allowed me to make a product specific to this house, to the point that we can speak of a paper cuvée. And what enchants me even more in this development of language is that there is an osmosis between the winegrowers of Ruinart who make their champagne once a year and me who also makes a paper every year.
Do you consider yourself a supporter of eco-responsible materials?
Being eco-responsible is of course important. We can think of furniture in this perspective, but people much more specialized than me are working seriously on these projects to the point that they are already ready to industrialize them. But for me, being eco-responsible is not enough. You have to be creative, add an aesthetic notion. All of this must be included in the history of the decorative arts. There is a kind of back and forth between current events and this French tradition of Decorative Arts which is essential to me.
You seem to have a deep respect for classical French and Italian art. In 2013, for example, during the “Transposition” exhibition, the Carnavalet museum invited you to establish a dialogue between your furniture and the museum’s collections.. How did you approach this?
To be invited by the Carnavalet museum which collects fascinating objects was huge. But I remain a child of the 1960s. Even if there are older influences, I make modern furniture, so I don’t pretend to relate the extraordinary woodwork of the museum to my work. You just have to arrive, put down your works, and leave them like that, sometimes in counterpoint with historical pieces. This contemporary/historical confrontation is sufficient. Each piece reflects a light so as to leave the visitor free to draw his own conclusions. That was the goal of ” Transposition” .
You presented these pieces under the name of Elliott Barnes Sessions…
When the musician goes to record, we call it a session . It’s the concept of releasing a collection, a record. I presented Onde, Pli, Petal, Replis I and II , Orbite and also other pieces that I had designed for Ecart International among others.
The news evokes a new collection of Iqanda lighting. Can you tell us about it ?
Iqanda is the result of an encounter with Antoine Tisserant. He had ostrich eggs in his showroom that he sent to me. I kept them for almost a year, as if Antoine had sown the seeds of ideas in my head and allowed them to germinate. I contacted him again to make light fixtures. There really is a centuries-old tradition of the ostrich egg in the history of the Decorative Arts. Of these gifts brought back from the East, we made works of art by engraving them. But I wanted to go into the work of the form and highlight the craft of Tisserant’s art bronzer, in particular with this fluting work which is unique to them. In the South African language, Iqanda means egg. They were cut with a diamond blade and the inside was sanded to remove the skin. When it lays, the ostrich never makes eggs of the same size. Each egg is therefore unique.
Did you feel a difference in the work of decoration during your passage from the United States to France?
My last experience in an American agency goes back more than 15 years now, so it has certainly changed since then, but I remember that when we needed a door, for example, we simply chose from a catalog the shape , handles, hinges etc. Whereas in France, when I arrived at Ecart International, I had to completely design the doors of the houses! So, I learned to draw them with their structure, their elements… Then on the construction sites, I met the real craftsmen: I saw the plasterers working the plaster with their hands, making moldings, the companions shape the elements on site. I was amazed. This is really where I developed this appreciation for French craftsmanship. It is truly unique in the world. Today, I rely a lot on the creativity of the craftsmen and suppliers with whom I collaborate. I love Martin Berg er, Manon Bouvier, or Phillipe Hurel for example, but also the people I meet on construction sites.
What skills are you most excited about?
Without hesitation marquetry and colorists. Color really fascinates me. It is complicated, I study it for my rug collections with Tai Ping. In this field, Tai Ping are really masters with this work of wool and silk. Discussing the color with them is really impressive. I had to study the work of Joseph Albers (1888-1976) to go a little further. I still have a lot of work to do.
You were one of Andrée Putman’s main collaborators. How was your meeting?
I already had a plan to come and live in France since I was around 15 years old. I was in a French high school in the United States and I was deeply influenced by cubism and by personalities like Gertrud Stein, Hemingway, Picasso and all that era. I had already made several trips there to meet architects, so as to understand Parisian life and see how I could fit in there. Then I discovered the work of Andrée Putman in the press. Before creating, Andrée Putman’s Ecart studio consisted of re-editing modernist furniture that had fallen into oblivion at the time. His knowledge of History to make creation made sense to me. That’s why I went to see her.
What is the aspect that has marked you the most in his work and that still influences you?
Curiosity. This refusal to be locked into a category. Andrée has rubbed shoulders with incredible artists all her life. She has achieved true artistic freedom in her work. Andrée never wanted to repeat herself. I remember the work sessions with her where you had to seize this chance to create and always go further and question yourself. All the staff of the agency was also very young. This youth gave him ideas. That’s exactly what I do here in my agency. Like her, I cultivate this kind of exchange, of master class.
You devote part of your time to transmission. You actually teach at the School of Decorative Arts. What discipline do you teach there? What are the most valuable lessons you want to pass on to your students?
I teach interior architecture. Within that, I try to give my students tools that would allow them to confront different types of problems. Again, I can’t teach them creativity, that’s not my field. But I can show them different tools that would allow them to feed their own creativity and bring solutions to situations. Regarding the transmission, it is the students who bring me something. Since my very first courses at university, when you have to explain something to someone, you learn to organize your ideas and to put yourself behind, in all humility. Only students can bring you that. It’s a great lesson. What is important is not my project but theirs and I help them to do their best.
Then, what have I to bring them? First of all the History and the theory of architecture to know its range and its agreements. As I was saying earlier, it leads to this possibility of improvising, of creating. Finally, it is always important to take a pencil before taking a computer keyboard. Our job is above all to draw and communicate information through a drawing, otherwise you compromise your ideas.
What is your view of the young generation of craftsmen setting up?
It must be very complicated. But today we have a better appreciation of craftsmanship than thirty years ago. We appreciate things made by hand, especially since in this “handmade” there is this gesture of doing something for someone else. I think that in this society where we live through our laptops, we tend to lose this notion of “someone did this for me”. That’s what chefs preserve with this basic notion of feeding someone. It is an opportunity, an honor and a real responsibility. The enthusiasm of the young craftsmen who fit into this context is wonderful, so we have made good progress.
Interview by François Reutin