art, design, Interviews

the elemental, sculptural design of rick owens and michèle lamy

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Minimalism has always found one of its most inspired expressions in the Rick Owens atelier, where near-brutalist design has long been the cornerstone aesthetic. And the US-born, Paris-based designer’s approach has found a new channel in the past eight years: the house’s furniture line, which is designed by Owens and produced by his wife Michèle Lamy.

For the Rick Owens furniture line, enormous planks of petrified wood become beds, moulded concrete formwork is fashioned into sofas, engineered tables are created from black plywood and moose antlers form delicate but sculptural chair backs. It is elemental, sculptural design at its most pared back, a pure but functional response to the clothing and accessories that we see on the runway every season.

Arguably one of the design industry’s few remaining true eccentrics, Lamy spoke with House and Leisure from Paris a few weeks after the duo’s new camel skin and foam furniture collection was unveiled at the Milan Furniture Fair. She is 74 years young and lists her occupations as producer, designer and creative. We began by asking about the origins of the Rick Owens furniture brand in 2011.

‘We started making furniture because we needed it [ourselves],’ Lamy says. ‘Rick and I moved into a building in Paris that is five floors up, and people were coming to work there, moving this way and that, always bumping things, and so that is where we started. We looked [around] and asked, “What do we need?”’ Laughing, she adds, ‘We couldn’t only fill our house with [French Mid-Century furniture designer] Jean-Michel Frank’s chairs, you know? So we had to make our own.’

Lamy goes on to explain in detail that you need to ‘feel’ a space to understand what would make it complete. ‘When I design a room, or whole house,’ she says, ‘my first step is to pace and smoke a lot of cigarettes. You need to do that to feel the space. You need to walk around a lot. The way you are going to move in the space is the real start. And then, of course, it is the materials.’

Rick Owens’ furniture is renowned for its use of ultra-luxurious components. ‘Materials are my favourite part. It starts with that – the concept is in the material,’ says Lamy – although the brand began by exploring the use of plywood, which, on the face of it, is one of the most accessible, everyday materials there is. ‘You make fences with plywood, or normally it is used in construction, but we want to make it different,’ says Lamy. ‘Then you need to find the best variety, because there is a lot of it on this planet, but there is only one type that is strong enough for what we needed. So then you research to find the right one for your thing – but the original design concept was the plywood.’

This approach, in which the essence of a material and its form of expression combine to guide the design process, has continued ever since, Lamy says. ‘After exploring plywood, if we do something in alabaster, it is the same process. There is a lot of alabaster in the world, but there is a certain kind in Spain that we like – it is pure black. After that, if we do something in marble, we only want marble with no veins, which doesn’t look like marble. It is very rare, and expensive, and comes from only one quarry in the world.’ As a kind of ‘result’ of these painstaking research processes, Owens and Lamy produce furniture pieces that are inspired by the materials themselves as much as they are by notions of use and functionality. Owens’ and Lamy’s personalities come through in their work, with an almost punk attitude to objects showing itself strongly in their designs. The point at which to stop designing, Lamy argues, is one of the real challenges of making furniture, particularly in Paris. ‘We try to keep it rough, but people don’t understand that in Paris. Here people always try to shine things too much… it’s exhausting. So that is the tricky part, no? When do you stop?’ As a result, Rick Owens’ furniture pieces are often left in a deliberately ‘unfinished’ state, making visible the battle to stop working on a design once it is complete. This is a rigorous approach that the pair, unsurprisingly, have dubbed ‘anti-cosy’. Their philosophy, Lamy adds, is to treat all materials as if they are precious. ‘We are doing things with really brutal elements, but they are worked very finely. It could be stone, or pieces of plywood, but treated carefully. That is where Africa, and South Africa, inspires us. You work with what you have. Just good design with regular materials, but you treat it like it is very rare.’ But why make furniture for clients as well as fashion? Fashion and furniture have always existed symbiotically, she explains. ‘These two things – fashion and furniture – came together from the start. We needed to live with a few certain things that go with the rest of what we have. Like the way you work, or the way you want to be, or the architecture of the place you are in. At a certain point, they go together.’ Owens’ and Lamy’s own relationship, and love for each other, also keeps these worlds overlapping and meeting one other, she says. ‘I hope everyone sees that it comes from a head that thinks the same way. At the end of the day, we are in it, and the love and fun between Rick and me should be in the objects, in the content.’