From Marine Serre to Balenciaga and Rick Owens, designers and fashion houses today are looking at new ways to project their brand identity into our lives and homes. Below, Madeleine Holth explores a recent history of ‘fashion furniture’.
Though French designer Marine Serre remains a new name in the industry, her influence in the contemporary fashion sphere is indisputable today. Serre has dabbled in the realms of upcycling with her collections since opening her label in 2017, and has more recently demonstrated a similar premise through custom furniture pieces she has designed for her showrooms and creative studio. Behind Serre’s unorthodox and hybrid furniture is the French creative agency Avoir, a young collective also responsible for the set design and production of several of her fashion shows and videos. “I like to collect artisanal and secondhand furniture,” said Serre. “Unconsciously, while the brand was growing, I had the urge to recreate a home feeling and to make a space in which you want to live in. Naturally, after moving into a bigger studio like ‘Metropole 19’, we slowly turned this place into a weird and hybrid entity, and it was at that point that we involved Avoir into this project for regenerated furniture,” she explained. The pieces they’ve produced together consist of repurposed armoires, jack trolleys and wooden dining room chairs spliced with tires, motorcycle parts and boat motors. Surprisingly, her signature crescent moon print is nowhere to be found. “We both felt that the moon crescent, as much as it is a signature, should not become an automatism. And that the brand could be explored from other angles too,” said Avoir’s co-creative director Arthur Van Peteghem.
It is precisely that spirit of reuse and recontextualisation that makes Serre’s furniture feel like an extension of her brand. “The intention was clearly to explore a similar approach to Marine’s upcycled fashion design, but with furniture,” said Van Peteghem. “We first identify and select elements we want to splice together in a specific way, then we design them in 3D to verify materials, proportions and construction process. We source each element across second-hand markets (from the internet to flea markets) while continuously updating the 3D model accordingly, after this, we then make assembly plans and start discussing the fabrication process in detail with our manufacturers. This is where real physical parameters come into play, like weight and stability”, he explained.
In recent seasons, Serre has charted new territory when it comes to upcycling on the catwalk — dreaming up patchwork ‘couture’ gowns made of scuba suits or dog harnesses, for example — which may be why furniture feels like such a natural step forward. “It came quite naturally to me to dive into furniture. Even before starting fashion, I asked myself if I wanted to make furniture or garments, as both have a close link with the human body,” said Serre. According to Van Peteghem, the response has been mixed when it comes to the Marine Serre furniture, which may not necessarily be a bad thing. “Most people seemed a little bit disturbed or intrigued by this work, and this is a positive outcome I think, to be able to create this kind of emotion.”
“It was logical to work with Avoir in the process of finding the right style of furniture and their meanings, their proportion, and their making, as it was important to have a luxury finished product,” explained Serre. “It was essential to understand each other well in order to find the right balance”. For now, she’s opting not to commercialise the collaboration, a fact that rings true with one of the oldest tricks in fashion’s book: that scarcity and exclusivity ultimately reign.
Looking further back at the history of fashion’s furniture obsession, one of the most important references is undoubtedly Rei Kawakubo’s early Comme des Garçons furniture designs from the 1980s and 90s. The Japanese designer’s first designs appeared in 1983, mixing steel chains, spirals and galvanized steel surfaces. Whilst Kawakubo continues to design installations and architectural elements for Dover Street Market stores around the world, her chairs and tables are long discontinued rarities. Though never as voluptuous as the pieces found in her clothing collections – they were just as provocative, hyper-minimalist, and ultimately year’s ahead of their time.
Jun Takahashi, who curated A#4 in 2005, is no stranger to the world of furniture design and upcycling either. Over a decade ago the Undercover designer created ‘Anarchair’ — his own version of the iconic Charles and Ray Eames LCW chair, with a bold ‘A’ (for anarchy) as back support in peeling painted wood. The satirical piece featured alongside other theatrically-embellished furniture, from a pom-pom trimmed table supported by 4 of Jean Prouvé’s 1941 ‘tout bois’ chairs to a sword-impaled changing room — in his issue of A Magazine Curated By. More recently the designer featured a stool ‘assemblage’ by the Copenhagen-based British woodworker Nicholas Shurey in his SS21 Undercover lookbook, highlighting Shurey’s curvilinear carved wooden stools as a prominent prop for the Picasso-inspired imagery.
The aesthetics of fashion shows, boutiques and wholesale showrooms can tell a lot about a designer and what they want to convey to their visitors, but what happens when the furniture and design objects that embellish these spaces make their way into people’s homes? Whilst Marine Serre and Jun Takahashi’s custom furniture is not currently available for purchase, Rick Owens’ is — the American in Paris has been selling monumental pieces alongside his namesake fashion line since 2007. His partner Michèle Lamy oversees the conception and production of the massive thrones, stools and daybeds – pieces that blur the line between majestic brutalist art and functional everyday furniture. “The furniture is the antithesis of ‘madame j’entre en ville’,” said Lamy, evoking its anti-bourgeois appeal. “The plywood materials are processed with the same process of 18th century cabinetry and everything is ultimately functional”, explains Michèle Lamy.
Owens’ furniture is a true reflection of his collections, with angular brutalist shapes and a colour palette of noble materials (from petrified wood and alabaster to mink fur and camelhair) that harkens back to his very first show for Autumn Winter 2002. Unlike most other ‘fashion furniture’ designers, Owens’ pieces are sold in prestigious design galleries, like Carpenters Workshop Gallery in London and Pierre Marie Giraud in Brussels. In his 2017 book Rick Owens: Furniture, the designer explained it best when he stated “Making furniture is my version of couture”. That said, one of the biggest distinctions between Owens’ and other forays into ‘fashion furniture’ is the daring synthesis of his brand identity he creates through pieces in precious materials, extreme volumes and weights. “The shapes are ‘draped’, and we are partial to army blankets,” says Lamy. “Occasionally there will be an injection of ’shine’ like our alabaster bed. And yes, it’s all heavy – because it’s here to stay.”
Other designers have taken a different route to furniture, starting as fans and collectors before moving into the realm themselves. Raf Simons, for one, studied industrial design in Genk, Belgium before entering fashion. He has expressed his love for midcentury furniture and unorthodox textiles for years, from his Sterling Ruby couture fabrics at Christian Dior to his work with the Danish textile company Kvadrat, with whom he has created bright, textured upholstery fabrics since 2014. During Simons’ stint as Chief Creative Officer for Calvin Klein, the Belgian designer commissioned his own version of Gaetano Pesce’s 1986 ‘Feltri’ chair, with 100 unique pieces upholstered in unique and vintage American quilts which were available for purchase at Design Miami in 2018. This month, Simons launches History Of My World, an online boutique featuring unique handmade blankets, poured ‘apothecary’ candle sculptures, and rare books from his archive.
A#7 curator Kris van Assche has dipped his toe into decor projects too, opting to customise 20th century classics in partnership with Francois Laffanour of Galerie Downtown in Paris. Towards the end of his stint at Dior Homme in 2018, Van Assche customised a series of Isamu Noguchi’s Ikari lamps with flower imagery culled from his instagram account. At Berluti in 2019, he paired up with Laffanour again, upholstering Pierre Jeanneret’s Chandigarh chairs, a daybed and desk in Berluti’s signature burnished Venezia leather.
“Furniture has always been my world and it is my history as a designer, where I began creatively”, explained Jonny Johansson of Acne Studios, who warped an original Carl Malmsten ‘Nya Berlin’ sofa design from 1958 through 3D printing in and had it produced by the original factory 60 years later. “I decided as an alternative to objectify its form from a perspective play. As we do with fashion we played with proportion, lineage and structure – stretching, squashing and pulling the simplistic shape to create new sculptural forms,” said Johansson.
Sacai is another brand that has explored the realms of furniture design as a way of extending its ethos into retail furniture and homeware. Just like Marine Serre, Sacai creative director Chitose Abe believes in the importance of hybridisation through furniture design. “Sacai incorporates the idea of hybridization through juxtapositions of contrasting textures,” she told A Magazine Curated By from Tokyo this month, “It’s about transforming them into something new and unexpected.” Sacai’s furnishings come to life through the help of GELCHOP, a Tokyo-based design trio who recontextualize ordinary furniture into something extraordinary. “GELCHOP works by melding recognizable furniture archetypes and modern with vintage to make something new. I believe we share the same vision and it emphasizes Sacai’s DNA of hybridisation as a whole in the retail experience,” said Abe.
Cross-disciplinary furniture designed by fashion designers isn’t something new, but it has become more normalised and accessible for the end consumer of late, both for purchase and appreciation in retail spaces. The house of Balenciaga have instigated a significant number of furniture collaborations since Demna Gvasalia presented his first collection for the house in 2016. The brand landed a place at the Miami Design Fair in 2019 with their collaboration with Harry Nuriev on a plastic sofa, filled with Balenciaga garb. For their in-store furniture and installations, the house has collaborated with diverse talents like Argentinian artist Cayetano Ferrer on flooring inspired by ornamental American casino carpets, and Austrian artist Anna-Sophie Berger, who has repurposed Balenciaga fabrics to create a range of patchwork sofas now sitting comfortably in Balenciaga retail shops from Paris to Shanghai.
Through hybridisation and recontextualisation, some of the biggest designers in the industry have started to fully immerse themselves in the world of furniture and object design by exploring their aesthetic roots as a primary source of inspiration, as opposed to slapping a logo on a pre-fab design and calling it a day. “A very famous architect stated that it was more difficult to design a good chair than to design a skyscraper, so I guess brands should be careful if they want to be serious about it,” said Van Peteghem, paraphrasing Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe. “They should find the right partners and think about how it could resonate with their own work and identity.”
Finding the balance between enforcing brand identity and inciting real design innovation appears to be the fine line designers are working with fashionable furniture or ‘sit-able art’, but it appears that fashion designers can seldom do this completely on their own. It is the power of the collaboration between two creative entities that can truly make a ‘fashion furniture’ resonate in both the fashion and design worlds.
Words by Madeleine Holth