At LVMH, Paris, architect Jean-Michel Wilmotte makes contemporary art the ultimate luxury
Ian Phillips -- Interior Design, 8/1/2004 12:00:00 AM
Not the sort of artwork you can get through your front door, Richard Serra's Single Double Torus is an immense wave of steel, 39 feet long and 44 tons in weight. And shipping the sculpture from Switzerland to the courtyard at LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton headquarters in Paris required extreme measures. First, the Saint Gotthard tunnel through the Alps had to be closed for one night. Then, the street behind LVMH was blocked for a whole weekend while the Serra was lifted over the nine-story building and set in place by a giant crane—brought in especially from Germany. "Just see where a passion for art can lead you!" says Jean-Paul Claverie, an adviser to company president Bernard Arnault.
Arnault oversees more than 50 of the world's top luxury brands, among them fashion labels Christian Dior and Christian Lacroix and champagne producers Moët et Chandon and Dom Pérignon. Meanwhile, Claverie manages LVMH's arts patronage—sponsoring major museum shows, financing restorations of the Palais Royal gardens and a wing at Versailles, and more.
Art plays an equally significant role at headquarters, a 1950's office block that had previously housed a TV station. Now, a Louis Vuitton boutique takes up a quarter of the street level; the remainder of that space and the second story are given over to LVMH public functions; and the directors' offices occupy the top two stories. In between, 200 employees work for the group's divisions: perfume and cosmetics, wine and spirits, watches and jewelry, fashion, distribution, and PR.
Architecture firm Ory-Gomez, now defunct, handled those strictly functional work areas and the redesign of the facade. For the directors' quarters as well as the entry, an auditorium, reception, and the adjacent waiting area—23,700 square feet in total—LVMH hired Wilmotte & Associés.
CEO Jean-Michel Wilmotte's design statement begins with the pure discretion of the furniture, predominantly a mixture of mid-century (Ludwig Mies van der Rohe daybeds and Le Corbusier armchairs) with contemporary (Patricia Urquiola chairs). Wilmotte also added his own one-offs, such as Arnault's palm-wood desk.
Flooring is mainly Portuguese limestone in public zones and linen-wool carpet in the directors' offices. Wilmotte wrapped the walls in horizontal bands of either a chocolate-colored African hardwood or a slightly gray-tinted sycamore, the former downstairs and the latter in Arnault's personal zone. The width of the strips varies according to the dimensions of the spaces—from 3 inches in the lofty reception area and auditorium to just 1.5 inches on the two uppermost landings.
The hardwood strips completely encase the Salon LVMH, a waiting area between reception and the elevators. Because the space is devoid of natural light, Wilmotte treated it as a museum in miniature. Photographic portraits of brand designers are sandwiched between backlit glass and acrylic. Vitrines display a rotating selection of luxury goods linked to celebrities: Berluti shoes worn by Andy Warhol, Nicole Kidman's Dior haute couture dress for the 1997 Oscars.
Street-front on the ground level, a pair of John Galliano dresses for Dior couture appear as 15-foot-tall paper versions by Isabelle de Borchgrave, ' one of several artists commissioned to do site-specific works for LVMH. "The dresses really make everyone stop in their tracks," enthuses Claverie.
Alongside the Serra in the courtyard stands Matthew Barney's Jachin and Boaz, a sculpture named for the columns at King Solomon's temple. The man responsible for the columns—according to Masonic lore—was the inspiration for the architect character that Serra played in Barney's film Cremaster 3. "The courtyard placement was quite natural for us," says Claverie, "because of the special links between Barney and Serra."
On the building's ground level, four structural columns have become supports for giant video screens—all employing a Japanese technology that combines colored semiconductors and black LEDs. The screens generally show promotional material. But at noon and 6 PM daily, commercial images are replaced by video art commissioned from Doug Aitken, Ugo Rondinone, Gary Hill, and Michal Rovner.
The video art also plays continuously on Saturday, when the ground floor is open to the public. "The Saturdays have been so popular that Bernard Arnault wants to expand the initiative," says Wilmotte, who's currently working on ways to transform an adjacent amphitheater into a venue for temporary exhibitions and to integrate yet more sculptures into the courtyard. Rest assured, however—Serra's Single Double Torus is staying put.