Minimal Means, Maximum Impact
Llamata + Berthier sculpts a Paris interior for artist Bernar Venet
Ian Phillips -- Interior Design, 8/1/2004 12:00:00 AM
When David Llamata and Charles Berthier were revamping artist Bernar Venet's house in Paris, the architects tried to show him plans for the master bath. "He refused to look at them," recalls Llamata. "He told us, 'I want it to be a surprise.'"
Still, despite being given virtual carte blanche, Llamata + Berthier/LLB Architecture had to take certain preferences into account, the most important of which was Venet's minimalist aesthetic. "It's very sober, very Zen," remarks the artist—whose ebullience belies not only his taste but also his 63 years. (That makes him older than the 29-year-old architects combined.)
"I could never live with extravagant decor," Venet adds. He hates antiques: "They reflect a taste for security and excessive comfort." And he's not over-keen on trendy contemporary furniture: "It's a little too polished for me." Instead, he makes his own seating and tables out of steel, just like his monolithic sculpture.
He fabricated his first furniture pieces way back in 1968. "At the time," he says, "I didn't have the money to buy any." Having just moved to New York, he was living in an unconverted SoHo loft formerly occupied by a couple and their pet monkey, and he started making a name for himself not with sculpture but with conceptual work incorporating mathematical signs and equations.
Things have changed significantly since then. His auction prices can reach six figures, and three sculptures from his Indeterminate Line series are now on display in the middle of Park Avenue—monumental corkscrews of steel resting on the grassy malls between ' Lever House and the Seagram Building.
Venet still lives in Manhattan, but he also has a 1930's house in Paris. A critic of the era did not seem impressed. "The layout, dimensions, connections, and details of the rooms could have been determined by chance," he wrote in L'Architecture d'Aujourd'hui. Husband-wife painters Hans Hartung and Anna-Eva Bergman must have seen more potential. After buying the property in 1957, they built a double-height studio on top of the existing structure, and the 3,500-square-foot house remained their home and workplace for decades.
When Venet's wife, Diane, first saw it in 2002, it had been vacant since Hartung's death in 1989. Little furniture of worth remained, though Venet did hang onto one paint-splattered white stool. He also left Hartung's second-floor bedroom more or less intact. Other vestiges of the past include the lift that carried him up to the third-floor studio. (He'd lost a leg in the Second World War.) The first floor's double-height sitting room served as Bergman's studio, too. Upon completing a painting, she could hoist it through a trapdoor in the ceiling, into a mezzanine storeroom at the rear of the space.
Llamata and Berthier simply removed the trapdoor, glazed the opening, and turned the storeroom into an office. In addition, they knocked out columns and beams and carted away the bright blue sliding door that separated Bergman's studio and sitting room from ' the dining room—all in a quest to create the purest volumes.
Demolition complete, the architects embarked on a limited amount of construction. Where necessary, they furred out the walls to accommodate more wiring and topped them with a cove for fluorescent tubes. Fluorescents are also sandwiched between the polycarbonate sheets that form the front and rear elevations of the mezzanine master suite at the rear of the upper studio.
Further architectural gestures come in the form of a 20-foot-high white-painted door, which separates the living area from the stairwell, and two striking drywall partitions, one between kitchen and dining area and the other between master bedroom and bath. Both partitions are placed on an angle 7 degrees off the perpendicular. "That way, they establish a more interesting perspective," explains Llamata. "It also highlights the idea of being independent elements set down in the space."
Besides those rare idiosyncracies, the pair aimed to remain as sober as possible. "The architecture isn't in your face," declares Berthier. "Instead, we created vast expanses of wall for displaying art." The living area, for example, is dominated by Surface Indéterminée Hachurée, a typical Venet steel relief mounted on the wall.
Venet is also a keen collector, mostly of minimal art. The living area holds a Robert Ryman engraving, a Robert Indiana screen print, and a steel relief by Gottfried Honegger. A Donald Judd box sculpture runs along a sidewall in the dining area. In the stairwell, Venet hung a series of self-portraits by photographer Roman Opalka.
Impressive. According to Venet, though, two things are still missing from the collection: "One is an all-black canvas by Ad Reinhardt. The other is an all-white painting by Robert Ryman." How much more sober can you get?