On The Seine, Haut Baroque

Little known in the United States beyond a group of enthusiasts that includes decorators like Mr. Kleinberg and Muriel Brandolini, and collectors like Diane Von Furstenberg, Mr. Van der Straeten has begun to make his presence known in New York. His signature stool -- a podlike seat that can be left gleamingly metallic or encased in lacquers that give it the look of a giant candy --is part of the furnishings of the Roger Vivier boutique at Saks Fifth Avenue, which opened last month. Some of his furniture and accessories, including patinated bronze pots for orchids, are now stocked at two high-end shops in Manhattan, Homer and Maison Gerard.

On June 9, one of Mr. Van der Straeten's latest inventions will be unveiled in Manhattan: a sculptured gold case for Guerlain's forthcoming line of lipsticks. Expected to cost around $30, the lipstick will be easier on the wallet than the $36,000 cabinet made of plum-black lacquer lashed with gilt bronze that is standing in Mr. Van der Straeten's Paris showroom. Guerlain declined to release a photograph of the case, describing its design as top secret. But Olivier Échaudemaison, the artistic director of the company's cosmetics division, insisted that the lipstick, which will appear in stores around Aug. 15, was a perfect Van der Straeten commission. It will herald Guerlain's return to its 1930's glory days, he said, when the company was noted for its patronage of designers and artists like Jean-Michel Frank and Diego Giacometti.

"I wanted Hervé to make a lipstick case that is so beautiful that when a woman pulls it out of her bag, her friends will become jealous," Mr. Échaudemaison said. "You can't ask the average product designer to do that."

Designing lipstick cases, let alone chandeliers, was not how Mr. Van der Straeten originally envisioned his life. His father and brother were engineers, so it was presumed that Mr. Van der Straeten, who grew up in a suburb of Paris, would follow in their footsteps. A few months into his first year at the École des Beaux-Arts, however, "I realized engineering wasn't for me," he said. "I only cared about my drawing lessons. I used to wait all week for that class." At the age of 19, he dropped out of school and went into business as a jewelry designer.

Today he is one of the leaders of a neo-baroque design movement, a school of often extravagant decorative arts that came to prominence in the 1980's through the furniture and lighting of Elizabeth Garouste and Mattia Bonetti in France and Oriel Harwood in England. Mr. Van der Straeten's 2,700-square-foot showroom, on Rue Ferdinand Duval, exhibits a single collection of 25 to 30 objects each year, most produced as limited editions. He is also producing a table lamp that will be part of a retail line of contemporary designer objects commissioned by Alexandre Biaggi, the influential Paris vintage furnishings dealer.

"It's luxurious, but not show-off," said Inés de la Fressange, the former Chanel model, who oversaw the decoration of the Roger Vivier flagship store in Paris with numerous pieces by Mr. Van der Straeten.

Mr. Van der Straeten's showroom is a disquietingly lyrical universe, outfitted with objects that manage to be simultaneously weird and sensual. A chandelier of bronze net resembles a gleaming ectoplasmic sack, while another ceiling fixture uses tubes of pale pink neon to beribbon a savagely sharp metal star. The base of one of his table lamps looks like a tornado momentarily stilled, the graduated strips of gilded bronze arranged into an upright openwork funnel. A round convex mirror is framed with metal rays, giving it a startled appearance that lives up to its name: Miroir Panique. "I don't like pieces that scream too much," said the designer, who lives near the Bastille in a sunny apartment that is part of a complex that used to be a furniture factory. And as for perfection, that isn't his goal at all. "I prefer lots of irregularity in the finishes but the lines have to be very precise."

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One of the designer's biggest fans is Yves Badetz, a scholar of modern design who advises the French government on what to buy for the Mobilier National, the national furniture warehouse. In operation since the 17th century, the Mobilier National is a kind of shopping center cum private museum where government officials can jazz up their offices and official residences with everything from an Empire chair Napoleon might have sat on to a 1930's dining table of Gabon mahogany. In 2004, Mr. Badetz bought several of Mr. Van der Straeten's designs, three Élancée table lamps and two Talon Aguille end tables, and to his delight, last week, he was watching the French minister of culture, Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres, being interviewed on television and spotted on the minister's desk one of the lamps, its dark bronze base shaped a bit like a stiletto heel turned upside down.

Part of Mr. Van der Straeten's appeal is his use of aging craftsmen whose skills are dying out. One of his designs, a large convex mirror with surfaces that curve like a silver bubble, demanded the skills of a retiree who apparently is the only person left in France who could properly shape the molten glass.

"I'm always thinking of the techniques," said Mr. Van der Straeten, whose thematic collections -- the latest is loosely based on the free-form shape of boomerangs -- typically result from doodles he makes while talking on the telephone. "Once I noticed I had doodled a lot of straight horizontal lines and thought, 'Oh, that's nice,"' he said, noting that the collection that followed was dominated by accents of attenuated strips of gilt bronze. And when he cannot coax artisans like the mirror blower out of retirement, he scours the École Boulle, a prestigious design school, for young artisans who understand his desire for mixing up materials to "contrast the very smooth with something a bit rough," like glassy lacquer trimmed with artfully pitted metal.

Not everything off his drawing board, however, has resulted in instant swooning. In his office stands a Parsons-style console table made of bronze and surfaced with a panel of pony hide; its legs are braced with a stretcher made of a stout length of chain. Tough but elegant, the striking design failed to impress a visiting American. As Mr. Van der Straeten recalled her saying: "Take off the chain. It looks too S-and-M." He didn't, and it doesn't, but, he admitted, the table still hasn't sold. "Maybe she was right?" Mr. Van der Straeten said ruefully. "I don't know. But I like it."

Imported Brass and Hide

MOST of Hervé Van der Straeten's neo-baroque furniture and accessories can be found at his retail showroom in Paris, 11 Rue Ferdinand Duval, in the Fourth Arrondissement (011-33-1-42-78-99-99).

But if taking the next flight to Paris seems a bit excessive, a taxi ride will do the trick.

Mr. Van der Straeten's bronze lamp chandelier, far left, called Lustre Reflecteur #204, 19 inches wide and 65 inches long, is $12,000 at Maison Gerard, 53 East 10th Street (at Broadway), (212)674-7611 or www.maisongerard.com.

Homer , a shop at 939 Madison Avenue (74th Street), has his bronze and goat hide Goat seat ($8,995), left center, and his bronze fruit bowl ($2,225); (212)744-7705 or www.homerdesign.com.

Mr. Van der Straeten's jewelry designs, which brought him to the attention of Vogue when he was a 19-year-old college student, go for less stratospheric prices. Seven designs are available at www.vivre.com, including a gilt-brass collar with a vaguely "Star Trek" mien ($450) and jangling Gypsy-style earrings composed of gold wire hoops and coinlike medallions ($275). MITCHELL OWENS

Source : http://www.nytimes.com/2005/05/12/garden/on-the-seine-haut-baroque.html

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