In 2017, French interior architect Pierre Yovanovitch—one of the industry’s most respected figures, known in particular for his love of contemporary art, which has long informed his design process—met Alicja Kwade, the Berlin-based sculptor best known for her enigmatic sculptures and installations that explore the intersections between time, space, science, and philosophy.
The two bonded instantly, and went on to work together, with Yovanovitch commissioning Kwade to create an original piece for the sprawling garden of his estate in Provence. Since then, the pair have remained friends, often consulting one another on their respective work and projects.
Yovanovitch and Kwade spoke to Artnet News about their relationship, their love of “silent collaborations,” their mutual inspirations, and more.
How did each of you come to pursue a career in art and in design?
Alicja Kwade: I always felt like I was an artist and it was more a conscious choice not to do something else. For me, that was quite natural. I think most of the time, if you’re any kind of artist—a musician, a writer, a poet, a painter—it’s not like you sit down at your desk and decide to become an artist per se, it’s more that you are one and if life is lucky, nothing will stop you.
It’s not so intentional—I mean, who would decide to be an artist? It’s not a very wise idea [laughs]. So that’s what happened to me. I just wasn’t stopped. I had people who wanted to work with me, and a lot of support in the very beginning from friends and collectors and people who believed in me before I believed in myself.
Pierre Yovanovitch: I think it’s the same for me. I don’t consider myself an artist, but I’d always been attracted to design. It was natural. My family wasn’t in art or design or anything, but my first job was with Pierre Cardin, working in the fashion business, and I learned a lot from him. He had a great sense of shape and proportions. He was a main mentor for me and taught me so much about design.
But I also remember from a young age that I liked arranging the furniture in my home. It was in my blood, and as Alicja said, I wouldn’t do anything else. I think you’re born creative or you’re not. I was always dreaming about beauty.
When did you meet and what was that meeting like?
PY: I knew of Alicja’s sculptural works before I connected with her in person. I saw her installation in 2017 at the Venice Biennale. At the time, she was also showing a work at her gallery, Kamel Mennour. I was close with Kamel and also Marie-Sophie, the director of the gallery. I said to her: “This piece of art would make sense in my home.” So I commissioned Alicja to create this sculptural piece for my garden.
Alicja is a major sculptor. She sculpts time and space, and she goes much further than other artists. Her art is so strong, and I think it’s because of her roots. She can explain better than I, but she’s from East Germany and I think when she went from East Germany to West Germany, that path made an impression on her, and you can see that in her work.
AK: To be honest, I don’t know much about design, other than I love it and I love furniture and things. But I don’t really keep up with trends and don’t know all that much about the contemporary side of it. But of course, I immediately Googled Pierre after I met him, because I wanted to see who I’d been introduced to [laughs]. I found all these beautiful things he’d been doing and making. I have to laugh a little bit, because in his work, there are all these roundish forms, and I thought there was some formal overlap between us. The work is also very delicate and elegant and minimal. It’s not super-dry minimal, it’s calm minimal.
What perspectives have you lent each other over the years, and what would you say you value about the other’s process?
PY: I’d say Alicja and I took the time to meet and really get to know each other, but I really like how she handled the direction of the piece itself on the whole. She proposed two designs for my garden. I chose one, and proposed a change and she accepted that the change was logical. I always tend to give carte blanche to the artist, and I will say it’s entirely up to them. But I believe that, as sensitive souls, they react to me and the place the work will be in very strongly. So in a best-case scenario, it ends up being a kind of silent collaboration by nature, as it was with Alicja, and I like that.
AK: I think that’s a really great description. It was very much a silent collaboration. It’s not like we sat at a table or tried to force ourselves to agree upon something. It’s more about a true exchange of ideas. What I appreciate in talking to Pierre is that he has this very calm, concentrated appearance, which I find helpful, because my energy is sort of nervous and sometimes hectic.
Pierre invited me to come to his beautiful chateau, and we just spent a lovely day together, no pressure or business talk. Sometimes it feels strange when I have to travel to people’s houses—I mean I’m lucky to do it, but occasionally it feels like you’re under pressure to get inspired or something. Whenever I do a commissioned work, it’s great to have a chance to get to know the collectors and know what they like and don’t like and understand how the work could enrich their lives and homes.
It’s a different story if you just do your work and step away and whatever happens, happens. But when you do a commissioned work for people, it should feel right for the person and their character and their desires and dreams. And that happened very easily and in a pleasant way with Pierre, which I appreciate very much.
In what ways do you feel the worlds of art and design are different and similar?
PY: That’s quite easy to answer, because for me, an interior architect answers to an order of constraints—most of the time, there is a client behind the project and there are time restrictions, too, which can actually be good for the work. But an artist must have the time and complete freedom and shouldn’t have to deal with any restrictions, because they work by their hearts.
Art is here to craft the way we see the world, and to allow us to see it more and better. Design is here to make life easier, more comfortable, and richer. This is the biggest difference, I think. Design is beautiful and creative—it can be emotional, but above all, it has to be functional. The function of art is to make you feel an emotion, or think about an idea; it’s political, it’s about scale.
I love meeting and working with artists because I like understanding their sensitivities. Art in my architecture is very important because it makes it more interesting, beautiful, and stronger in a way. For me, I couldn’t have architecture without art. I like minimal design, but with art. Art always.
AK: The hardest thing about being an artist, but also the greatest thing, is that there’s no use, no excuse, and no reason for what you are doing. And sometimes that’s the most wonderful part of it because you can just do what’s on your mind. What I think connects any kind of creative work, and what I think some people forget, is that it’s a lot of work. Artists are not sitting around getting drunk in a corner.
For most people I know, realizing the work is a process, and you learn from one work to the next, and you try to build something even if it has no use, no sense, no restrictions, or duties. You have to create your own logic somehow—your own world. And so you also work through that, and it needs to make sense for you and it should also be useful for your work, and in that way, it’s a bit like a self-eating machine. You need to feed it and it needs to create. And then you begin again.
If you had to trade jobs for a day, what’s the thing you’d be most excited about?
AK: Oh my god. I would love to make useful, beautiful things! [laughs]
PY: And I would love to be as free as Alicja for one day. That would be fantastic. Total freedom is not something I like so much, because I’m not like Alicja in that sense, and I feel that maybe I will repeat something of myself. Constraints push me to think differently, because every project is different and the people I meet are different and so that pushes me forward, to continue to take step after step. But to be Alicja for one day—yeah, great! [laughs]
In recent years, there has been a lot more collaboration between the art and design worlds. I’m curious as to why you think that is, and if you feel it’s a good thing.
AK: I think it changed really quite radically in the last few years and I also wonder about it sometimes. I think it has good and bad sides, but mostly good ones.
I feel like art suddenly became more hip in a way, so more people are trying to understand it, and know who the artists are. It became more fashionable to work with artists. Also through media—Instagram and Facebook, and the internet in general—artists’ projects are much easier to communicate, and the design world is more able to pick them up because you can see them everywhere and you can talk to the people who make and post them. I think access to art got much, much easier. I will say this tradition has existed for a very long time, between art and design. But at the moment, a lot of people are starting to be interested in it, and they’re trying to see how it could work together in new ways.
PY: I think also it’s worth mentioning that we have the same client at the end of the day, the same collector. And that’s nowhere more obvious than at international fairs, which now combine art and design—Art Basel, FIAC, TEFAF, et cetera. There is space for the section of work between design and art. And now people outside the art world really want to incorporate art in their homes, and they want to collect design also, so it’s this mix of things that, to them, contributes to giving a home or an apartment a strong personality. Collectors now want to affirm that they have taste and a particular way of living, and it’s important for them to mix design and art, and that forms a great collection. It’s very interesting to me, that mix.
What should people know about what it’s like to be a creative person?
AK: It’s a lot of work and you have to somehow be really resistant and keep going and that’s not as easy as some people sometimes think. It’s not just pleasure.
PY: I’ll say it’s important to follow your intuition and not get too inspired by other work. Of course, we’re inspired by many things and knowledge helps you to cultivate your talents, and the best members of my team have a lot of knowledge of art and design and architecture.
But in a way, I like people who just do their own thing, because they go much further. That’s the best way to be creative, because you have everything that you need in your mind and that’s very important to remember. When you need to create a chair, thousands of chairs have been done. How do you make something new and nice and creative? You have to resist following trends and follow what you know in your gut, what you have in your blood.