The artists transforming the face of interior design

Visionary homeowners are now engaging artists to help them create extraordinary living spaces that dissolve the lines between art, architecture and interior design, says Kate Spicer. Portrait by Ian Derry

Interior designer Brigitta Spinocchia Freund with the Los Carpinteros exploding installation over the swimming pool at one of her homes
Interior designer Brigitta Spinocchia Freund with the Los Carpinteros exploding installation over the swimming pool at one of her homes

The bulbous beast lurking in the wine cellar of Sigrid Kirk’s London house looks at home among the Château Palmer, Montrachet and Côte-Rôtie. Its bubbling, brooding form has wheels, steps and a built-in light so that it can be moved around to help reach bottles from the high racks. Its creator is Eindhoven-based Spanish artist Nacho Carbonell. The official title is Wine Cellar Ladder, but “I think of it as something else,” says Carbonell, whose work frequently has an organic seed-pod-like form, “something more like a companion.” The artist may see it as a friendly presence, “but it’s quite a forbidding one, don’t you think?” says Sigrid. “Maybe that’s what I subconsciously wanted – to stop people raiding the cellar.”

This ground-floor art installation-cum-wine cellar is the first statement piece that visitors see on entering the Holland Park house that Kirk, an art and design curator, shares with her husband Stephen, CIO of Pelham Global Financials, and three daughters – a busy family home that is often used for entertaining and is filled with contemporary art that she likes to buy at early and interesting junctures in the artists’ careers.

For a Kensington home Sean Griffiths created a marble and birch feature wall-cum-fireplace
For a Kensington home Sean Griffiths created a marble and birch feature wall-cum-fireplace | Image: Adrian Taylor

The Kirks are among a growing number of passionate collectors worldwide who, as well as displaying art, are building it into the very fabric of their homes – not just as a creative installation to be admired, but to be used in daily life. “People are looking for something else,” says professor Sean Griffiths, whose now-disbanded FAT architectural practice collaborated with Grayson Perry on the fairytale holiday let “A House for Essex” in Wrabness, for Alain de Botton’s Living Architecture project. It looks like a home for Hansel and Gretel, with its steep pitch on the roof, colourful tiles and disorientating proportions that are as much cathedral as they are cottage. The house is thick with decorative detail that celebrates the “psyche of Essex”, according to Perry. It is conceptualised as a mausoleum for a fictitious lady called Julie – Perry has described it as a “Taj Mahal on the River Stour”.

Griffiths says that, largely, the house is unpopular with architects because of its decorative nature. Yet it is “artists’ free, lawless and broad field of vision that many people are looking for, something that architects and interior designers cannot give them”. He felt frustrated by the essential strictures of his profession, and now informally describes himself as an architect gone rogue. He says he can answer problems architecture cannot solve by taking an artist’s approach. One recent client in Kensington “considered her architect’s vision for her home very conservative; she stood back and found something missing”. After she approached Griffiths and shared her frustrations, he combined his skill for art, design and engineering to create a Kandinsky-inspired fitted wardrobe, caged staircase, feature wall-cum-fireplace, and elements “we called pilasters [non-structural columns] that help to articulate the spaces”. Elsewhere, in a south London home he has created a kitchen and living area that tackles “the relationship between real and representation” using op-art techniques, mirrors and, given the setting, an appropriately suburban pebble dash.

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As professor of architecture at the University of Westminster, Griffiths would, one might expect, be comfortable answering the question: how are these pieces art and not simply imaginative architectural fixtures and fittings? “The status of any artwork that is integrated into an interior and has a functional role inevitably becomes somewhat ambiguous as to whether it is a work of art or a piece of architecture or decoration,” he says. “Architects tend to think of their compositions as a conversation between material objects and the spaces in between; their desire is for the coherence of the whole as a spatial entity. Their overriding concerns mean they consider things that don’t have a function as secondary. Artists tend to see what they do as interruptions, discontinuities and interventions in an existing space. They are more concerned with the intrinsic qualities of the concept they are working on than its spatial composition and function.”

The artist Henry Krokatsis is less equivocal. “There’s a fine line beyond which any work of art can slide into decoration for wealthy people’s walls.” He does not struggle with issues of form and function, so long as he is not asked to compromise. “A lot of my work is floor-based and I have been asked several times to do floors for people with the proviso that they are level and practical. My answer is always no. I’d feel sullied if I worked to that brief.”

A gilded and patinated dressing room in Paris by Pierre Bonnefille
A gilded and patinated dressing room in Paris by Pierre Bonnefille | Image: Jacques Pepion

When he made one of his floor-based works for an apartment in Saint-Germain, Paris, the architect walked off the job “because the floor was uneven. The builder wouldn’t fit it without a waiver being signed; they were worried about getting sued. It was anathema for them to create an uneven floor, but that’s what I do – renegotiate an object’s place in the world.” The Saint-Germain client was, however, “delighted. They said, ‘It looks like something completely other.’”

“The tension between form and function is one of the most fascinating cultural questions of our times,” says art dealer Michael Hue-Williams, citing the Bauhaus’s Walter Gropius, and Marcel Duchamp – among the first to pose the important question “What is art?” Hue-Williams asked the artist Richard Woods to create two domestic spaces for him. The first was a tennis pavilion built on entirely traditional lines yet using Woods’ brightly coloured panels. “But it was nothing like the second, the pool. The pool is the craziest thing I’ve ever done. I live in the house where I grew up, a beautiful Oxfordshire farmhouse. The garden isn’t ‘clever’ – it’s very traditional: a large expanse of lawn, formal flowerbeds and apple trees… created by my mother, who was a fanatical gardener. Putting this extraordinary piece of art in the middle of it was either a stroke of genius or madness.” The swimming pool is made of specially commissioned ceramic tiles printed with Woods’ signature wooden-plank design in orange and red. It sits in the English country garden like a dissonant portal into a wacky cartoon world; Woods loves the way the pool’s “graphic ruralism fires up” the green and densely wooded land.

A Kandinsky-inspired fitted wardrobe alongside a bronze caged staircase
A Kandinsky-inspired fitted wardrobe alongside a bronze caged staircase | Image: Adrian Taylor

Woods has created many projects in his distinct playful style, including a children’s playroom, a loo and an entire holiday home, and charges a set fee – £38,000 – for every project, plus any construction costs on top of that. “Once we’ve been through the commissioning process, I always give people a cooling-off period – sometimes, if they tell me exactly what they want, then I’ll tell them to do it themselves; other times, the idea we come back with is just too crazy for them.” Woods is the first to highlight that “it’s a commitment to live with [these pieces]”. Those who do, “tend to be the passionate, brave collectors. I’m definitely an artist and my work is definitely art, but their interaction is important to me – to walk, touch or be in it is important to my practice.”

Hue-Williams is clearly one such collector, and is acutely aware of the parameters within which artists designing a functional interior space must work. He owns pieces by James Turrell, an artist who works with light and space on an epic scale, and whose most famous work fills an extinct volcano, Roden Crater. But in this context, Turrell’s name is swiftly discarded. “It absolutely does not fit that description,” says Hue-Williams. “You have to give over a chunk of your real estate to a Turrell. It needs a room entirely of its own – nothing else can happen in there.” Woods’ work, however, “definitely has a function – but when people use it, they never forget. It’s incredibly exciting.”

A cabinet in a “pilaster” sculpture
A cabinet in a “pilaster” sculpture | Image: Adrian Taylor

Pierre Bonnefille is another artist often asked to create living spaces, and commissions have included meditation rooms, dressing rooms, a ballroom, the New York office of a captain of industry and a swimming pool overlooking a vineyard for a client in Switzerland. His first private commission, nearly 30 years ago, was for a villa room inspired by the city of Pompeii; the walls had a layered texture made of ash, cinnabar and melted wax, but since then his repertoire has included bronze, silver and gold. Even with very little direct light, they bathe the area in luminosity. “My intervention in the space always includes inspiration coming from dialogue with the client,” he says, and does not see the commissioning process and needs of the client as reducing the value of the work from art to decoration. In fact, far from feeling compromised, he sees this functional work as something “more than an installation… Most of my clients are collectors who want artworks to become a special place.”

Gallerist Armand Hadida recreated a Bonnefille meditation room on his stand at the 20th-century art, design and decorative arts fair PAD, which runs concurrently with Frieze London in October. Among the coolly juxtaposed collectable furniture and art, this space really wowed. A small room, dimly lit, with four golden canvases covering almost the entire walls and a Bonnefille stool alone at its centre, the space caused an immediate shift in energy that was spiritually uplifting.

A Richard Woods pool stands out in an English country garden
A Richard Woods pool stands out in an English country garden | Image: Mike Fear

Similarly euphoric, the work of Cuban-American artist-sculptor Jorge Pardo has been described over the years as “equal parts house, sculpture and utopia”. His project around a 17th-century hacienda in Tecoh, in Mexico’s Yucatán jungle, commissioned by philanthropist Claudia Madrazo has been described as “a sculptural house” dedicated to “exploring the frontiers of art and the aesthetic creation of daily life”.

Pardo took the grey, decaying building and transformed it into a living artwork using light, colour and shape: concrete pyramid shapes were added to the walls, while tiles pulsate with colour. The art critic professor Alex Coles described the house as a pronounced example of “transdisciplinarity”, which describes “artists and designers defined not by their discipline but by the fluidity with which their practices move between the fields of architecture, art and design”.

The Woods’ tennis pavilion
The Woods’ tennis pavilion

This movement is gathering. Krokatsis says he was recently approached by a gallerist with an interest in such forms to join a collective backed by an art-loving hedgefund manager. He says he is thinking about it. “What makes me wary is you’re just creating another asset class – ‘interiors made by artists’, rather than work that addresses the domestic or architectural space.”

“With artists there are no rules; they come first and you work round them,” says interior designer Brigitta Spinocchia Freund, who, for seven years, worked on some of the most valuable real estate in London as creative director of Candy & Candy, and is now creative director of Spinocchia Freund. She describes a critical shift in her thinking in recent years. “More and more I advise clients to get involved with an artist at as early a stage as possible, so you can literally build an artist’s thinking into the structure of the home.”

Wine Cellar Ladder by Nacho Carbonell is a statement piece in one Holland Park house
Wine Cellar Ladder by Nacho Carbonell is a statement piece in one Holland Park house | Image: Boldfort Ltd and Julia Conway Photography

She describes a room for a client’s London house with a bar, snooker table and, on first sight, traditional wood panelling. Upon closer inspection, “the artist made tiny little insects out of dollar bills that skittered across the surfaces and along the ceiling”. Spinocchia Freund prefers not to explore the possible meanings of these cash critters built into the fabric of this “playroom” or discuss the cost of the work, only saying that “it’s always inspiring working with artists – the way they visualise the room is completely different.”

When building one of her own homes, she commissioned Cuban artists Los Carpinteros to create “an intervention” over the swimming pool. “We took lots of our old furniture, a Nokia, some books and had them fly through the wall like one of their Exploding Room series. The artists were excited to work away from the gallery for this one-off commission. Working so intricately in a domestic space is a very different sort of exposure for them. And the room is theirs, entirely theirs.”

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Despite this, Sigrid Kirk points out that it takes more than just the artist and their studio to take the idea through to completion. “While the artist wants it to look a certain way, there may be other considerations – so it becomes a collaborative effort to make the space fit for purpose.” For example, realising Carbonell’s commissioned work for the cellar also called upon the talents of James Russell and Hannah Plumb of JamesPlumb (graduates of Wimbledon School of Art, who have a reputation for being more art leaning than traditional interior designers), architectural practice Rundell Associates, art specialists TM Lighting and her builders Boldfort.

Hue-Williams sees a real importance in functional pieces in an art world that squirrels away work into warehouses. These special commissions – or “interventions” – are a comment on the real emotional worth of art. “If you can’t live with art, then really what is the point?”

 

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