Mattia of importance

On the eve of a rare selling exhibition of the work of design-art doyen Mattia Bonetti, Lucia van der Post examines his powerful – and eclectic – influence

Mattia Bonetti with some of his work at David Gill’s King Street gallery, London. Clockwise from left: patinated bronze Emperor lamp. Patinated bronze and glass Driftwood side table. Stainless-steel and aluminium Fakir cabinet. Silver-plated and patinated bronze Merveilleuses table lamp. Bronze, glass and metallic paint Chewing Gum table. Fibreglass and glass DW2 coffee table
Mattia Bonetti with some of his work at David Gill’s King Street gallery, London. Clockwise from left: patinated bronze Emperor lamp. Patinated bronze and glass Driftwood side table. Stainless-steel and aluminium Fakir cabinet. Silver-plated and patinated bronze Merveilleuses table lamp. Bronze, glass and metallic paint Chewing Gum table. Fibreglass and glass DW2 coffee table | Image: Jude Edginton

Almost everybody who has encountered his work remembers the first time they saw a piece by Swiss-born, Paris-based designer, Mattia Bonetti. For me, it was one evening in the early 1980s and we were dining with a friend whose house had just been done over in newly fashionable minimalist style. Once a riot of Laura Ashley and Colefax and Fowler, it had been transformed with bare floorboards and lashings of white, relieved in the drawing-room only by a beautiful, dark old Dutch armoire and in the dining-room by a stunning silver curving chest or “commode”. This turned out to be a limited-edition piece by Garouste & Bonetti and, said our friend, there was another one just like it in David Gill’s small gallery in the Fulham Road. I rushed there the next day but it turned out to be £4,000, which at the time seemed a mad price to pay for a piece of furniture. So I gave up the chance not just to own something I truly loved but also to make a spectacular investment. Today those commodes sell for £120,000 and more.

Stainless-steel and lacquered wood Polyhedral chest of drawers, £180,000
Stainless-steel and lacquered wood Polyhedral chest of drawers, £180,000 | Image: Editions David Gill

For Princess Gloria von Thurn und Taxis it was the day in the 1980s when she arrived at Christian Lacroix’s Paris salon (where everything from the colour of the walls to the furniture, the window display, the curtains, the tags on the dresses, the logo, what you might call the whole gesamtkunstwerk, had been done by Garouste & Bonetti) and she so loved the furniture that she just “had to have it for the drawing room of our castle in Regensburg”.

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Simon de Pury, chairman of Phillips de Pury & Company, a leading auction house specialising in contemporary art and design, first became fascinated with Bonetti when, in the 1980s, he went to a small exhibition at the Neotu Gallery in Paris and saw an orange stool, the Prince Imperiale, which was made of wood painted orange and embellished with straw. “For me,” he says now, “it was a completely new aesthetic. You must remember there was no design art in those days. There was art and there was furniture, but here was something entirely different that bridged the two.” He’s gone on to become a major collector.

Nickel-plated bronze Eternity lamp, £10,200
Nickel-plated bronze Eternity lamp, £10,200 | Image: Stephane Briolant, Editions David Gill

For Yana Peel, a noted design-art curator and founder of the Design Fund to benefit the Victoria & Albert Museum, it was the Torchere Seville, an extraordinary sculpture-cum-candelabra, which she first saw in Gill’s Fulham Road gallery, that made her realise here was something new and special. Today she owns several of his pieces (notably a nest of three polyhedral tables and a Strata cabinet from the 2004 collection), but most of all she has collaborated with him on special projects for her house, including a Corian sink “that is quite unlike any other”. She loves, too, his ceramic Turandots, little tables that come in unlimited editions and lots of colours and, being under £1,000, are a good starting point for the new collector.

Stainless-steel and glass Ring table, £72,000
Stainless-steel and glass Ring table, £72,000 | Image: Editions David Gill

David Gill himself was captured by the work when he went to see Lacroix’s salon, which he’d heard about on the grapevine. There he found “something unlike any other couture salon – there were masks, Gauguinesque tables of bronze, wild colours, patterns of torches with flames, it was a fantasy, with a primitive strength. It was amazing.” Then a little later, still in the 1980s, the V&A put on a major exhibition of work by young French designers (Jean Nouvel and Philippe Starck among them) and once again Garouste & Bonetti captured his imagination. He decided there and then that he would ask them to do a collection specially for him; it was a personal turning point. Until then his gallery had specialised in the work of the mid-20th century classicists (Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann, Diego Giacometti, Gilbert Poillerat), but seeing the extraordinary work of Garouste & Bonetti made him realise where his real tastes and interests lay – which is to say, in discovering, nurturing and promoting the work of the new generation of artist/designers that was emerging, work that was unlike anything that had been seen before.

Stainless-steel base and acrylic top Gracie coffee table, £28,800
Stainless-steel base and acrylic top Gracie coffee table, £28,800 | Image: Stephane Briolant, Editions David Gill

His gallery in those days was still tiny and yet it caught the eye of noted connoisseurs. Charles Saatchi, for instance, wanted to buy the whole of the first Garouste & Bonetti collection but later came back to say sorry as his (then) wife preferred 18th-century pieces.

Silver-plated and patinated bronze Incroyables lamp, £12,000
Silver-plated and patinated bronze Incroyables lamp, £12,000 | Image: Stephane Briolant, Editions David Gill

At that point Mattia Bonetti was working with his then professional partner, Elizabeth Garouste, wife of the painter Gerard Garouste. At first it was, as Bonetti puts it, “very exciting to be working with her, but I found I enjoyed it less and less – we were going on different paths”. In the late 1990s they parted, but some who have followed Bonetti’s work see no discernible change of direction, believing that, as Gill puts it, “while Elizabeth was involved in the dialogue, it was Mattia who did the drawings and was the chief creative spirit”.

Alu console in polished aluminium, £69,600
Alu console in polished aluminium, £69,600 | Image: Editions David Gill

Most early collectors of Bonetti’s work came from a small, tight-knit world of artists, gallerists, collectors and connoisseurs, which is why it is still not as widely known as it deserves to be. In addition, when he and Garouste started there were almost no outlets for these sorts of pieces. There were furniture shops and there were art galleries and it was the gallerists who picked up his work. So, while today Garouste & Bonetti pieces and the later ones by Bonetti are found in some of the most distinguished museums and collections, they were mostly snapped up from those few galleries or were privately commissioned by those who got to know the designer.

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To try to explain his appeal isn’t easy. Almost everything he makes has an element of fantasy, but he is unusual in that there is no consistent handwriting. There is the wild, baroque, fantastical Bonetti – the Abyss table and console, for instance, brilliant confections of silver, gold, pink, green and yellow. Then there’s the almost minimalist, strict Bonetti – the wonderful polished steel Strata cabinet, the Ring table (£72,000) and the Alu console (£69,600). There’s also the playful Bonetti – his birthday chests come in glorious colours and wrapped in silver-plated “ribbon”. As de Pury puts it: “I like some of his very spare work, such as the Ring coffee table – there are so many coffee tables, but this is the most beautiful I’ve ever seen – but then I’m fascinated also by his baroque style. This is something that you see in many artists’ works, and Bonetti at heart is really an artist.” Bonetti himself says that he likes to do “the strict, sober shapes and then the free and crazy shapes”. That these exist side by side is a tribute to his fertile creativity, to the fact that he can, as Gill puts it, “sculpt, he can draw quite beautifully, he can design and he has an amazing imagination”.

As Reed Krakoff, president, executive creative director, of Coach, the American leather company, puts it in a monograph devoted to Bonetti’s work and published by Rizzoli: “Mattia is unencumbered by history.” He never trained as a furniture designer. He doesn’t know how things are supposed to be done, so he does them his way. He started off designing textiles, then he was fascinated by the theatre and photography, and then he was asked to design the whole ambience for a night club until, finally, he produced La Chaise Barbare, made of wrought-iron painted to look like bronze, which was shown at the Neotu gallery and created quite a stir.

“You have to remember,” says Gill, “that at the time furniture was mainly of the industrial, architectural school and Bonetti’s fantastical pieces were much more like works of art. He sculpted them with his hand and then they were cast in bronze or metal.” Bonetti himself says: “I’m interested in the idea of extreme glamour, but with quality. What I hate is the tyranny of the ordinary.” But always, always, his pieces are functional. They are not mere exercises in fantasy. The function may not be immediately visible, but cabinets have drawers that can be opened, tables can have things laid on them, chests used for storage, chairs can be sat on.

Gill thinks that Bonetti’s aesthetic language is most perfectly expressed in his cabinets: “He reinvents the cabinet in his work and they are his most distinguished pieces and I believe they will go on being highly sought-after.” The other stand-out pieces, he thinks, are the Garouste & Bonetti Polyhedral chest-of-drawers – made in 2004 it sold originally for £40,000, today it commands £180,000, while the squares and facets are widely copied – and Bonetti’s Abyss table, which is cast in bronze with gold and silver plating and tinted lacquer.

Today, he sells through Gill in the UK – in whose wonderful new space in St James’s, right opposite Christie’s, there will be an exhibition of his work from June 7 to August 27 – and through Paul Kasmin in New York, a gallerist who normally works just with artists. There are only ever a few pieces for sale, but most are made in small editions. Prominent works in the new collection are the wonderful Intro table, made of spray-painted carved wood, and the Organ cabinet made of aluminium. Smaller pieces to look for include a couple of lamps and two sets of fire-dogs, one made from cut-out folded and painted metal, and the other pair from cast bronze. Most of the prices are on request but will range from about £700 for the Tabouret Turandot small ceramic tables (which are not new but are always on sale at the gallery) up to about £180,000 for some of the bigger pieces.

For those who love his work, perhaps in particular some of his past work, it’s worth keeping an eye on auction houses, while online dealers such as Istdibs and Artnet usually have some of his pieces. But anyone wanting something truly special, and with the means to pay for it, can approach Bonetti, via the David Gill Galleries, to commission something one-off. His works are in the collections of many a famous name – Elton John, Madonna, Bernard Picasso, David Whitney (a noted collector now dead, he was the long-time partner of the American architect Philip Johnson).

The prices may seem high (as the £4,000 once seemed to me), but Simon de Pury is in no doubt that with time most of his works will be worth much, much more. All those who bought those early pieces are now sitting on small fortunes.

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