Who needs minimalism? “My work is a celebration of the richness of the world,” designer Juan Pablo Molyneux tells Chris Hanrahan
Juan Pablo Molyneux heads the international design firm of J.P. Molyneux Studio in New York City and Paris. He was born in Chile. He and his wife Pilar, both U.S. citizens, reside in New York City and divide their time between his two offices.
The many prestigious projects Molyneux has undertaken include the Pavilion of Treaties at the Konstantinovsky Palace in St. Petersburg, the Russian Rooms of the Palais des Nations in Geneva, the restoration of the 12th-century Château de Pouy-sur-Vannes in Bourgogne and the 17th-century Hotel Claude Passart in Paris.
Molyneux’s acclaimed residential projects have been undertaken throughout the world, from Santiago and Buenos Aires to New York, Moscow, Tbilisi, Beverly Hills, London, Paris, Qatar and Naples. Excerpts from an exclusive interview:
You have been described as a champion of maximalism.
What we call minimalism has become, over time, a kind of school of thought, I would even say a sort of aesthetic ideology, itself very much related to modernism as an historical movement which appeared in the early 20th century and ended in the 1930s. As a result, the movements which have come after are considered as post-modernist.
It is, therefore, clear that I am neither minimalist nor modernist in the historical sense of these terms, since I create and express myself in the 21st century. Moreover, the words modern and minimalist have remained in everyday language, losing much of their original meaning and becoming detached from the artistic theories that gave birth to them.
To be a minimalist today is to have a concise aesthetic discourse, short, limited and circumscribed to a few objects, with few colours, with few materials. And why not? There is room for everyone’s taste.
On the other hand, what I do not accept is when minimalism is praised to the skies as the absolute pinnacle of the modern spirit. There is nothing more sterile in my mind than these dictates of taste. To me, it never makes sense to reject the diversity of the world, the richness of traditions and different arts and civilisations. I believe that the world would have lost a lot if minimalism, tasteless and boring as it often can be, triumphed.
It is high time to return to eclecticism and diversity. My work is a celebration of the richness of the world, cultures, history and decorative styles.
You are a big thinker. What is it about “more is more” and taking on grand projects that attracts you?
To tell you the truth, my work is not only big in spirit and ambition, it also relies on excellence to get there. I work with the best craftsmen in the world, who put their unique know-how at the service of my creativity. My latest book, Juan Pablo Molyneux at Home, puts these talented artisans in the spotlight.
My craftsmen are from all over the world. I look for the best in their respective fields, whatever their country of origin. Often, these artisans collaborate in major restoration projects of the most important historical monuments of the world. Many are French, but they are also Italian, Russian, English. Excellence has no borders.
It is true, however, that I am best known for high-end residential projects of great size and ambition, and indeed, this is the heart of my activity. Each project has its specific challenges to be resolved, and we cannot generalise. If I dared to use a comparison with the world of fashion, my work could be compared to haute couture, not ready-to-wear.
What did they teach you at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and the Ecole du Louvre?
There prevailed a dominant ideology where the great names of modernism were considered heroic figures: Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, Alvar Aalto, Gropius. At the time, these were the essential references in the university curriculum, if not the only models offered for emulation. There was no sense of history whatsoever, it was as if modernism came from a vacuum.
In reality, then, it was not my schooling, but living in France and travelling throughout Europe, that made me discover something else, an incredible historical aesthetic heritage that was not talked about in lecture halls and that I discovered, in fact, by visiting Versailles, Vaux le Vicomte or Fontainebleau.
You say that your interiors reflect a strong sense of place and are the product of a continuing conversation with the client.
When I intervene in places full of history, I am more concerned with evoking an atmosphere and regaining the spirit of grandeur and refinement that once governed their architecture and design. I seek as far as possible to restore the original sense of space and life, but always making the place comfortable for today’s needs.
The best example is the decor of the attic of the Château de Pouy-sur-Vannes. When I visited this 12th-century castle for the first time, I was fascinated by this huge attic with its entanglement of beams giving the impression of going in all directions.
Previously, the attic was basically a huge abandoned space 66 by 66 by 85 feet high, with no insulation and dirt between the floor joists. I wanted to give this extraordinary attic new life, and so I turned it into a fully functional space, insulated, with various seating areas, a bar, a working space, an audio system and a powder room.
When you are having a conversation with a client, what form does it take?
You know, there is no rule in this matter. For 10 clients you will have 10 totally different personalities with their own specific pasts, their unique sensitivities, desires and requests. That’s what makes our profession so rich. No day is like another.
I believe that I have the best job in the world that allows a permanent cultural enrichment and a constantly renewed openness to influences. One day, you work on neoclassical Russia, the next day on Mogul India and the day after tomorrow on Palladian villas.
I am always accessible and accommodating with clients from the very first. I place a great deal of importance on this availability. Most of my clients are busy people and I appreciate that they do not have time to waste.
I always ask that they send the plans and photographs so that I can have an idea of the potential project even before our first meeting. Most often, I want to visit the site and meet with the client in order to get to know each other and to establish a dialogue that will give me valuable insights into what the client is looking for and how far he has developed his requests.
At the end of this dialogue, a contract is drawn up for the initial general design phase of the project. It is then for me to make a proposal by submitting the general plans of the project and some elevations that allow me to make two or three renderings of the main pieces.
These colour perspectives are very close to the final result in terms of colour, the rendering of materials and materials, furniture, fabrics. My customers are often amazed to see how the final result is faithful to the renderings that I had presented a few months earlier.
If my proposals are accepted, we move to the definitive contract relating to the actual implementation of the project. Depending on its size, the duration of a project is variable. In general, for an apartment of about 300 sq m, the duration of works varies from 12 to 18 months. The largest projects, those of several thousand square metres, take us between three and five years.
What I expect from a client for the project to be fully successful is to be motivated and that at the end of the proposal phase, he has made a decision about my proposals. There is nothing worse than indecisive personalities.
How good are you at getting along with clients? How do you resolve conflicts with them?
I only work with gentlemen! I believe that politeness and education are fundamental in all areas of life, including relations with the trade. In the field of decoration, we collaborate with clients in a way that is not purely driven by financial concerns, but is artistic and creative.
A relationship of trust is often established, and it is this trust that can lead to the most successful collaborations. Of course, we do not avoid pecuniary concerns, but my role is then to make my clients understand that excellence has a cost and that what I create for them does not belong to the world of everyday consumption. My designs are unique, and almost all furniture and fittings, fabrics, and trims are made to order.
Once again, I would offer for comparison the difference between high fashion and ready-to-wear or between haute cuisine and fast food. We cannot have one for the price of the other!
“Haute décoration” is a universe that some customers haven’t yet encountered. I help them to decipher the codes of its language and make them discover, above all, the world of excellence and the exceptional, which is no longer customary in common life. I open the doors to the best craftsmen in the world who make stunning marble floors, lacquer paneling, hand-carved woodwork and unimaginably exquisite decorations.
You have cultivated a network of artisans over the years.
Yes. These noted craftsmen collaborate on major restoration projects of historical monuments such as Versailles, Fontainebleau, the Louvre, the castles of the Loire or the cathedrals of the Middle Ages like Notre Dame de Paris.
I have established a foundation in France whose future aim is to support and promote artisans. It is based at the Château de Pouy-sur-Vannes, in the Champagne region, which I have recently restored. It gives me great pleasure to think that in the future, this 12th-century château will welcome the best young graduates from French and European applied arts colleges.
A system of grants will enable them to take their knowledge to a higher level, and a planned partnership with the private heritage associations to which I belong – The French Heritage Society, The World Monuments Fund, and The American Friends of Versailles – may well offer opportunities to work on the major heritage restoration projects we will be sponsoring. As you can see, there is no separation between my work and my passion for preservation, excellence, talent and innovation.