[dropcap size=small]A[/dropcap]t the historic Teatro Vetra in the centre of Milan Design Week, an exhibition of sorts is taking place. Inside the moody space, a mysterious structure of brittle grey-brick pillars and walls interplays with scattered spotlights, bathing the objects within with long shadows and splashes of irradiance.
Some curios, such as a magnifying glass in gold-plated brass delicately perched on the apex of a saddle-stitched leather cone, are held up by rope and pulley. Other larger pieces, like a sofa unusually trimmed in wicker, are precariously placed on platforms and showcases at various impossible angles of tilt.
Visitors speak in hushed tones, bestowing a reverence normally reserved for an art installation. Tacit praise, then, for what is in fact the launch of the Hermes 2016 home collection, choreographed in its entirety, from the scenography to the products themselves, by Pierre-Alexis Dumas and his team.
The entire set comes together beautifully for the motifs that the artistic director envisions for the company his ancestor founded: the grey brick is Italian tufo, or tuff, a raw volcanic rock used for centuries, cut directly from the earth and to which it will later return, an environmentally friendly touch that dovetails nicely with the brand’s theme for the year, Nature At Full Gallop.
The balancing act follows the idea of equilibrium – the concept being the moniker of one range of objects, Equilibre d’Hermes – as well as general harmony in the home.
“Our collection is much in the spirit of Hermes,” the 49-year-old explains. “It has fantasy, it’s about storytelling, yet, if you look at the colour range, it’s subdued, because in your home, if the colours are too strong, it’s exhausting after a while.”
Not just the hues; you see the consonance in the way four chairs park perfectly under an Equis d’Hermes table to form a conceptual cube, a collaborative redesign of an unissued 1960s piece by Spanish Pritzker Prize-winner Rafael Moneo. Or when you notice that the cladding on the deceptively simple icosahedron desk object – despite its 20 facets – is actually made of one piece of leather.
That 360-degree overview that Dumas so intimately grasps has roots in his fascinating journey as a sixth-generation family member. It started in his childhood, when he was strongly influenced by his late parents – his mother, Rena Dumas, an architect whose practice RDAI still designs Hermes boutiques till today and whose Pippa furniture collection (conceived with colleague Peter Coles in 1987) receives a re-edit this year; and his father, Jean-Louis Dumas, one-time Hermes artistic director, chief executive and chairman.
He recalls: “When Hermes was much smaller, whenever they would design the store, I remember my mother bringing the plans home, putting them on the dinner table and working until two o’clock in the morning, with my father, and arguing about every little aspect because she was really a perfectionist. Very often, I would ask what is this about and my mother would explain, so I learnt to look at the plan at a very young age. When I see a plan, I see 3-D right away.”
He picked up, on his own volition, saddle stitching when he was 11, by asking his grandfather for permission to spend his Wednesday afternoons at the company’s handbag workshop. Later, after graduating with a visual arts degree from Brown, he joined an Italian silk printing company, where he nurtured his love for scarves.
That wide-ranging education in the various forms of artistic skills – he even took a course in history of architecture as part of his BA – and him being imbued in the family’s equestrian heritage are what render him so suited for orchestrating the many forms of material savoir faire at Hermes, which spans the gamut from silk and leather to silver, crystal and wicker, and delivering a product that’s worthy of bearing the Hermes badge.
Take, for example, the centrepiece Sellier sofa by French designer Noe Duchaufour-Lawrance. Not only does it bring together different materials and metiers, like cabinetmaking, upholstering and caning – wicker being extensively used in 19th-century horse-drawn carriages – it also offers surprising delights that hark back to tradition. Such as the hidden pockets, compartments and saddlebags: these in the past would offer passengers places to stash their belongings on a long trip, but today are handy for hiding but placing in easy reach modern objects like remote controls, iPads and magazines.
As Dumas describes it: “It’s about making a sofa in a traditional way with a proper structure – upholstering in leather and textile. But it is also using wicker, a beautiful craft. We usually sit on it, but I like that it’s used as an element of decoration.”
These are the secret ingredients that subconsciously draw people towards an Hermes product – even if they are completely new to the brand and have no idea what the fuss is all about.
There is a certain allure, or as the French say it, that je ne sais quoi. And that has a lot to do with how the Hermes object transcends its inanimate status and becomes something personal, something quite alive, if you will.
And whether the thing in question is a Birkin bag, or a signature Carre d’Hermes scarf, they are not actually that different, says Dumas. He continues: “It’s about our relation to objects. For human beings, there are three categories of objects: there are objects you wear, those that you have with you, for example in your pockets, and those that you have around you, for example, the chair that you are sitting on.
“It’s about how we interact with these objects and what they mean to us. We are trying to make objects that can be relevant to you in your life.
“I don’t expect a client to come in and buy everything. I think this would be a mistake. When you go into an Hermes store and you look at everything we propose, we’d be very happy if you were to choose one object and feel, ‘Oh, this is going to make a difference for me.’
“And I guarantee that this object – if you chose it with your heart – will mean a lot to you, because it will stay and grow with you. It will be, if you want, a recipient of your life.
“That’s what I like: the idea that that object is a personal possession. Objects say something about you, your personality, your sense of style and who you are. That’s why objects are both very personal, very intimate and, yet, they are public because in a way when you wear a tie, everybody can see it. But, if you love your tie, whenever you put it back into your cupboard, you will remember everything you experienced with that tie. If this is the tie you were wearing the day you got your first job; if it is the tie you were wearing when you met your wife – it becomes your story.
“And I think objects have this beautiful capacity to become witnesses to your life. That’s why they have such a strong symbolic power.”
What’s in Store
While Hermes’ beautiful scarves and handbags have captured the Singaporean imagination, its furnishings are less well known. That’s about to change, though, with the re-opening of the Hermes flagship store at Liat Towers, where one of the floors in the enlarged space will be dedicated to the home collection. Here are our favourites from the catalogue that will be available at launch, with the new 2016 items arriving later this year.