From playing catch to toys we have enjoyed, the notion of play can evoke many different memories.
For New York-based creative director and still life artist Sonia Rentsch, the idea of play, which is Hermès’ 2018 theme, reminds her of the dollhouse her father had built. This toy, together with the memory of her childhood home, became the central motif for her latest work — the window display at Hermès, titled En Passant, or “In Passing” in French.
Hermès’ artistic window displays first began in the 1930s with the work of Annie Beaumel, a young sales assistant from the glove department. She replaced the window manager who called in sick and went wild with the placement of products and even hung a saddle upside down. Leila Menchari, who succeeded Beaumel in 1978, continued this creative and uninhibited manner of display and it became a reflection of Hermès’ identity and uniqueness.
In Singapore, Hermès’ flagship store at Liat Tower has displayed these imaginative installations since its reopening in 2016 and partners with designers from around the world to showcase their artistry. Rentsch, an Australian artist who has collaborated with such brands as the Museum of Modern Art, worked with Hermès for over six months to conceptualise the current window installation at Hermès’ Liat Tower, which will be on display from now until Feb 25.
Other elements of play show themselves through the incorporation of childhood games. Checkered chessboard design as flooring sets the stage while oversized chess pieces help viewers navigate between rooms and floors. Staircases, which were glaringly absent from Sonia’s childhood dollhouse, are featured prominently and create unique lines of perspectives that blur the lines between art and toy.
Read on as we pick Sonia’s brain on what motivates her, her journey as an artist and how she developed En Passant.
Why did you decide to be a still life artist?
If only I’d had any idea choosing to be a still life artist was an option when I left high school! I studied Industrial Design at University and worked in that field designing products, spaces and installations for a good 10 years post-University. I moved to Berlin from Melbourne in 2009 and found myself unemployed for an extended period. So I started looking outside the box for work options.
Eventually I was employed as a studio assistant for a 3D illustrator who made conceptual sets for photoshoots. It was like someone had opened a magic door to a reality I could only dream of, and by the time I made it back to Australia, I knew that was my destiny. Still life is a work where magic becomes reality. Anything you dream can be made real — as opposed to my previous existence where there were constant constraints, now, sets for photoshoots are an endless world of possibility.
What is the inspiration behind your work?
The adrenaline rush of building something completely new. I’m inspired by the tangible and the intangible. It could be the rubbish on the street caught in the afternoon sun or a book I’m reading that stirs the imagination. The constant drip of my oil heater has me thinking a lot about fluidity; it’s the oddest things that spark a flame.
How did majoring in industrial design shape your current career as a creative director and still life artist?
It gave me an understanding of how things are built and taught me to feel confident about building them. I have a firm understanding of materials and process. I can come up with an idea but also sketch it out, specify how it should be made and discuss problems with my build team. It gives me a very all terrain outlook on my job.
Still life sets require the same principals of good design. Everything comes down to problem solving. In this world my daily challenges are focused around balancing objects, space, scale, colour, light — things that manipulated quickly enable visual outcomes. They’re really joyful problems to tackle.
Why did you decide to name this installation En Passant?
In Passing – stems from several thoughts; the mere act of passing the work on the street. It’s an exchange — I like to visualise it as a quiet nod — the eye contact, even if only brief (in passing) will be a daily occurrence for an undefined number of strangers every day. It’s also the name of a chess move which ties nicely to the inclusion of the board and the players in the piece.
Finally, it’s a reflection – in passing – of a memory that triggered the idea. Something that existed in my reality that has passed but inspired in its place a new story.
Why did you relate the “notion of play” to your personal childhood for this exhibition?
When Hermès briefed me, they sent a list of their own notions of play. I pondered all of their inspirations, my trip to Singapore, my career, my interests. I think so much of who we become as adults stems from those idealistic days of make believe. My notion of play and how I approach the world is very much rooted in those memories. I simply chose to share my playground with new playmates.
Why is En Passant modelled after the dollhouse your father built?
Mining the formative memory of role play and how that action grew into a love of manipulating space is intriguing to me. That dollhouse was my first blank canvas. It has walls, doors, windows but what happened within those spaces was up to me. When I was slightly older I had an obsession with the constant rearranging of my bedroom furniture. For someone who’s say 12, that’s clearly a further interest in spatial relevance and the emotions that altering it avow.
My career in reflection seems like an obvious choice but it wasn’t so simple as say declaring ‘I want to be a Doctor’ – it’s tougher to communicate that you want to manipulate space and objects to evoke emotion.
In referencing that dollhouse, I’m sharing a story — how I learnt to play.
There are multiple stairways in your installation. Tell us more about their significance.
My dad holds an intensely keen attention to detail. I watched him recently pack a shipping container worth of furniture into the boot of his car. He’s like a surgeon with his precision and understanding of space – not a centimetre was left unused.
The dollhouse was perfect but it lacked one important detail — stairs. A two story house minus stairs – how could it be! I’ve asked my father why he didn’t add them but he can’t recall. It’s so clear in my memory that they were absent. This was dad’s thing – details – and yet here was a gaping hole. Literally.
Thankfully the vivid imagination of a child conjures all it needs and in my mind the stairs were plentiful.
“It’s the oddest things that spark a flame.” – Sonia Rentsch
When I reconstructed the space for Hermès I thus added stairs with indulgence. I had been roaming the malls on Orchard Road going up and down without seeming end, getting lost in a maze of possibility. Those spaces reminded me of Escher drawings, the surrealism that they could possibly go on forever. Like my childhood imagined stairways, this isn’t the case, but I liked the connection between place and time. I hoped that when the audience in Singapore strolled by they too might make the connection to their own local experience but also ponder where those steps led. Possibility is the nicest feeling, why not attempt to evoke it.
What do you hope for the audience to take away with them when they visit this exhibition?
Possibility – the stairs are a symbol to me of what can become from the seed of imagination.
Photo credits: Edward Hendricks