[dropcap size=small]I[/dropcap]n one of Venice’s oldest palaces, there are pieces of furniture that appear lopsided – as if their legs have been partially chopped off. The designer is none other than Virgil Abloh, artistic director of Louis Vuitton menswear and one of the world’s most sought-after creatives.

These chairs, benches and floor lamps have been conceived to warn the user of climate change. Venice currently hosts the world’s biggest art biennale, but the city is sinking. Parts of the city are permanently submerged in water, and rising sea levels will exacerbate the problem.

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Abloh has designed furniture that tilt at an angle, as if they were floating in flood water. When one uses the “Sinking Chair”, for instance, one sits perpetually askew – a constant reminder of what’s wrong with the current world, and why one urgently needs to act to help avert the environmental crisis.

Virgil Abloh sinking furniture
Creative polymath Virgil Abloh debuts his “sinking” furniture in Venice.

Abloh heads not just LV menswear, but also his own cult fashion line Off-White, which helped him earn the GQ award for International Designer of the Year 2017. He also deejays, designs for Nike and Ikea, and teaches at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.

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He studied furniture design as part of his civil engineering course at the University of Wisconsin and his architecture masters at Illinois Institute of Technology, but rarely practised it when his fashion career took off after graduation.

So when Carpenters Workshop Gallery, a high-end design gallery, approached him to create furniture pieces for its Venice showcase titled Dysfunctional, Abloh made room in his packed schedule to design his acqua alta (which literally means “high water” or “flooding”) series, which debuted last week amid a flurry of openings for Venice Biennale 2019.


Carpenters Workshop Gallery is founded by long-time friends Julien Lombrail and Loic Le Gaillard in 2006. The success of their first gallery in London – located in a former carpenter’s workshop, hence the name – led to the opening of three other branches in Paris, New York and San Francisco. Carpenters Workshop Gallery now showcases its wares at all the major forums for art, design and  decorative arts such as Design Miami, TEFAF, The Armory Show, and PAD Paris and PAD London.

Mr Le Gallaird says: “For years, we’ve been interested in challenging the boundaries between art, design and architecture. The world of contemporary art tends to see itself as somehow separate from the other two disciplines, but we disagree. We want to create art that can be touched and played with, admired from a distance but also utilised as a daily object.”

The boundary-bashing gallery found support from top Swiss private bank Lombard Odier which similarly believes in “rethinking everything – from our financial models to the way we live,” says Frederic Rochat, managing partner and co-head of private clients at Lombard Odier. “Our bank has always thrived on the healthy tension between tradition and innovation, and we recognise those same values in Carpenters Workshop Gallery.”

Frederic Rochat of Lombard Odier, Matthieu Lehanneur & Ingrid Donat, Julien Lombrail & Loic Le Gaillard of Carpenters Workshop Gallery
(Left to right): Frederic Rochat of private bank Lombard Odier, designers Mathieu Lehanneur and Ingrid Donat, and Carpenters Workshop Gallery’s cofounders Julien Lombrail and Loic Le Gaillard.

Carpenters Workshop Gallery and Lombard Odier invited 17 artists, designers and design collectives to create works that cross the boundaries between art, design and architecture. Besides Abloh, these creatives include American fashion designer Rick Owens and his partner Michele Lamy, collaborative studio Random International (famous for its Rain Room) and French-Swedish decorative artist Ingrid Donat. The results, in most cases, are striking.

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Spanish designer Nacho Carbonell created a chandelier that sprawls above you like a pageant of clouds. Dutch artist collective Studio Drift created a cascading structure of LED lights that scatters artfully across the floor. Atelier Van Lieshout, the studio of Dutch sculptor Joep van Lieshout, constructed standing lamps with human or biomorphic forms holding up the lamps and lamp shades.

“These designs tell their own stories, their own emotional journeys. They may be functional pieces of art, but their functions are almost less important than their visual and sculptural aesthetics. Just as a canvas conveys the emotions of the painter, these sculptural designs express the inner worlds of the designers,” adds Mr Le Gallaird.

A clear visitors’ favourite is a massive clock conceived by Dutch artist Maarten Baas. The clock face seems to be made out of translucent glass, behind which a workman stands. Every minute on the minute, the man manually erases the clock’s hands and paints new hands to indicate the changed time. Of course, there’s no actual man living in the clock; the clock face is a really giant video screen showing a 12-hour performance by an actor playing a workman. But the illusion is perfectly executed, drawing gasps from many an onlooker.

Also traffic-stopping is Stuart Haygarth’s Tide Chandelier which is constructed out of small colourful plastic objects that had been left or washed up on beaches. The circular-shaped chandelier bursts with bright hues and gives a chic and cheerful meaning to the concept of sustainability.

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For many of these works, their beauty is also heightened by the location: Ca’ d’Oro is a 15th century Venetian palace-turned-museum, filled with ancient paintings and sculptures. A prime example of Venetian Gothic architecture, its walls and columns boast intricate carvings, ornaments and tracery. Sitting on the Grand Canal, the museum also offers stunning views of the waterway.

One of the top creatives involved in the project is France’s Mathieu Lehanneur, ranked by Wallpaper magazine as one of the most influential designers of 2017. He designed Air France’s Business Lounge at Charles de Gaulle airport, the interior concept of Maison Kitsune’s flagship store in New York, and an itinerant museum for the Swiss luxury watch brand Audemars Piguet.

Mathieu Lehanneur
Mathieu Lehanneur with a table carved to resemble ocean waves.

For the Dysfunctional showcase, Lehanneur – like Abloh – sought inspiration in the waters that surround and permeate Venice. His designs comprise marble and granite blocks whose surfaces have been chipped to resemble the undulating surface of the sea. He uses cutting-edge 3D software to accurately capture the shape of natural ocean waves, translate them into digital formats, and apply them to machines that can cut the marble and granite down to the tiniest waves.

Lehanneur says: “When you stand before a body of water and witness the intricate rhythm of the waves, you feel a sense of peace and fulfilment…The waves, in some ways, remind us to return to nature and appreciate what we have.” Like Abloh, Lehanneur wants the works to raise awareness of the fragility of nature. “Much of our oceans is impacted by human activities, and what we have now is precious.”

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Dysfunctional is one of the first major design showcases by an independent design gallery taking place at the Venice Biennale. Prior to the showcase, Weekend was invited to Carpenters Workshop Gallery’s production facility just outside of Paris to see the works as they were being created.

At the Mitry-Mory location, some 35 talented craftsmen and artisans work alongside famous artists and designers to bring the latter’s ideas to life. There are nine studios under one roof, each specialising in different crafts and materials, from metal and wood to ceramics and upholstery.

Opened in 2015, the massive 35,000 square metre production facility-cum-warehouse is what Mr Lombrail calls a “toy factory” for creatives: “Whatever you can imagine in your head, our craftsmen can create quickly and efficiently. You don’t have to stop until you find that perfect colour or shape that you want for your designs. You don’t have to compromise.”

Few design galleries offer such facilities to their roster of artists and designers, which explains why Abloh, Owens, Lehanneur and others of their ilk are drawn to working with Carpenters Workshop Gallery. The pieces are often handcrafted to such perfection that top architects and interior designers such as Peter Marino and Jacques Grange frequently drop by to select pieces for the opulent homes of their clients.

Mr Le Gaillard says: “To us, the journey of creating an object is as important as the final object… That is why we wanted to show in Venice during the Biennale: We wanted to go on this journey to rethink the boundaries between art and design, challenge the perceived notion that art is more valuable than design, and ultimately deliver an ambitious and innovative show in Venice. I think this show will be a milestone.”

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This article was originally published in The Business Times.