The work of Thomas Lemut, a French sculptor and furniture maker represented by Gallery Fumi in London, has recently become all the rage for art collectors and aficionados from New York to Paris. Jennifer Murphy talked to the artist about what inspires his sublime creations and where he’s headed next.
You began drawing at a young age and later took to sculpting. How did you reach the point where you were creating furniture?
When I was young I started drawing and engraving, and then I did photography. I took to sculpture between the ages of 18 and 29. Following that period I took a 10-year break, and at the age of 39 I returned to sculpting. I started creating things you might call still lifes or miniatures. And these miniatures needed to expand. They needed space in order to be emphasized. I felt I had two choices: frame them or add functionality to them. I added functionality as a matter of sculpture, not because I necessarily wanted to do furniture. The furniture was just there to serve the miniature – to function as a frame for the miniature. So as it turned out I did lots of tables. It’s not that I particularly like tables; it’s just that it was required by the miniature. But there was nothing I found in creating furniture in particular that I couldn’t find in another artistic medium. It’s just that my creativity guided me there.
Can you say a little about your thoughts on artists who design furniture as opposed to what you do?
There is a key difference. I consider myself to be a sculptor who creates functional objects. I’ve have no special knowledge about design. I am not a designer. The design scene today is very powerful, but when I talk about design I’m speaking more about IKEA, which I think is actually the cleverest design thing on earth: it’s got Danish designers and other inventive designers involved. The primary difference between the designer and the sculptor is this: the definition of design is that the aesthetic serves functionality. I use functionality to serve the aesthetic.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m now working with Gallery Fumi in London. I’m designing an apartment bar for one of the gallery’s clients. I’ve had a lot of experience with drinking (laughter), so I’m quite knowledgeable concerning the question of what is and isn’t required in a bar.
I used to go quite often to the bar at the Hotel Lutetia, which was like a Russian doll to me. You enter the hotel and it feels like another village inside of Paris. And then you enter the bar, which is also like another village. And finally you have the bar itself, which is also like another physical location. Eventually I came up with the idea of creating a kind of bar inside of a box to recreate that feeling. I made a cube with windows, closed on two sides and the ceiling in order to create a box in a box. So interestingly enough, while I haven’t had a drink in many years, my drinking history has become an important aspect of my work.
What direction do you see yourself heading in the near future?
Recently I made a decision to separate from some of the miniatures I’ve been doing and explore other things. This has freed me from the furniture aspect of my work, since the furniture was originally created to serve the miniatures. Right now I’m building an armchair I really like, a piece I’ve been designing for a little while and that I want to make. I’ve been doing the raw model to check the proportions and the weight, and of course the comfort of it too. I’m also working on a lamp that is adaptable as a table lamp or bedside lamp, or even as a reading lamp, and it’s rather radical. I’ve been doing large bookshelves for private clients and continue to do tables. In additional to all this I’m conceptualizing a huge office desk for a client that can be used by six or so people, which is really interesting.
Describe your artistic process.
As with the bar in the box, I’m always thinking about materials, about elegance, about the stories of my past. I put an enormous amount of energy into the materials I use: mixing cheap materials with the elegant and expensive; something delicate and fragile with something sturdy. My motivation when I’m creating is to make a very functional object, like a desk, but it’s always a question of sculpture, of beauty, and of balance in the proportions. Because I’m working with space, it’s also a matter of feeling the world around me. It’s a question of listening, and of vision. It is not and has never been a question of stamping my self or ego onto the world. Creation comes from my eyes, heart and soul down to my arm and hand, which is where each drawing begins.
You somewhat jokingly refer to yourself as a “dilettante activist.” What does this term signify to you?
I’ve always felt like an outsider, for various reasons that aren’t very interesting. My life has always been guided by a kind of high-level curiosity, a desire and love for life. My motivation has never been to insert myself into society or become what you’re supposed to be as a man or as a worker. I see lots of people in society who link their identity to their activity. They say, “I’m a banker, I’m an artist, I’m a peasant,” – as if this means something. For me it means nothing. It’s just one small window of something that’s much bigger. Even today I don’t link my identity to my position as an artist. My motivation for creating art is really linked to curiosity. I like the ridiculousness of the slogan “the militant dilettante.” For me it just signifies that my desire is linked to curiosity, and to love.
What are your thoughts on the current furniture scene? Is the industry still active despite the economic downturn?
Since my pieces are rather expensive, I’m in the luxury market. And I’ve been lucky enough to have prestigious art collectors commission pieces from me. From what I’ve observed during the financial crisis, the artists who show the fewest number of pieces have been increasing, which is great news. In a way the luxury art scene has experienced more of a clean-up recently than anything else.
Define artistic success.
If success in art were possible, the artist would stop being an artist. The definition of being an artist, to me, is linked to the quest itself: to the search the artist has to reach an absolute. So, technically speaking, there is no success. There is only the path of the artist. Success from this perspective means to continue creating. And if you’re serene following this path, it’s obviously better than if you’re suffering miserably.
What, or who, are some of your inspirations?
I’m as inspired by Pierre Chareau, Jean Prouvé, and Poul Kjærholm as by the war in Bosnia. My inspiration comes from everywhere: having drinks with my friends at a café in Saint-Germain, or seeing a beautiful woman pass by on the street.
What are some of the themes you find yourself wrestling with in your work?
One of the main themes of inspiration for me is nostalgia. My favorite historical figure is the Unknown Soldier. There’s a Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Paris beneath the Arc de Triomphe. To me, this is the most interesting historical figure on this planet. Maybe that this is my favorite subject says a lot, or even too much. It is admittedly rather dark.
You are, perhaps, admittedly rather dark.