Interview with René-Jacques Mayer on Wanted Design

May 15, 2013 | By Thomas Delamarre
Cordoléani & Fontana, "Miroir à main platine carré et rectangle" © Gérard Jonca pour Sèvres-Cité de la Céramique

Founded in the 18th century with the support of Madame de Pompadour and Louis XV, the porcelain factory in Sèvres, a southwestern suburb of Paris, has produced some of Europe’s most celebrated and influential ceramics. In 2010, the Manufacture nationale de Sèvres merged with the Musée national de Céramique-Sèvres to create the Sèvres-Cité de la Ceramique, which serves as both a manufacturer and museum.  

This year, the New York design festival WantedDesign, will highlight Sèvres-Cité de la Ceramique in a two-part exhibit. The first portion of the exhibit will show the work of five, young designers who were selected to spend a year at Sèvres working with ceramicists there to develop new work that both reinterprets traditional techniques and proposes new, contemporary possibilities for the medium. In the second part of the exhibit, well-known designers will show their work from Sèvres.

In a recent interview, René-Jacques Mayer, Artistic Director of Sèvres-Cité de la Céramique, discussed the exhibit and the collaborative residency programs at Sèvres with Thomas Delamarre, Visual Arts Program Officer at the Cultural Services of the French Embassy.

Thomas Delamarre: Why and when was the Sèvres - Cité de la céramique created? How is it organized today?

René-Jacques Mayer: Manufacture nationale de Sèvres is a company founded in the 18th century, created with a specific purpose: to discover the secret of porcelain that Chinese had already invented centuries before. Thanks to Madame de Pompadour, mistress of king Louis XV, Sèvres became one of the “jewels” of the French monarchy. François Boucher was one of the first guest artists, showing the way to Carpeaux during the 19th century, followed by Jacques Emile Ruhlmann or and Hans Arp in the 20th. More recently, Louise Bourgeois, Yayoï Kusama, Fabrice Hyber, Ettore Sottsass, Andrea Branzi, Pierre Charpin, among many others, follow this tremendous history of craft and contemporary art and design.

Since 2010, the National Museum of Ceramics and the Manufacture nationale de Sèvres have merged, becoming Sèvres - Cité de la céramique.

TD: How do you work with contemporary designers and artists?

RJM: Sèvres has been designed as an art centre, adaptable to each project and all kinds of creative experiences. Designers generally work on specific topics (shapes, functionalities, materials, colors, etc.), while artists at Sèvres are working more in a sort of playground in which they can express their creativity. The only limits they face are technical, like what porcelain and stoneware can or cannot … In general we like to say that nothing is impossible, thanks to the craftsmen’s skills.

Pieces of art or design are acquired for the museum’s national collection and of course are available for collectors.

TD: Can you think of one or two particularly striking collaborations with designers at Sèvres?

RJM: I’d like first to quote French artist Fabrice Hyber who chose in Sèvres the quality of soft paste porcelain and 18th century glazing, a very fresh and light green, applied on his Homme de Bessine, a character he uses a lot in his work. A kind of Sèvres’ version of the original sculpture, as a synthesis of his work mixed with Sèvres’ iconic characteristics.

Another striking collaboration in my opinion, would be the “Metro” vase, by Japanese designer Naoto Fukasawa, playing with an imitation of the famous Parisian white metro earthenware tiles, but made in Sèvres’ high quality porcelain with the help of the amazing skills and techniques we have here. A kind of bridge between a high quality in handmade technique and mass production of ceramics.

TD: What will the Sèvres - Cité de la céramique present as part of Wanted Design?

RJM: Sèvres will present examples of collaborations with young French designers in two different booths. First, we will show the winners of the French Design Parade contest, for which the prize is a one year research residency in Sèvres. We’ll also exhibit famous iconic designers such as Sottsass, Charpin, Branzi, de Lucchi… Young designers are more interested in function, the other artists express a free and poetic approach to design.

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