Use & Value
Innovative and influential Swiss designer and artist Janette Laverrière turns 100 this year. She talked to Vivian Rehberg in Paris about politics, being a woman, utility, mirrors and her collaborations with artist Nairy Baghramian
Nairy Baghramian and Janette Laverrière, 'La Lampe dans l'horloge' (The Lamp and the Grandfather Clock) (2008). Exhibition view at the Schinkel Pavilion, 5th Berlin Biennial
Born in 1909 in Switzerland, Janette Laverrière studied in Basel at the Allgemeine Gewerbeschule, where she learned the fundamentals of drawing and decoration. After training in her father’s architecture practice, she designed her first pieces of furniture in the late 1920s and until 1945 collaborated on designs with her first husband, Maurice Pré. Involved in politics all of her life, Laverrière joined the Communist Party in 1945. Since then she has designed rooms, affordable furniture and ‘useless’ objects. She began making mirrors in 1936 – an interest that has continued throughout her career.
VIVIAN REHBERG Could you talk a little about your career trajectory and whether or not you see a link between the first objects and items of furniture you designed in the 1930s and your most recent production?
JANETTE LAVERRIERE Up until recently I made objects that were useful to everyone. Then, suddenly, I stopped and said: I want to make something that pleases myself. But I do think there is still a link to my earlier work, perhaps the fact that, even then, the forms were not always driven by utility.
VR How did you get started as a designer?
JL I was a student in Switzerland, then I came to Paris for internships, and then – such is life – I started working. I wanted to make affordable, useful things for all, but nobody wanted them.
VR Throughout your entire career or only at specific moments? Was there no interest even after the Second World War?
JL Before the war, when my children were small, we were thinking about making affordable furniture, really affordable, but in France tastes leaned toward the luxurious. Well, the war arrived, and afterward I set off on my path and stuck to it and I found a clientele. I worked for people who asked me to make furniture, to design a bedroom, then an apartment, and so on. But at a certain moment, during the 1980s, I said to myself: I cannot continue doing these building projects like an architect. And then the idea came to me: I am going to make objects that serve no purpose whatsoever. And the difference lies there.
VR Is there a link between utility and uselessness?
JL Of course. It’s useful to have useless things.
VR Precisely – I agree.
JL So, I started anew by thinking about the oldest thing I could remember being inspired by. When I was 17, I really loved Jean Cocteau; I read a lot of his works. In 1989, I wanted to pay homage to him on the centenary of his birthday. So there I was in bed, thinking: I am not going to do anything useful anymore, I do not want to, I cannot, so I will do useless things. All of sudden, a new world opened up for me.
VR And this new world resides in useless objects? Is this where your elaborately designed and partly obscured ‘mirrors’ come in?
JL Yes, everyone calls them ‘mirrors’, which makes sense to some extent as I used to make actual, functional mirrors! But now I don’t want to make something useful – what I want is to tell a story.
VR You mean like Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), or its sequel Through the Looking Glass (1871), which have both inspired art works?
JL I don’t want to tell a story literally; I want to remind people of one when they see the work. J’accuse (I Accuse, 2008) was inspired by the title of Émile Zola’s open letter to L’Aurore newspaper in 1898, when charges of anti-Semitism within the French army led to a miscarriage of justice and the Dreyfus Affair. Justice is frequently unjust. I wanted to make something that shows how justice hangs in the balance between fair and unfair, that’s all. The form? Useless.
VR J’accuse comprises single, crescent-shaped mirror – a scale – suspended by a delicate chain from a small round mirror. There is another aspect to this work, which is that its subject is very political. This is also the case with La Commune, hommage à Louise Michel (The Commune, Homage to Louise Michel, 2001) about anarchist revolutionary Louise Michel and the Paris Commune. Here, an exquisite varnished rosewood box holds a mirror shaped like a cherry in reference to the immensely popular song Le Temps des cerises (Cherry Blossom Time, 1866), which was adopted by the Commune. The mirror reflects an attached iron shutter riddled with ‘bullet holes’ – a tribute to combatants executed at the Communards’ Wall in Père Lachaise cemetery.
JL It is a political subject because I am a very political person.
VR Could you elaborate your political commitments?
JL My commitments are linked to the war, when I experienced firsthand the consequences of Marshal Philippe Pétain, who headed the Vichy Regime, betraying France in order to save the rich, out of fear of the Soviet Union. He chose the Germans and Hitler over the Soviets. I found out about it perhaps five days after France signed the armistice treaty with Nazi Germany. Can you picture me on Pétain’s side? No! So, I was working in a weapons factory, and we were told that half of France – the southern half – would be saved, since it was in the ‘free zone’. Then, four days later, the Nazis took control of the weapons factory. So, what I had been thinking was true. They had sold France out of fear of the Soviets. Little by little, I got to thinking, and I read Karl Marx’s The Communist Manifesto (1848). But, since I am a critical person, I saw that the Soviets had betrayed Marx, and I know that Marx is outmoded. I live in my times.
VR An interest in social and political issues is consistent throughout your career.
JL Yes. My father was an architect and when I was a little girl, six or seven years old, while he was involved with a workers’ housing exhibition, I saw a cabinet for a sewing machine. I thought, ‘Well, right! Maybe what I want to do is to make things for everyone.’ Does that sound complicated?
VR Not at all. Since we are on the subject of social and political issues, would you mind speaking about your position as a woman in a very masculine profession and your role in establishing statutes for regulating the design professions in France?
JL Before the war, so-called ‘decorators’ worked for the rich, and that finished when the war ended. After the war, I knew so many wonderful intellectuals and artists, but one had to be more of a business person than an architect or a designer to succeed. I had become a communist, so I said, ‘Enough is enough!’ I invited four or five comrades and we founded the Front National des décorateurs (National Front for Decorators) in 1944, followed by the Union des artistes décorateurs et créateurs d’ensembles (Decorators Trade Union), that same year. After the trade union was formed and I had seen the lawyers about the statutes, I went to Switzerland for a few months. When I came back, I saw they had named me Fourth Secretary. Then they told me they did not want to show me the statutes. So, obviously I was very angry, and they finally agreed to show me. There were a lot of salons and exhibitions in France at the time. My work was always placed in some corner. I cannot remember exactly when, but I was asked to start designing interiors and architectural models. And why was I asked? Because my comrades and I were active in Leftist politics. Then, when I began teaching, men would laugh when female students would show their work.
VR Were there many girls studying interior design?
JL There were very few; I don’t remember exactly how many. At any rate, the boys would laugh. Then, ten years later, the boys had changed. Life had simply changed, that’s all. I once had the opportunity to exhibit an entire house in a salon, but then I was told there was no place for me because I was not commercial enough.
VR What does that mean? That your work wouldn’t sell?
JL It means that the others owned stores. I relied on honoraria, like architects did. In the end, they gave me a tiny spot, and I did what I could with it. It is always difficult to exhibit in salons if you are not doing very commercial work. So, I did what I could with very little money.
VR What kind of commissions did the salons lead to? Did they play a role in your private and public commissions or were you obliged to find work another way?
JL Well, firstly I would say that nobody is obliged to do anything they do not want to do. However, as an example of the way women were treated at the salons, I remember how once, at a national furniture salon, a friend told me that it had been decided to give me a very small commission, whereas all the men had substantial commissions. In fact, when I showed my project to the director, he said, ‘Well, aren’t we in for a laugh?’ When the salon opened, I took the friend to see that they had just put me in some corner again. He said he was shocked. That was good.
VR Men seem to have been quite paternalistic toward you. Did you ever feel that you were treated equally?
JL Yes, but I am not sure when it started: perhaps around 1968.
VR Would you like to speak a little about your project with the artist Nairy Baghramian in the Schinkel Pavilion at the 5th Berlin Biennial, La Lampe dans l’horloge (The Lamp in the Clock, 2008)? Was this the first time you had collaborated on a project with a woman?
JL Yes, and I don’t see how it could have been otherwise before; there just weren’t any opportunities. I met Nairy for the first time in January 2008, just a few weeks after she discovered my catalogue. I was fascinated by our new relationship. We recognized that, without knowing each other, we, and our work, have a lot in common – we are sisters in spirit. I was very pleased that she was interested in my mirrors and their enclosed political stories. I appreciate her way of working and thinking. She knew exactly how the Schinkel Pavilion installation should look, and her creation of the space added new meaning to my work. I was sure from the start that I could trust her, and I loved watching how our discussions culminated in that body of work. I am working with Nairy again for a forthcoming exhibition entitled ‘Entre deux actes: Loge de comédienne’ (Between Two Acts: An Actress’ Dressing Room), which is due to open at the Staatliche Kunsthalle Baden-Baden in October. One night, very late, she came up with a fabulous idea for the show. She discovered an element of my work that she felt was special, without any knowledge that her discovery had been criticized in the past, just as the mirrors had been. In the 1950s, I participated in a salon with a dressing room I designed for an actress. Nairy is going to reinterpret that piece with me. Her interests in visible and invisible gender politics, in set design and interior design, are evident in works such as Fourth Wall/Two Female Protagonists (2005). I’m sure we will have an intense time together. I’m looking forward to working with her again.
VR You didn’t spend time with other female furniture designers earlier in your career?
JL Yes, two or three, but they also had their difficulties.
VR Were those relationships competitive?
JL No, there wasn’t any competition because we were all doing different things.
VR You have maintained this incredible desire to work, to create, throughout your whole life.
JL At the moment, I am full of ideas. There aren’t any projects I would have liked to do that I haven’t done. I would have liked more commissions, or to have fought harder for more opportunities. But I am not unhappy.
VR Do you think it is easier for furniture and interior designers today?
JL Things had to change. I have seen the difference. I have seen students change, although not necessarily for the better, but rather because they would like to earn more money.
VR Do you think you are too idealistic?
JL Perhaps. I don’t know. One has to change…
JL I cannot think of the right word … Surrender, that’s it! I will never surrender. I will never give up!
VR You prefer to speak of the future rather than the past.
JL What can I tell you about the past? I really struggled. I am appalling, because I don’t know how to earn a living.
VR But were you really interested in making money?
JL I wanted people to live well together.
VR Where does all your energy come from? Does it date from your childhood?
JL Yes, I think so. Even at school I thought I should revolt, fight, that teachers were unfair.
VR But others might turn this desire into something destructive. Your idea to revolt translated into creation.
JL For me, it meant changing the world.
VR Any regrets?
JL I regret that life hasn’t been easier. Maybe I did not have enough big projects. During the period of African decolonization, my designer comrades were granted a big palace commission, but I got nothing. The French offered me nothing, but the President of Niger, Hamani Diori, asked me to work on his palace at Niamey, which I did from 1961 to 1963.
VR What’s next for you?
JL In addition to the exhibition in Baden-Baden, in May, there will be a group show of female designers entitled ‘Elles’ at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. The Pompidou has also purchased some of my things. I thought about using Formica 50 years ago, and now it interests them. They want to put several of my kitchens in the show because other women designers weren’t interested in kitchens, and they plan to take photographs of my extant kitchens for the exhibition.
VR And what about your objects? What will you work on next?
JL The promise of D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928) for me is not exhausted yet. Lady Chatterley rejected tradition. Perhaps that’s where the man comes in – as a useful object!
Translated from the French by Vivian Rehberg.