Spirituality in DesignA Conversation with Christophe Delcourt
"I understand nothing lasts forever, but I find reassurance in knowing how a piece of wood will age or how light will impact it over time.”
‘I feel the forest breathing, and hear the slow, inexorable growth of the wood… The desire for an equal relationship between my person and things is the origin of my work. Man is not a spectator or actor but simply nature,’ wrote the Italian Arte Povera sculptor Gieuseppe Penone, who famously planted a steel-cast sculpture of his grasping hand on the trunk of a tree in 1968, allowing the tree to form around it as it grew.
“Arte Povera, more specifically Penone’s wooden sculptures, came as a shock to me,” says French interior designer Christophe Delcourt, who adds that his attraction to raw materials is inspired by more than organic textures, and extends to the spiritual relationship between the user, space and object. Delcourt lives between Paris and Normandy, where 50 acres of 400-year-old trees surround his country home. While he is thankful to live amongst this mature forest, he is quick to point out the paradox in his work. “I use trees to make domestic objects; but, like the Japanese philosophy behind ikebana flower arrangement, when I cut a tree from its roots, I have to take responsibility for its life and create a new existence for it,” he says. “This ideal is not really part of French culture. We are builders and crafters. We know how to transform nature’s richness, but I had to look elsewhere to find the spiritual aspect of creating domestic objects.”
Delcourt may have foraged his design ideals from foreign lands, but he still carries a strong attachment to France’s savoir-faire mindset, and to its capital city. “It may sound silly but I know Paris really well, down to the smallest alleyways,” says Delcourt, who grew up there with a father who was a flower delivery man. “He used to take me along with him in his truck. My favourite place was the Palais Royal garden – it’s a sublime balance of nature and craftsmanship.” He wonders whether, had he grown up elsewhere, he might not have become a designer, adding: “I don’t see how one could not contemplate an artistic career living in Paris.”
For the young Delcourt, growing up in a city abundant with artistic inspirations, it was the theatre productions by stage designer Richard Paeduzzi and director Patrice Chéreau that initially led him to attend Paris’s Cours Florent drama school and Théâtre École du Passage, with the intention of pursuing a career in acting and set design. “But being an actor was very frustrating – being an interpreter of someone else’s story,” he says. “I wanted to create my own narratives. Of course, that’s not to say the theatre background had no influence on my career as an interior designer.” Delcourt explains the concept of everlasting memory, which, along with a handful of vocational skills like stage lighting, he inherited from the theatre world: “Once the curtain closes, nothing is really left behind but the memory, which lingers on. This notion is essential for me in my furniture design. I don’t like to get rid of things, whether it’s an experience or an object. I understand nothing lasts forever, but I find reassurance in knowing how a piece of wood will age or how light will impact it over time.”
After his departure from the stage, Delcourt founded his custom-order furniture workshop in 1995, then in the Marais area, and started working closely with a team of artisans to conceive bespoke pieces. “I believe in people using my furniture to express their own spirituality,” he says. “I do not penetrate their world. I’m only bringing an element that may help them feel at peace,” His approach is founded not just on his affinity for art movements like Arte Povera or Mono-ha, but also on his distinction between the role of architect and interior designer. “It was less than 40 years ago when the title architect d’intérieur surfaced,” he says. Until the mid 19th century, architects were considered experts in both the exterior and the interior, but Delcourt believes this attitude was better suited to France’s former taste for Classicism. “The clear distinction between the two disciplines came with the shift to minimalistic preferences – lines getting tighter, spaces being rearranged,” he observes. “And as we need fewer items of furniture, the remaining ones should carry deeper meanings. Each curve or a stroke of line should have a say in our spaces.”