Curious, Exploratory, Energetic, Spontaneous
The timelessly contemporary work of Mattia Bonetti
The tradition of revival—of reinventing styles of decoration from the past for a new age—is almost as old as decoration itself. In the 20th century, the foremost focus of revival was the work of the great French Art Moderne, aka Art Deco, designers, who in turn had reimagined a more streamlined and passionately fashionable version of the aristocratic 18th-century Neoclassical style. This Deco trend prompted a reaction among mid-century designers who championed utter restraint, minimalism, and modesty, often trading luxurious materials for more common or industrial materials.
In the 1970s, however, and certainly by the 1980s, a new reactionary wave of designers came to the fore, who were unafraid of ornament and embraced the formerly eschewed tenets of luxury that for centuries defined French style. Among the major proponents of this new wave of creatives was Mattia Bonetti, who like many of his contemporaries would find closer affinity with 17th-century Baroque artists than their 18th-century successors. But unlike many of his contemporaries, Bonetti has continued in the 21st century to make new work that challenges our conceptions of style and function and is as relevant today as it was when he began nearly 50 years ago.
Born in 1952 in Lugano, Bonetti is based primarily in Paris, where his career launched. His first forays into furniture and interior design were collaborations with the designer Elizabeth Garouste in the 1990s. Throughout this fruitful partnership, the pair created a robust body of work that would define Bonetti’s oeuvre thereafter: luxurious, functional, outrageous, surreal, and always original. Their major projects included Picasso’s Château de Boisgeloup near Paris and the private apartments of the St. Emmeram Palace in Regensburg, Germany, commissioned by Princess Gloria von Thurn und Taxis.
Bonetti’s singular skill is his ability to design expressive, vibrant, and even absurd furniture that perfectly completes a room rather than overtaking it. Perhaps because his parents were antique dealers, Bonetti has a deep understanding of the visual dynamics of traditional decoration, which allows him to originate completely contemporary objects that do not offend traditional sensibilities. In other words, he creates radical designs that do not require a radical perspective to appreciate. It is cutting edge for a more general class.
Like himself, Bonetti’s furniture is not pompous, arrogant, esoteric, or cynical. Rather it is curious and exploratory, often whimsical, and ultimately energetic and spontaneous. In effect, his work holds lasting qualities, in physical and stylistic terms. Using substantive traditional materials alongside new ones, Bonetti has continually attracted an enthusiastic audience. Combining former and current progressive production techniques and visual vocabularies, his work could be at home in a 1970s interior just as fittingly in one from today.
He is exactly the type of creator that makes one wonder if “design” is the appropriate category for his work; because so much of it is beyond categorization. It is not product, nor industrial, and though always functional, it doesn’t always appear as such. It is telling that most of his new designs premier in art galleries rather than furniture showrooms.. His work can be found in the permanent collections of the Centre Pompidou and Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, the Seibu Museum in Tokyo, and the Cooper-Hewitt Museum in New York, among others.
Aside from maintaining a broad and diverse collector base, Bonetti has also maintained close relationships with influential gallerists who have championed his work for so long, like David Gill in London and the late Paul Kasmin in New York, both of whom mounted many exhibitions and published lavish monographs on his work. Among his other patrons are designers such as Jacques Grange, who used Bonetti’s work for The Mark Hotel in New York among other ambitious projects, and Reed and Delphine Krakoff, who have prominently placed Bonetti’s work in their homes and those of their clients.
After following his career for many years, I first met Mattia in person at a dinner in Miami during Art Basel a few years ago. We caught up recently, and I had the chance to talk with him about his unique design approach.
Brent Lewis: How do you characterize your role as a creative person? Do you consider yourself a designer?
Mattia Bonetti: In terms of my work, there is an out-of-fashion definition that I quite agree with, which is “decorative arts.” But if there is a need to characterize roles, then I would define myself as a designer. I have to specify though that in my view the role of designer doesn’t necessarily exclude the introduction of some kind of art. I accept that independent of aesthetics—beauty versus ugliness—there is art that is not decorative. But I think that there is a way to look at ugliness that could easily translate it into beauty.
BL: Has your approach to work changed from when you began working?
MB: My approach to work has not changed drastically since the beginning. I simply acquired some more experiences.
BL: What about your clients, or the profile of your clients?
MB: The profile of my clients over the years hasn’t changed much. When I began, there weren’t galleries devoted to design. Therefore I worked with no commercial vision, which is closer and more similar to an artistic attitude. But by the mid-1990s, a small network of design galleries started to blossom, and with it a market. The new clients who started to look at and buy this type of design were mostly contemporary art collectors. At least in my case, this has been true. Clients have always been people that somehow were involved in contemporary art. Possibly because they look at things with a more open-minded eye.
BL: I know you often start by drawing. Is that always the case? Have you exhibited your drawings?
MB: I come from a generation without a computer, and I am still quite reluctant to use one. I always start by drawing because it was my training, but also because it is the way I express and best convey my ideas. Yes, I sometimes exhibit my drawings, mainly in museum shows.
I’m fortunate now to have people in the studio who can translate the drawings into computerized renderings without the loss of spontaneity, but with a gain in feasibility and obviously with more efficiency towards communication.
BL: You have also called your work Pop; I’d love to hear what you mean by that.
MB: By Pop, I literally mean “popular,” which in my view means it is addressed to all social classes, at least in a visual sense. But I think that it is very important that people can project themselves and add their own interpretations of my work and eventually can even add personal feelings to it.
BL: It is interesting to me that you tell me you are not a conceptual designer, though you often show your work in art galleries, and it is supported by so many art collectors. Why do you think that is?
MB: For me, it is hard to separate concept from the decorative in my work, which is probably why art galleries and collectors respond well to it. I think that perhaps people are also receptive to the “poetry” that I try to instill in my works. And I will underline that poetry is a reaction to the drawings.
BL: What are you working on now?
MB: I’m working some quite ambitious new pieces for a client of my gallerist David Gill, and also for a client in Switzerland. Among other things I have also been working on a project for a show at David Gill. And I have designed a collection of rugs for Diurne, a French company that manufactures in Northern India, all hand-knotted. They will be ready next year. But at the moment it’s hard to have much of a plan! ⬥
Mattia Bonetti’s work is available in the Design Miami/ Shop through Kasmin