Championing traditional craftsmanship in a contemporary context, New York gallerist Melanie Courbet expertly bridges past and present
Founded in 2013 by Melanie Courbet, New York’s Les Ateliers Courbet has attracted a loyal following by highlighting exceptional, traditional craftsmanship from around the globe, at times in partnership with contemporary luminaries. From master ceramicists of Japan’s 400-year old, family-owned Asahiyaki studio to Nepalese weavers in collaboration with Frank Gehry and Venini glass blowers with Tadao Ando, Courbet’s one-of-a-kind collection embodies her deep respect for cultural and design legacies and spot-on intuition.
We spoke with Courbet about the path that led her here, the value of studying the past, and her hopes for the future.
Where did you grow up, and what brought you to New York?
I was born in Paris and grew up between Paris and the Loire Valley in the French countryside. Prior to moving to New York 10 years ago, I lived in Los Angeles for seven years and spent a fair amount of time in West Africa as well.
My dear friend—and true design luminary—Dror Benshetrit inspired me to move to New York in 2010 to join his studio to help with the launch of his patented design innovation, Quadror, which encompassed many interests of mine, including the creative and technical aspects of design but also manifold philanthropic and architectural possibilities.
What first sparked your passion for art and design?
I’ve been interested in art and design for as far back as I can remember. I grew up having to follow my mother to museums, performing arts shows, and exhibitions. I don’t have any summer-by-the-beach memories from childhood, as we would always be traveling to wherever my mother had spotted an interesting exhibition or cultural event. She often reminds me that since I was 10 years old, she would have to send me to my room every now and then when she was tired of me rearranging her house and moving things around as I was creating vignettes.
What inspired you to open Atelier Courbet?
Prior to opening the gallery, I’d worked in design and art for awhile—in New York at Studio Dror, in LA with architect Thom Mayne and his firm Morphosis, and as a consultant and curator before then. More and more, I wanted a platform to share work that inspired me. I realized that what I was most interested in throughout the various collections I’d worked with in the past were their fabrication details, their materiality, and how design ideas morph, come together, and become an object.
I also felt at the time that the ongoing design and craftsmanship legacies carried on by rarefied master-artisans, as well as their continuous collaborations with creative luminaries, were under-represented in the US from a curatorial or gallery perspective. That’s why I wanted the gallery to focus on master-craftsmanship with an exhibition program highlighting the time-honored techniques and significant catalogues of artist collaborations perpetuated by the centuries-old ateliers and contemporary artisans we represent.
What do you most hope people take away from encounters with the work you present?
The gallery’s core mission—and the most fulfilling and humbling part of our work—is to introduce our clients to works that embody artisanal dexterity, a master-craftsmanship ethos anchored in cultural heritage and centuries-old stories. I myself am deeply inspired by the culture of commitment, discipline, and humility that is consistent amongst the master-artisans we represent, whether they are from Japan or Europe.
I also believe that living with such works of art enhances one’s daily life—be it a simple and delicate teacup crafted by Asahiyaki's 16th-generation ceramicist or a dining table hand-carved in solid wood by Italian sculptor and designer Mauro Mori. There is inherent, timeless value in the pieces we have the chance to present, one that weaves a common thread between the craftsmen and artists with whom we work.
It’s all part of a lifestyle approach and one’s personal choices really trying to surround yourself with pieces that bring these elements in. When you learn about the craftsmen in Japan, for example, and understand the years it takes to learn every technique, you gain an appreciation of the work that goes into each piece. That understanding is grounding and inspiring, and we want to help people bring that into their own environments.
What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned since opening the gallery?
It’s an ongoing lesson. How do we share such layered stories in short, simple messages? How do we squeeze, say, the breadth and depth of a centuries-old legacy into a presentation that’s short and edited to speak to another demographic, one that lives at such a different pace? How do we articulate these stories so they’re easily understood? That’s the ongoing challenge we face with every exhibition and collection.
What plans do you have in store for Les Atelier Courbet?
We are eager to finally launch our first Éditions Courbet collection, which pursues my original intention with the gallery, to further support our ateliers by developing and publishing a series of design pieces created by guest artists and hand-crafted by the master-craftsmen we represent. Every year we will invite one artist to design one collection inspired by the craftsmanship expertise of one of our ateliers. As a tribute to the artisans’ culture of excellence and humility, each Éditions Courbet collection will be named after its fabricators.
I developed our first collection with Raphael Navot, a designer and friend whose work perfectly aligns with the gallery’s ethos and interests. The collection is named the Ateliers Saint-Jacques Collection and will include a series of sculptural tables and lights highlighting the bronze, metal, and stone expertise of this interesting, rarefied cooperative of ateliers located outside of Paris.
Any predictions for the future of design? What should designers be paying attention to most at this moment?
I cannot predict the future. We are certainly living through a pivotal moment. The current crisis has given us the opportunity to reflect on our lifestyles and how we can better shape our designed environments. I can only hope that, once we are able to address the pandemic, the world resumes in a more grounded way that fosters local economies and artisanal work and products.
I think we should all seek inspiration from our legacies and look back historically—not only from a political point of view, but also from the perspectives of design, architecture, art, and literature. Our recent ancestors have overcome great social, health, and political crises before us and were able to come up with rather clever design ideas in response. To quote my friend Lee Mindel, “Crisis often leads to the greatest creativity.” He would point to the healing power of architecture exemplified in Otto Wagner’s St Leopold institute or Josef Hoffmann’s Sanatorium Purkersdorf in Vienna, both designed at the turn of the 20th century when the issue of mental health began to be acknowledged.
I think historical design, architecture, and traditional craftsmanship carry pertinent ideas relevant to the present. I find the past to be the most inspiring and informative for the design of any foreseeable future—whether for our homes or our public spaces.
Beyond your own projects, who or what is exciting you most right now in the creative world?
I am inspired by artist and friend Bosco Sodi's incredible work on the west coast of Mexico as he supports and involves the local community in the development of a rich art center called Casa Wabi. This is a creative refuge for fellow artists from around the world invited in residence to create works and installations with local artisans, an educational facility for the local community, and a temple to the minimalist and integrated designs of international architects including Tadao Ando, Kengo Kuma, and Álvaro Siza among others—who the foundation commissioned to create the built environments housing the studios and living facilities.
Lastly, I find the work ethos and artistic initiatives of Jonathan Anderson most inspiring. I believe the programs, artistic collaborations, and creative leadership that he brings to Loewe's are visionary, and I surely hope it inspires others in his industry. ◆
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.