In Hong Kong show, French designer Olivia Putman celebrates mother's legacy
Exhibition sees Putman exploring the aesthetic relationship between East and West, influenced by the legacy of her late mother
Olivia Putman is the first to acknowledge that she was given a great start in life. "Not everyone has the chance to know that the creativity inside them can be expressed," says the French designer, daughter of renowned designer Andrée Putman and art critic Jacques Putman.
"I think that I had the incredible luck of growing up in my family because we were very close to many artists, I had the chance to listen to them exchange ideas, being totally free to say whatever I felt like.
"Yes, on one hand I would have loved to have a mother taking me out of school with a nice baked brioche, but on the other hand I found out quickly that there was huge luck in being different, and I felt that from very young."
Now at the helm of Studio Putman, Putman has learned to create her own trajectory, one both distinct from the legacy of her mother, who died in 2013 aged 87, and in many ways, continuing where the late designer left off. Growing up in the 1960s and '70s in Paris, with parents who were part of the bohemian Left Bank intelligentsia, she considers herself rebellious to an extent, but also disciplined enough to be constructive with this quality.
Putman first channelled her creative energies into art rather than design, via an art history degree. But in her early 20s, she found the two fields melding in an unusual job for the association Usines Ephémères, which worked to convert disused urban spaces into art studios and exhibition sites. The idea was to prevent squatting and destruction by usefully, legally and temporarily occupying the spaces, and it drew the interest and support of the government, local entrepreneurs, and international artists.
At 25, Putman found herself both managing the interior design of various spaces and the artists coming through them. "I was proud of that period because I thought I had the right choice with a few artists," she says.
Putman decided to reinvent herself to an extent in her early 30s with a degree in landscape design, which saw her travel to Japan to work on a garden for a private client. This initial exposure to Asia and in-depth study of the natural world are points of difference between her own approach to design and her mother's, she says. Along with this is a stronger connection to France's craft heritage.
"As a designer, I feel very responsible for the craftsman, for the French know-how," she says. "I want to show with my designs that it can be as interesting to study craftsmanship [as it is] to study marketing."
These elements are strong in her furniture and interior designs for Studio Putman, which although still largely simple, modernist and sober in colour - "not sophisticated in form, but in the details", she says - take stronger cues from natural forms, and increasingly use traditional French design materials such as bronze and crystal.
These qualities have come into strong play in an exhibition in Hong Kong with art curator Calvin Hui, at the 3812 Art Space, showing as part of Le French May. Putman met Hui in Hong Kong last year, and together the two worked on a concept that would see the creation of a series of limited-edition pieces, inspired by the aesthetic values of French and Chinese design. Based on her vision, Hui sourced and exhibited complementary art pieces by contemporary Chinese artists, including the tactile fabric art of Xiaohua, and the surreal watercolour on rice paper painting of Wang Aijun.
Putman's newest creations unite nature, craftsmanship and East-West contemplation, with Studio Putman's signature simplicity. A series of side tables in bronze are delicate and powerful: one features a plate crystal etched to represent ripples on a tranquillity pond; another has handcrafted bronze gingko leaves. Putman's Jour de Fete standing lamp comes across as a modern interpretation of art deco and traditional Chinese lantern designs, inspired partly by Wong Kar-wai's In The Mood For Love. Each is limited to eight productions. For Hui, these exchange the "co-existence of spirituality of Chinese culture" with the functionality of Western forms.
Although she carries a reverence for France's design heritage, Putman feels that this history can stand as a barrier to the country's contemporary designers. "The French are not so interested in modern design compared to here in Hong Kong, and everyone carries this old ornate furniture from family generations past," she says. "But people are opening themselves up to new modern ideas, so we are improving ourselves." And in this regard, she is finding plenty of inspiration in her travels to the East.
Dialogue: Art and Design runs until June 30 at 3812 Art Space