words William Wiles
images by Peter Lindbergh and Sam Durant
"All collectors are really neurotic,” says Didier Krzentowski. “All collectors.”
It’s something the Galerie Kreo owner says a lot, normally with a modest smile. He doesn’t seem very neurotic. And although he is a lifelong collector – lamps, photographs, watches, keyrings – it’s not a perfect description of what he does. He’s a design impresario.
Galerie Kreo – Kreo means “creation” in Esperanto – is one of the most important contemporary design galleries in the world. The gallery was set up by Krzentowski and his wife Clémence in 1999 to produce limited-edition design pieces. What makes Kreo different to other contemporary design galleries that commission work, however, is the intimate involvement of Krzentowski. “Some people have the ability to inspire projects, and he’s one of those people,” says Jasper Morrison, who has made work for Kreo since 2000. “He has the skill of an art dealer combined with the knowledge of a designer, which is very rare.” Indeed, Krzentowski is a unique case in many ways: he’s a leading figure in the Paris gallery mafia, but sets himself apart from it; he has played an influential role in the rise of “design art”, but makes it clear he wants nothing to do with the term or some of its leading exponents.
“My idea was to advance design,” says Krzentowski. “I was never thinking to make money.” He works with designers from the first germ of an idea – which he often provides himself – through every part of the making of an object, up to the point when it is produced as a limited edition (normally of 12) and exhibited and sold in the gallery. It’s an unusual – but increasingly emulated – style of working that has proved extremely popular and successful, winning Krzentowski a stable of eager collaborators that reads like a who’s who of contemporary design: they include Morrison, Marc Newson, Martin Szekely, the Bouroullecs, Jerszy Seymour, Hella Jongerius and Konstantin Grcic. And in September the gallery will be moving from its small space in the raffish 13th arrondissement to new premises twice the size in a historic building in the ultra-classy and central 6th. It’s a move that reflects Kreo’s status as a design powerhouse, with a turnover of €7.5 million and a huge and influential creative output. “If you take the big [furniture design] companies, they make five, ten, 20 new pieces a year,” Krzentowski says. “We make between 50 and 80 new pieces a year.”
It might be a big business, but Krzentowski has an obvious distaste for the side of his work that involves money changing hands. “My wife takes care of everything, the rest of everything, what I like is this,” he says, meaning talking about design, which we are doing in a restaurant across the street from the new gallery, a minute’s walk from the Pont Neuf and the Île de la Cité. He’s a charming and pleasant dining companion, at times expansive, tided along by rhetorical questions (“…but I was lucky. Why was I lucky? I will answer right away. I was lucky for two things…”), and at times discreetly laconic. He cuts off discussions of things he prefers not to talk about with a plain, direct “no”, or “I don’t care”, or simply a Gallic shrug, and can happily ride out the old interviewers’ tactic of letting a silence open up in the conversation without elaboration.
His job is essentially talk-based. Krzentowski talks, in person or on the phone, with the designers he collaborates with almost every day. “If you take the Bouroullecs for instance, I spoke with Ronan twice this morning,” he says, leaving the impression that if you’re in his circle you could expect a call at any time (“when I have an idea … I don’t sleep so well”). The thing he most values in a piece, or in an exhibition, is a challenge: “I like to be surprised and to not understand what I am seeing,” he says. Getting to the required quality can be a very long-term process – he talks about exhibitions with Morrison and Grcic that had a gestation period of six years. “So we speak, we work, I know what he’s going through, I know the direction. With Jerszy Seymour, I made one exhibition with him six years ago, [and] I speak every week with him, but we don’t have any pieces.” But, he says, leaning forward and beaming, the investment of time will pay off shortly: a piece by Seymour will be in the new gallery’s inaugural show in September.
It’s a way of working that must require enormous patience, and Morrison reports that Krzentowski doesn’t apply any pressure for results at all: “It’s very pleasurable. It’s not hard work.” For all his repeated talk of the collecting “neurosis”, Krzentowski comes across as pretty laid back. He admits that his career and his hobby are the same thing: “It’s my life, it’s what I love.” The past 20 years of his career can be seen as a steady attempt to get into this happy position, and scratch the design itch he has had since he bought a Szekely table in the mid-1980s. At the time, he was managing director of a €30 million ski-wear company, employing 400 people, and a devoted collector of photographs by Cindy Sherman and Nan Goldin. Having fallen for designer furniture, he quit ski-wear in 1989 and set up a company called, simply, Kreo, which forges links between designers and industry. “That’s a Kreo project, for instance,” he says, brandishing one of the Perrier-branded glasses that we have been drinking from.
He used Kreo to build up contacts with designers including Szekely, Newson, Charpin and the Bouroullecs, but found it frustrating: “It was very difficult … because we were, like with the gallery, zero compromise, it was quite difficult to work with industry.” In 1999 he set up Galerie Kreo, initially intending to be a conventional dealer of contemporary design, buying and selling pieces. “But that’s not my way,” he says. “I don’t feel well in that.”
This distaste for the trade in design means Kreo has this year pulled out of Design Miami/Basel, the prestigious design collectors’ fair. Krzentowski feels he has little in common with those galleries dealing in “design art”, and “my designers and myself don’t want to show close to that because it’s different to our [work]”. With ineffable tact, he refuses to criticise design art while at the same time making his disdain for it fairly clear. “I cannot judge because I don’t know what it is – I don’t know if it’s design or art.” When it comes to designers working in the vague but lucrative hinterland between design and art, he’s similarly careful to put distance between it and his work. “When I see a piece I like to be surprised, and if I see a piece by Zaha or Ron Arad now, I am not surprised,” he says. And, of a Hani Rashid collection of “architectural objects” in a catalogue he has with him: “I don’t say it’s bad, but I don’t get a sense of it … I don’t know what it is.”
Arad is a rare example of a Krzentowski collaboration that didn’t work out. A fan of the designer’s work since the 1980s, Krzentowski included some Arad pieces in his first Galerie Kreo show. After that, Krzentowski says he was keen to collaborate with Arad but the designer just wanted the gallery to sell his work, not to participate in making it. “I wanted to have more of a talk together to arrive at something else,” Krzentowski says, “and it was not his way of thinking.” It’s clearly still a matter of regret for Krzentowski, and he’s critical of Arad’s recent work: “Sometimes there are one or two pieces based on new things, but generally it’s pieces that are not far from those pieces he made 15 years ago, and we are not any more in the 80s or the 90s.”
Krzentowski’s more direct criticism of design art, and what he calls the “bling bling direction”, is that it doesn’t ask practical questions. The line is clearly drawn, he says: design has constraints and art does not. He is at his most enthusiastic when he describes projects that had extreme technical limitations to overcome, such as a recently completed Szekely collaboration with construction materials giant Lafarge that used ultra-thin concrete. This project has attracted the interest of Columbia University, which feels it has architectural applications. “So that’s what I like,” Krzentowski says – that sense of making a real and lasting research contribution.
He also likes the gallery’s work to stir discussion and debate, as it did last year when veteran designer and Kreo collaborator Alessandro Mendini wrote him an open letter to condemn Julia Lohmann’s piece The Lasting Void, which Krzentowski had exhibited as part of the Tabourets exhibition (see icon 051 and 053). “That’s what I like, debate,” Krzentowski says. “Especially now, people buy, they don’t ask any questions, they don’t care if it was made ten or 20 years ago, if it’s a copy of a copy … but debate, that’s fantastic.”
Was that a modicum of criticism of design buyers? Buyers have stampeded into design and design art in recent years, and auction prices have risen spectacularly. Discussion of prices and the economics of the market take us into another thicket of monosyllables and shrugs. A lot of this is the discretion of a businessman, but there’s also a sense that Krzentowski simply doesn’t find that aspect of his activities very interesting. As Kreo only deals in pieces created for Kreo, the high prices at auction don’t concern him. He shrugs off the possibility of a slump in the design market, saying that a slide in prices would have the desirable effect of cooling off speculation and excess. As to whether such a slide is likely, he won’t be drawn, but does point out that 40 per cent of a recent design auction by Phillips de Pury went unsold, for the first time, a couple of weeks before we spoke.
On a personal level, Krzentowski’s collecting “neurosis” gives him a pleasing sense of perspective about the possibility of falling sales: if a piece is unsold, he gets to keep it. He claims that he never thinks of the marketability of a design, and neither do his designers: “All of them know they are not doing their piece to say ‘OK, we’ll sell it for one million dollars’ – they are making pieces to treasure.”