Designs for life | Monocle

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Auctioneer Stéphane Aubert rolls up on his Vespa at the entrance to an enormous storage space in the industrial no-man’s-land northwest of Paris. He’s sharply dressed in a shirt and tie, his navy pinstripe suit is crease-free and his black brogues are polished to a shine. He slips off his helmet and smiles. It’s a look that Kenzo Takada would probably have approved of. On 11 May, Artcurial is hosting an auction of the late, great Japanese fashion designer’s personal collection of furnishings, sculptures and canvases, and Aubert is the man who will be wielding the hammer.

At barely 20 years old, the Paris-based auction house is a fresh face in this traditional trade. Founded in 2002, just as the French art market was opening up to competition beyond its borders, it experienced swift growth. Within three years it became one of the leading auction houses in France and today it’s an international player with three main venues in Paris, Monaco and Marrakech. “Artcurial is very agile compared to other auction houses, with a dynamism defined by its entrepreneurial spirit and the introduction of new specialities such as urban art, comics and, more recently, contemporary African art,” says chairman and ceo Nicolas Orlowski a few days later from the company’s HQ in the glitzy heart of Paris, on the Champs-Élysées. The business has made a name for itself hosting some 100 sales a year and among those auctions, several are drawn from personal collections such as Takada’s.

Pierre Paulin Tulip chair upholstered in apple-green fabric 
This way up
One of several oil paintings by Takada, this one showing a character in a Japanese dignitary’s outfit
Auctioneer Stéphane Aubert

Bubble-wrapped chandelier 

“He was a fashion designer, an interior designer and a painter,” says Aubert back at the storage complex, leading the way through a heavy metal door and along a corridor stacked with crates and cardboard boxes. “He was an artist.” As we turn left into the first of two rooms filled with Takada’s neatly labelled belongings, we’re faced with the man himself: propped up on an easel centre-stage is a life-sized self-portrait. He sits with one knee elegantly crossed over the other. Beneath his silvery-grey blazer, his white shirt complements the wavy streak in his dark bob. Surrounding him are hundreds of items arrayed on sturdy shelves.

“This was his talent: marrying all periods, styles and places. And he knew when he saw a piece exactly where he’d put it”

A multidisciplinary auction house, Artcurial sells everything from fine art and cars to watches and wines. Often, its sales focus on one of the above but Takada’s is bursting with variety. On our left are decorative objects, among them an enamelled sandstone vase that resembles a shell and a blue-and-white porcelain urn adorned with images of sturgeon, catfish, shrimp and carp. Straight ahead are tables and chairs, some standing upright, others lying like beetles on their backs. There are also bright and zingy pieces that recall Takada’s lively clothing lines: a Pierre Paulin apple-green chair and a pair of armchairs upholstered in confectionery colours. As Aubert says, “This is Kenzo.”

One of two multicoloured bergère chairs
Grand Buddha torso in a monastic robe 

Takada, who died last October, was born near Osaka in 1939 and moved to Paris in the 1960s. By the 1970s he was the fashion world’s darling, making his mark in the new ready-to-wear market, then sliding into couture. In his designs, he melded old and new influences from east, west, north and south, and the same diversity can be found in the pieces that furnished his Haussmannian apartment overlooking Saint-Germain-des-Prés. He was particularly fond of Asian arts: a Buddha torso dated to the third century lies prone beside a wooden horse from the Chinese Han dynasty. “This was his talent – marrying all periods, styles and places,” says Aubert. “And whether he found it on his travels or in a gallery, he knew when he saw a piece exactly where he’d put it.”

In the week preceding the auction, Artcurial will exhibit the complete collection at its HQ in the neoclassical Hôtel Marcel Dassault, which is also home to the group’s bookshop (specialising in rare and out-of-print catalogues and monographs) and its cultural agency, which manages exhibitions and events. “We’re going to recreate his apartment, which will be a special moment because it will be the last chance for the public to see what it looked like,” says Aubert. When monocle suggests that bubble-wrapping and transporting the items must also be a lot of work, he says with a laugh, “Not after the Ritz.” Following the sale of almost 3,500 of the hotel’s historic furnishings in 2018, it seems that sorting a mere 600 lots is a breeze.

Underwater-themed Chinese urn from the Ming dynasty

Self-portrait of Takada 

Still, the past year has presented its fair share of new challenges: although demand hasn’t stopped, in 2020 the group’s sales fell by about 20 per cent. But Orlowski is positive about the state of the market, which he says remains favourable for art, particularly on the auction circuit. Artcurial had 15 record auction prices last year, including a dazzling oil painting, Penitent Magdalene by Salaì, a close collaborator of Leonardo da Vinci, which sold for over €1.7m and a suite of royal furniture from the Louis XVI period that went for almost €1.2m – three times its estimate. “The real difficulty in these unprecedented times lies in how we exercise our profession,” says Orlowski. The auction house has developed new online-only sales channels but the chairman thinks that responding to the situation with a wholly digital strategy is excessive. “Artcurial naturally continues to invest in digital,” he explains. “But we favour the model of physical sales led by an auctioneer because this is how we achieve the best prices for our clients who are selling.”

“Artcurial naturally continues to invest in digital. But we favour the model of physical sales led by an auctioneer because this is how we achieve the best prices for our clients who are selling”

Though the upcoming auction of Takada’s belongings will be live-streamed, it will take place in person. “We know that many, many people are going to be bidding online,” says Aubert. “But I’ll have some people in the auction room too, I hope!” The exhibition, which will feature fashion that will be auctioned off separately, is also sure to draw a crowd. For now, though, the focus is on finishing the catalogue. Enter photographer Thomas Loiseau, who we find in the second room shooting a carefully arranged composition of three sets of tableware. Lining the wall opposite are four shelves filled with glass. To the soundtrack of clinking crockery, Aubert points out a series of Takada’s own designs. “These were a collaboration with Baccarat,” he says, reaching for a pair of slender candlesticks with chrysanthemum-shaped crystal bases and tops. Beside them are carafes, goblets and flutes with provenances ranging from Venice to Japan.

Glassware picked up by Takada on his travels
Shell-like sandstone vase by Shoko Koike

Last year, Artcurial hosted 59 auctions of private collections, from the modern art of renowned dealer Maurice Garnier to the old masters of Baron François Empain and the cars of businessman, politician and automobile enthusiast André Trigano. What becomes increasingly apparent with this particular sale, though, is that it has something for everyone: like Takada’s fashion designs, the furniture and objets d’art he amassed are eminently eclectic. And that’s what makes it interesting for both Artcurial and potential buyers. Talking to Aubert, though, it’s also clear that this is about more than an auction. Tweaking his pocket square, he says: “The most important thing is to make an homage to Kenzo.”

The sale of Kenzo Takada’s collection will take place at Artcurial Paris on 11 May.

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