Five Levels of Rick Owens: Inside the Couturier’s Paris Townhouse
Rick Owens is reclining on a grey woolen daybed, a sort of soft monolith perched on a rectangular platform, its curved sides rising some two meters from the floor. The California-born fashion designer is wearing mid-calf cut-off jeans, oversized basketball shoes and a sheer, slinky cashmere singlet. The room’s 18th-century paneled walls are smoky yellow and peeling around the edges. Outside, through two huge French windows, to the right I can see the Assemblée Nationale, or lower house of parliament. Opposite, the HQ of American Condé Nast. A statue of Justice presides over the elegant Place du Palais Bourbon. It’s the epitome of upper-class Parisian chic. But inside, we’re somewhere else. And this is just the beginning…
The two rooms of the elaborate piano nobile are quite literally the façade of Rick Owens’s home, studio and showroom. Behind them, connected by a long rectangular passageway, a bunker-like structure stretches out to a small patio and rises five stories above. Built in the 1950s, the one-time campaign offices of François Mitterrand have been gutted, stripped of their low acoustic ceilings and spongy paneled dividing walls, reduced to the simplest structural shell. But this is no Pawson-esque asceticism. On floor after rough-cement floor, tangled wires hang from ceilings: Eva Hesse meets Day of the Triffids. Plasterboard is left raw and spattered with filler, a kind of Richard Long mural gone feral. The traces of recent excavation are proudly displayed, like punk piercings or scarifications. And scattered throughout are prototypes of Owens’s new furniture line. Somewhere between Hollywood glamour and downtown L.A. doss house, the chairs, daybeds, plinths, and vases are totally in-tune with the designer’s ostensibly laid-back but in fact highly structured sense of style. Just as his clothing looks like it is inspired by the drape-and-go weathered wardrobes of Hollywood’s homeless (it was), so too does his furniture look like dystopic décor for the globetrotting dispossessed.
I first met Rick Owens at his home and studio in West L.A. He’d lived there for years, originally behind one blacked-out shop front, then two, and by the time I visited in 2000, three. Across the road was the parking lot serving his partner Michele Lamy’s restaurant, Les Deux Cafés, where gleaming stretch limousines would depose their glamorous clientele. But inside Rick’s place, you could have been anywhere. Or nowhere. Cocoon-like, womb-like, dark — it was the kind of space any self-respecting goth-skater would be happy to call home. If it seemed at the time a million light years away from the glitz of Hollywood, it was completely unreachable from Paris. What’s surprising is how effortlessly Mister Owens seems to have transported his moody, broody aesthetic to the City of Light.
Stephen Todd: Rick, it’s amazing to see you here, reclining on your daybed — rather like the one in L.A. really — in possibly the most bourgeois part of Paris.
Rick Owens: Yeah, isn’t it? It all pretty much happened overnight. We went from selling to ten stores to selling to 200 and the move just seemed to make sense. That said, it’s not just an environmental change, it’s a personal, psychological one as well. I’m not very good at opening up. I need my own insulated, private space. Somewhere I can retreat to when it all gets too much. As an only child I was spoilt, I never learned how to play with other kids. Communicating with others is a lot of work for me, as opposed to just creating my own comfort zone. I’m getting better at it, but that means I need to protect that intimate space even more. I’m loath to ever let too many people in.
This whole arrondissement is like a protected zone. There are gendarmes all over the place to guard the parliament and embassies.
There’s a chilliness to the neighborhood that is glamorous. It’s like being in a Helmut Newton picture all the time. And the security has some upsides to it. When we first moved in, we lived in these front rooms, and Michele left the iron on when we went out one night. The place caught fire; the security guards saw it, broke in, put it out, and cleaned it up. They left a note saying, “We’re sorry we had to break in but your house was on fire. You can pick up the new keys at such-and-such an address.” Isn’t that sweet?
Well, it’s not the usual behavior we associate with the Special Forces. So you lived in these rooms at first
Yeah. When we first moved in and were waiting for the back part to be ready. But the wedding-cake part of the place is not the part we really prefer. It needs a bar, or a sink, or a desk. Once in a while we put out the furniture and pop down and read, and eat bonbons, and swoon.
True, there’s something very swoony about your furniture. It’s all very cradle-like, slightly effete, but in a chunky kind of way. It’s like you’re creating a new range for a new room. A boydoir…
Actually, I had Marcel Proust and his cork-lined bed in mind a lot of the time. The chaise longue is like a cradle, but it’s also like a coffin. That’s what it’s all about, really: life and death. What more is the human experience than that? This couch I’m sitting on, it’s not really me. I had it reupholstered, but it’s too upholstered. It’s Armani, not me. The cushion should collapse more. I like it when the cashmere pills. When the surface is luxe but not treated with too much respect.
How did you start making the furniture line?
For my first Paris showroom I needed benches, and a friend said, “I have a friend working with Gaetano Pesce. He can make you 50 benches in two days.” And that guy — Jacek Nowak — is still here, working away upstairs in what would have been the ideal guest room, but he insisted he couldn’t work in any other space. From producing quite utilitarian pieces for the showroom, we just naturally moved into making more statement pieces. Then when we were doing the men’s collection showroom we thought, “Hey, let’s show the furniture too.” It was like putting a show on in the backyard. But it was meant to be a one-shot thing, then it got bigger and I wanted to keep Jacek so I thought we should get serious. But in the beginning they were just personal project, done on a whim.
That’s a big whim!
It’s a big house!
True, but what’s interesting is that for all its immensity and rawness, it still feels extremely insular.
The front rooms act as a kind of filter zone. And then at the back there are these huge trees, then the patio which is enclosed and gives on to the garden of the Ministry of Defense. Like Los Angeles, strangely enough, it’s a quiet little oasis, a blind space.
So let’s look around.
Between the highly decorative front rooms and the cement 1950s structure, a less elaborate, windowless 18th-century room acts a transitory space. It is dark, cavernous, and crammed with all manner of domestic detritus.
So what’s this room?
Err, we’re not quite sure. Right now it’s kind of an anything room. We pile all sorts of stuff in here.
Like the life-size sculpture of yourself you showed at the Pitti l’Uomo fair in Florence this year…
Yeah. The sculpture came out of the fact of having a house. I was like, “Well, now I have a home I need a portrait over the mantelpiece.”
But you don’t have a mantelpiece.
And this isn’t exactly your everyday portrait.
Uh, no. You had it done by the folk at Madame Tussaud’s, right?
Uh-huh. It took several sessions of sittings, measurements, all that. It was like having a couture dress made. The hair was put in follicle by follicle, even the pubic hair. You develop a special relationship with someone you’re paying to immortalize you. Like a bourgeois portrait, it’s about a man building a monument to himself, it’s a big expression of ego. There’s something very poignant about a man needing to leave a monument. It’s like toying with mortality. And then, I saw myself from behind, from the sides. I saw my parents…
Did your parents see it?
I sent a picture of the Florence installation to my parents. When it was operational, it pissed a huge arc across a darkened room. I’ve nothing to hide from them. But they were so shocked: they were, “Is this a reaction to us?” And I’m like, “Well, are you surprised?”
My dad is ex-military, very homophobic, and ultra-conservative. We really care for each other but it really hurts how much he has to make an effort. I make it really hard for him. It’s almost biblical, heartbreaking, this man trying to get close to his son and the son making it harder and harder. After I sent him the pictures, we were in Booksoup in L.A. and I heard my dad asking the sales guy, “Excuse me, do you have anything on water sports?” The guy was “Like, water polo?” “No, it’s a homosexual practice.” “Well,” said the sales guy, “I’m homosexual and it’s not an exclusively gay practice.” It’s actually kind of affectionate, his reaction. It’s not angry.
Urine is something of a leitmotif for you. I remember when I was working in New York you sent me a self-portrait of yourself kneeling and peeing into your own mouth. What’s going on with that?
I’m sexually obsessive, I find what goes on in sex clubs fascinating. But it’s also about isolation. Me peeing into my own mouth, it’s cyclical, like a serpent swallowing its own tail.
But urine is also about territory, about marking space.
Yeah. Also there’s a recycling element to it, something positive in there. I’m still trying to work out what it is. Also, with the sculpture you need to add-in the fact that there was a big black object penetrating me while I was urinating…
Was the pee yellow?
No clear. It was perfume. No, joking. I was having a great time, I was just giggling all the time, adjusting the penis…
Oh, it adjusts?
It did, but now it’s stuck in one position.
So what about all this stacked up furniture?
Well, there are some chairs made from matte black-varnished plywood. They’re a very simple block structure. They look temporary, jerry-built, but in fact they’re massive. They’re made to stay.
I love the fact they have packing crate-style cutout handles. It’s not as if anyone’s going to run off with them. And what’s the fur?
Oh, that’ll be mink. I like the severity, the blockiness of the designs, but then there’s an added softness. You just wanna touch everything. And they’re all monumental — it’s such an American thing: supersize everything…
At the back of the first story, wide glass doors open onto an elevated patio. Paved in pebble mix tiles, it looks over a magnificent garden.
Is that the Ministry of Defense?
It’s kind of girly, all those sash curtains and curvy windows.
Well, the minister of defense is a woman. Every month a visiting dignitary comes to visit, so they wheel out the brass band to play “La Marseillaise.” The big wigs come in, review the troops, shake hands and leave. It’s a completely useless affair.
But it’s extraordinary that you can just peak over the top of your back fence into the Defense Ministry. That’s mighty neighborly of them!
Don’t worry, I’m sure we’ve got a flock of machine guns trained on us right now… Anyway, inside to the right here is our kitchen. (He indicates a black varnished cardboard monolith held together with gaffer tape. It is actually the maquette for an in-store installation for Revillon, the high-end fur house of which Owens is creative director. Inside are a stainless steel fridge and a coffee machine.)
That’s along way down if you get the munchies in the middle of the night.
We have a private stash upstairs. And there is an elevator, although it doesn’t work. We need to go up by the old wooden staircase.
From the landing, Rick’s office is on the left. It is an elongated rectangular room, echoing the downstairs showroom. The floor is raw, unpolished cement. A bank of windows looks over the light well. Behind a long row of massive desks, a faceted cardboard wall sculpture adds an extra layer of texture. A low-backed black chair, like a futuristic Aztec glyph, sits sentinel in the middle of the space. Near the disused elevator, one of Owens’s Pedalo chairs, an arced seat and back carved from a single form, it’s base an inverted arc of resin.
We call it the Pedalo because it’s like one of those machines you sit back in and peddle around lakes on.
It’s covered in cashmere, but this time it’s pilling. You’re happier with that?
Absolutely! It’s just as soft as smooth cashmere, but this way it reminds you of the life that has passed over it. It’s not just a dead object, but a living artifact. It’s less Armani.
It’s about 80 centimeters wide, right?
Uh-huh… (Shrugs. Laughs.)
Clearly, technical specifications are not what interests Owens in his furniture line. Yet he holds a fascination for the manufacturing process. Across the landing from his office is a narrow space stretching from light well to garden in which benches are covered with resin blocks, unfinished plywood, metal rods, paint cans.
This is Jacek’s workshop. It’s beautiful, better than the furniture in a way. There was a time in my life when I thought it was all about having a ton of cute kids who would tell me about their nightclub exploits, but now I know that this is the triumph of my life: having mature, serious adults who really know what they’re doing. Actually having a workshop is the ultimate dream for me. I love this room. Of course, it would still be great as a guest room…
From the left of the landing is the fashion atelier. Philippe, Owens’s pattern maker maestro, is hard at work on a multi-paneled prototype of a skinny fur jacket. The room is literally piled high with a jumble of pelts and patterns. From the ceiling, electric wires are plaited into impromptu three-pronged chandeliers, their sockets coming from the BHV department store (the same place, incidentally, that Marcel Duchamp found his bottle rack and Daniel Buren his very first striped wallpaper.) By the window, another Pedalo chair is half concealed under a squirrel throw and goat coverlet.
I don’t even know what it’s doing here.
It must be hard keeping track of things in this space. (I notice that whenever Owens needs to locate Michele in the building he Blackberries her.)
Well, yeah, it’s kind of like a living, breathing environment. Sometimes it seems to have a life of it’s own. Oh wow, look at this rack of shaved mink — it’s like a beautiful fog.
So, all the furniture we see throughout the building is designed by you and made on the premises by Jacek?Yes, all of it. We’re always like, “We need a table Jacek. We need an airplane Jacek...”
On the right are two administration offices, where Owens’s assistant (light well-side) and accountants (garden-side) work at keeping the wheels turning. Rick looks in, directs me up to the next level.
To the left of the landing, the main bedroom is an all-but-empty, raw cement and plaster space in the center of which sits a totemic bed (similar to the downstairs daybed) set on a platform behind which a cylindrical structure rises, enclosing the sleeping area. It is covered in Swiss army blankets, stapled onto the plywood support. Tiny metal switches, like those in an old cockpit control panel, activate two built-in spotlights. In front of the bed, on a black plywood box, sits a flat screen TV and an iPod.
Apart from the bed lamps, there is no lighting in this room.
It’s for sleeping!
And no curtains. Aren’t you concerned about the neighbors’ prying eyes?
Well, there’s no light at night, so what can they see? Besides, once you’re on the bed you’re effectively shielded from anything behind you. It’s like a personal bunker.
You just can’t get enough of fur: the rugs on either side of the bed are in fur, right?
Of course. But I don’t want to get too Lord of the Rings. I like seeing this iPod island in the middle of all this cashmere and rough felt and fur.
Across the landing, garden-side, is a private study with a enamel-painted desk, a wool-covered barrel chair, a packing case bench. Light well-side, Rick and Michele’s dressing room. At first glance it’s difficult to tell the difference between “his” n “hers:” the same grey, green, black tones lifted by the occasional muddy brown. The same high heeled platform boots. But Rick’s has the horsetail belt (literally, a leather strap featuring a horse’s tail that hangs down the back) and Michele has a lot more tailored python jackets. I think…
From the top-floor landing, a hatch leads up onto the roof.
The minute we signed the papers, I got on this rickety ladder (and I’m scared of heights) to go up and survey my domain.
How does it look from up there?
I got to tell you, pretty good!
To the left of the landing is the sitting room. The same dimensions as the bedroom, but playing Mike Kelley to the bedroom’s Joseph Beuys. Unlike the other sparse spaces, it’s a riot of sculptural furniture and objects. A wall-length bookshelf is full to overflowing. A freestanding room-divider provides a backdrop to of Owens’s monumentally phallic floor lamps. An L-shaped lounge system is composed of low-lying arc-backed platforms covered in army blankets and surmounted by flat mattresses. A similar platform, flat this time, holds office in the centre of the room.
Strange, in almost all your furniture you need to recline. It’s impossible to sit up straight on this couch! The mattress, the plywood arcs, it’s very skate park, very L.A.
Well, I’ve spent a lot of time watching the sports channel recently. The skateboarding is so inspirational. It’s pure expression, like dancing. It’s joyful. Also, I really appreciate the pure economy of sticking some wheels on a board and doing this dance. It’s contemplative, glamorous, reckless, dangerous, doing that illegal stuff. And the skate park aesthetic itself is something special — everything worn away from use, paint peeling, posters tearing off. It’s breathtaking. Matthew Barney couldn’t come up with such an extreme landscape…
Do you skateboard?
No, I’m too gangly, and not reckless enough. Already the sports show is a shot of adrenaline in the morning.
As a fashion designer, you refer to yourself as a “Scotch-tape Vionnet.” As a furniture designer I’m thinking of you as a staple-gun Eileen Gray.
I love Eileen Gray. But then I’m inspired by a lot of different designers, like Le Corbusier, Joe Colombo, Jacques-Emile Rhulmann. I really liked the old Art Deco pieces that I saw in pictures as a kid, they appeared so stoic and monumental. But when I saw them in real life, they were actually so small, like teeny doll furniture. My furniture takes that base, but supersizes everything. I kind of like that monumentalist, rationalist Italian fascist look, but a skate park reduction of that aesthetic. Like my clothes, everything is reduced, cartoon-ish, almost dumbed-down. When you move from sophistication to crudeness you generate a kind of internal energy along the way.
The lamps look like giant willies in cashmere condoms.
Well, if pee is one motif, another is the big boner. I did a collection of skirts, they kind of stuck out at the front, so there was the Boner, the Holy Boner, the Double Boner. So you see, the lamps make sense in the context of my work.
But when you’re not covering everything in cashmere or mink, you resort to utilitarian army blankets.
I’ve always been obsessed with Swiss army blankets. There’s something about their inbuilt sense of history I find fascinating. Also, the olive-khaki color is really great. French blankets are grey, which is less interesting. These ones I bought in a Naples flea market. If they’re too itchy, you can always throw a cashmere blanket over them.
So are they Italian or Swiss?
I keep insisting they’re Swiss. Maybe it’s a Beuys thing. What am I doing? I’m weaving spell, and I can tell it any way I want.
Army blankets are obviously also about protection. Beuys’s own myth was that he survived hyperthermia following a plane crash by wrapping himself in army blankets.
Protection is really important to me. Recently I discovered Paul Virilio’s Bunker Archaeology and I was like, “This is the book I’ve been looking for! This is where I want to be!” These hugely protective cement environments built by the Nazis along the French coast to fend off the Allies, they were so haunting, so beautiful. Solid, impenetrable, the kind of places you can crawl into and pull a casket over yourself.
Living in Los Angeles formed the basis your aesthetic vocabulary, specifically the down-at-heel side of West L.A. Do you miss living there?
Oh god no. Because it’s actually the same routine: studio, restaurant, gym. I actually forget I live in Paris most of the time. I read about stuff happening and think, “Wow, it’d be great to be able to go see that.” Then I realize, I can! And you know, to be honest, I’m not really attached to place. But I’m really feeling very comfortable being here right now.
Text by Stephen Todd.
Photography by Assaf Shoshan for PIN–UP.
Originally published in PIN–UP 1, Fall Winter 2006/07.