Abby Bangser is founder and creative director of the exhibition platform Object & Thing. She is a former Artistic Director of Frieze Art Fairs and was the founding head of the Americas Foundation of the Serpentine Galleries. She has worked for nonprofit arts institutions in New York and Los Angeles including the Dia Art Foundation, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.
Abby BangserI’ve been looking at the plans for your new location in New York and I noticed that the Hermès art collection is at the core of the architecture and design choices in the store. How have you related to the art collection during your career?
Pierre-Alexis DumasWell, first, I always say that the store is more than a store; it’s a house that functions as a deep expression of what Hermès is about. This is true of all Hermès locations, and this new house in New York truly exemplifies that perspective. The art collection is key to this.
I’ve always had a personal interest in the visual arts—I studied art history at Brown—and in my work at Hermès, I’ve pushed the idea of pairing the work that we do with the art on the wall. This dialogue goes into everything, from our printing process to our designs, stores, and offices.
Hermès was founded in 1837 by my ancestor Thierry Hermès, a skilled craftsman who made horse harnesses. Through his success in this enterprise, he was able to acquire his own workshop and produce the harnesses for carriage-making companies in Paris. In the nineteenth century, Paris was full of carriages, so the demand wasn’t insignificant. Thierry’s son, Charles-Émile Hermès, started the idea of extending the craft. Their clients were riders and Charles-Émile convinced his father that they should also make saddles and that they should have a store where they could sell directly to their clients.
It’s interesting to see how each generation alters the family history. Crucially for this story, Thierry’s grandson Émile Hermès changed trajectory in a remarkable way. Émile was a compulsive collector. He started collecting at the age of twelve, and with an unusual object, I’d say: an umbrella, which he bought because he was fascinated by the mechanism and the way it was made. He was from a family of craftsmen so maybe this isn’t so surprising. From there, he bought whatever he could afford, which meant not much, or what wouldn’t interest other people. He started to buy everything he could that related to the tradition of the horse. This was the period of the industrial revolution—did he have an intuition that that tradition would vanish? Did he sense that it was going to fade away? Maybe, because something dramatic did happen, which was World War I. At the time, Émile was running Hermès with his older brother, Adolphe, so it was called Hermès Brothers. And at the end of the war, Adolphe told Émile, “We have to sell the business. Our clients now have automobiles. Our business is dead.” And Émile told his brother, “You’re selling, I’m buying.” And he bought his brother’s shares and found himself the owner of Hermès. He gathered his craftsmen and said, “What can you do with your hands that will be relevant to our clients, since they don’t have horses anymore?” The shift was immediate: they started to equip their clients to travel in automobiles with luggage, handbags, clothing. Émile created the brand called Hermès Sport. For a man born in 1871, he was very modern, and he met immediate success.
With that success, whenever he could he would buy art. Now, in his generation, he could have bought Les Demoiselles d’Avignon in 1907 or something, which would have been wonderful, but that wasn’t his culture: he was a man of the nineteenth century. He was probably melancholic in a way, and he managed to turn that into something positive by being creative and accumulating all these objects that were remnants of the past he had known. That was the origin of his fabulous collection, and with each successive generation we’ve continued to buy works that we think he would have appreciated.
ABI’ve read about Émile’s legendary office, where the collection is primarily kept—I must come to Paris to see it. That mixing of times and that nonhierarchical approach, bringing different materials and media together, is a great interest of mine and I think it’s exactly how art and design should be appreciated. When we separate it so much, as we tend to do in museums, we lose the sense of how it’s meant to operate in the world and how it was created in an artist’s studio.
PADExactly, and this is what propels the collection forward. It’s really all about curiosity and serendipity, allowing your mind to make nonrational connections. That is the essential foundation for the emergence of a creative idea.
ABAs I understand it, there are multiple collections. You’ve spoken about Emile’s; what are the others?
PADWe have the Émile Hermès collection, which is all these objects we buy related to equestrian culture, but they are not Hermès objects. Then we have a second collection that we call the Conservatoire des Créations Hermès, the Hermès creations collection. We started collecting our own production in the 1980s. This was begun by my father, who, when he became a young chairman, in 1978, realized we had very few items from our own past. He even placed an ad in the national newspapers asking people who had old Hermès products they wanted to get rid of to contact Hermès. That’s how we started the Conservatoire. Today we have over 35,000 items and have managed to go all the way back to 1860.
Then there’s a third collection. I wanted to introduce a contemporary element into these collections, not to be focused only on either the nineteenth century or our own work. More specifically, I wanted to find a medium that wouldn’t clash too much with all the drawings and paintings we already owned, and I thought of photography as a good alternative that could coexist harmoniously with the older collections. This was the origin of the Hermès Photo Fund, and we’ve been buying since 2008. Presently we have more than 1,300 photos.
These three collections are represented in every one of our stores. For a special store like Madison Avenue, I wanted a big statement, so I worked on this unique staircase design. I thought, This is my exhibition space to celebrate serendipity and curiosity and our own culture, which is a visual culture and also a symbolic culture around all the values you associate with horses and horse-riding and traveling: journeys, journeys of the mind and also of the soul.
ABCould you tell me more about the works that you’ve chosen for the central staircase?
PADOne of my favorite items is a miniature carriage made as a toy for children in the nineteenth century. It is functional and would have been pulled by a pony or a goat. Fascinatingly, it’s an exact replica of a one-person taxi dating back to 1840—what was once called a cabriolet, which is where the English word “cab” comes from. And in Paris and London the cabriolets were yellow and black.
ABIncredible. Perfect for New York City.
PADExactly, and it links back to the question of heritage. My father used to tell me that you can’t create without memory. I can’t see how you can devise the future if you don’t know your history, if you’re not inspired by the past, so that you can go beyond your heritage but also nourish your mind with it. Whenever we’re short on ideas, we go back to the collections. We just wander and let serendipity happen. But the purpose of art is to invent, to stimulate the mind to project ourselves into the future, to go further. The pieces I chose are all related to the interactions between North American culture and Paris culture. There are all these invisible threads.
Before the staircase, we have two beautiful small gouaches made by the French artist Cassandre in the 1930s as covers for Harper’s Bazaar. My grandfather bought them because Cassandre also designed for Hermès. They’re a really great example of collaboration between a French artist and an American magazine, and they come back to life in the Hermès store in New York. These are small touches that I think are moving.
Another piece that I’m thrilled to be showing is a work by the New York–based painter and graphic designer Elaine Lustig Cohen. The American team introduced me to her, I went to her home in the city and we had a long, incredible conversation. She was in her late eighties at the time, a very elegant, sharp woman with an incredibly intense eye. While there, I fell in love with a beautiful abstract painting, and she allowed us to reproduce the colors in a collection we were working on. And now we’re able to put that very same work on display.
ABIt’s brilliant to bring this all together around the staircase. If we look at the boutique as a whole, are there other areas that you see as quintessential to the overriding concepts of Hermès?
PADFirst, the fundamental element of that building is natural light. The reason for the staircase is that at the top of the building is a glass dome, which allows light to travel down through the staircase to the ground floor. The idea is natural light has to penetrate as deep as possible because light is life. Light is the beginning of everything.
Second, our ever present inspiration at Hermès is nature. It is nature that gives us the materials; we merely transform what is given. Entering on the ground floor on Madison and 63rd, you’re somewhere geometrical by virtue of the architecture: already as you walk in, you see the geometry in the stonework, the floor, and the vertical elements. But it’s already more humane and warmer because of the materials. And as you walk up, the whole idea is that at the top of the building you have a garden and you have light. The whole architecture of the building gradually becomes more organic, with more curves, and the walls literally open, and in the recesses of the walls, as if in the bark of a tree, you’ll see a bag.
ABI’m sure the window displays will be a visual treat for people walking past the store, as they always are at Hermès.
PADThe window showcase is an integral part of the Hermès story, from Émile Hermès to the incredible work of Annie Beaumel and Leïla Menchari in the twentieth century, and on to the present, where we continue to collaborate with creators from a variety of disciplines. I’ve met important artists who have told me that they remember seeing the Hermès windows as a kid with their mother or grandmother, and dreaming and feeling strong emotions that they cannot forget. For a long time, my biggest fear was that people didn’t dare to push open the door, thinking, This is not for me, this is not my world. I don’t expect people to come in and buy everything, or even buy at all; I expect people to come in and enjoy and open their eyes. I hope we’re contributing to enriching the cultural life of New York City. New York is a city about retail, like it or not, so better make that a fun and exciting experience. If you told me I couldn’t go into an art gallery because it’s not my world and I’m not going to buy a painting—No, no, no. Go into the gallery and look at the art, even if you can’t afford to buy it.