A life in Art by Jeremy Callaghan | 2nd September, 2016 | Personalities
The couple behind the Parisian fashion label Zadig & Voltaire are all about opposites. They are cool and laid back and unbelievably chic – high-end and rock-and-roll. Cecilia Bönström from Sweden and Thierry Gillier from France raise their four children in a 19th-century apartment filled with cutting-edge art. Yet despite having works by Jean-Michel Basquiat on the walls, it’s a place where the kids are allowed to play freely.
Mornings are a bit hectic at the home of Thierry Gillier and Cecilia Bönström, as they would be in any household with four children and two working parents. Yet breakfast – spilled milk and all – is served each day on a piece of furniture that collectors would pay through the nose for. This family is keeping it very real and so a table, even if it is by Charlotte Perriand, is first and foremost, just a table. “It’s my favorite piece in the whole house,” says Cecilia. “It’s beautiful and practical. In many ways it reminds me of a Swedish table. We like things to be very simple; volumes that are pure. We want to be able to place and replace paintings, move them around as we feel works. Sometimes they are hung from the walls but often they are simply on the floor. It’s not art as decoration but art as a way of life.”
“We love clash and contrast, the tension between masculine and feminine.” Cecilia Bönström
Gillier and Bönström are the founder and creative director, respectively, behind Zadig & Voltaire, the label that made cashmere cool and defiantly shoved rock chic into the face of the fashion establishment. Cecilia Bönström, a Swedish-born former model, had often driven past a particular building in the 5th arrondissement of Paris, admired the wisteria clinging to its façade, its irrepressible life-force persisting as it twisted its way around the window and through the balconies, and quietly wondered: who lives in this place? It once belonged to Baron Haussmann, the architect chosen by Napoleon III to modernize Paris, who used the 19th-century residence as his garçonnière, or bachelor’s quarters. “It was such a fantasy-like vision. And then,” she says, “twenty-four years after moving to Paris, the place became mine.”
The five-bedroom apartment was remarkable not only for its expansiveness – “it’s not easy to find a place to live in Paris when you have four kids,” Cecilia says – but for the historical elements that remained, including a music salon with an ornately coffered and frescoed ceiling featuring baroque-style angels named after Mozart, Bach and Beethoven. “It was brown and black and there were many more walls,” she recalls of their home pre-renovation. “A lot of heavy, dark wood everywhere. And so we decided to take most of it away.”
The couple’s close collaborator was architect Isabelle Stanislas of the Paris based firm So-An, who had previously collaborated with Gillier on Zadig & Voltaire’s retail architecture around the globe. They worked as an ensemble to create a family home that was resolutely contemporary while embracing its historical past. Although walls were removed to favor light entering the space, great care was taken to “preserve and modernize” in Stanislas’s words, the existing wooden features, which in some cases were painted white, or in the case of the fresco, cleaned, “which lightened it considerably” she remarks. It’s a sign of the times. Everything old is new again. A clear glass divider between the kitchen and main living areas brought light deep into the the interior and added a loft-like contrast. “Every element of the apartment was revisited – it’s like it was redone, top to bottom. It was a job that fell somewhere between restoration and creation.”
The real challenge, however, was to turn the flat into a home for Gillier’s significant collection of contemporary art, which includes pieces by Cy Twombly, Dan Flavin, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Damien Hirst. “We did an enormous amount of work to ensure the lighting would be right,” Stanislas says. Her solution: a custom-designed miniature lamp slightly more than an inch long that is integrated into the ceiling so it’s virtually invisible.
Thierry Gillier, who studied art at Bard College in the U.S., has over the years amassed a collection of very impressive pieces that occupy the home like old friends. “This apartment, for me, is a loft, made to accommodate modern works, but its ancient context assures the building will always be the master,” says Gillier. “The contents are in perpetual motion,” he adds, referring to the art works contained in what is in itself a noble piece of architecture.
We love clash and contrast, the tension between feminine and masculine,” explains Cecilia Bönström, whose glamrock style and vision have been instrumental in the unique global success story of Zadig & Voltaire. “We want to dress a woman in a way that is sexy, but never vulgar. She is sexy in a masculine way,” Cecilia once said. “It’s important to stay cool and not go over to the girly side.” Her can’t-go-wrong-tip: Boyfriend shirt (a bit wrinkly) over a pair of tight jeans. When Bönström designs she has women like Kate Moss and Charlotte Gainsbourg in mind. In her collections she refers to style icons like Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, Mick Jagger or Jimi Hendrix. She also gets inspiration from people in the street, whom she observes sitting in Paris cafes. The result is a mix of silk and lace and cracked leather – effortless sexyness. And very French. “It’s a true way of life and it shows in our work. It’s subconscious. We have a ‘less is more’ attitude.” In their apartment that means: not that much furniture, not that many things on the table. “We keep it pure. The art and the architecture speak for themselves.” And they make the mix of contemporary art and family life work. Their three-year-old has never painted on a piece of art, for example, and although there are soccer balls lying around the house, one has never actually gone through a canvas.
While the family doesn’t sit around discussing the pros and cons of a recent purchase in their spare moments, Cecilia maintains that its mere presence informs their private and professional lives. “I love living with art and with an art collector who has such a cool attitude and vision of contemporary art. It’s not a museum here, you know? Art really should be part of your life.” And it really is omnipresent in this apartment, from the children’s bedrooms to the bathrooms. “Once you’ve lived with art, then you cannot live without it.”