Men of Steel
A sculptor's minimalist estate in southern France now embraces a private gallery by Llamata + Berthier.
Lanie Goodman -- Interior Design, 2/1/2007 12:00:00 AM
Glimpsed from the opposite bank of France's Nartuby river, artist Bernar Venet's private gallery exhibits an agricultural-industrial look that blends right in with the woodsy Provençal landscape. That's because Llamata + Berthier/LLB Architecture used rust-colored Cor-Ten steel to construct the river-facing part of the building, one of three on Venet and his wife's 11-acre property in Le Muy, near Saint-Tropez. The shedlike main volume of the gallery, however, is clad in shimmering ribbed stainless steel. "On a sunny day," David Llamata notes, "it reflects the surrounding cypress trees and blue sky like a mirror." As an exclamation point, the artist propped up a violet-painted steel bar 50 feet long against the side of the building, pointing to the sky.
Such a dazzling composition belies what Llamata describes as the "sobriety" of the 7,500-square-foot interior—an aesthetic in keeping with the minimal purity of Bernar Venet's sculpture and paintings as well as of his Paris house, which Llamata and Charles Berthier revamped in 2004. At the Provençe gallery, the floor and walls are industrial-strength concrete, the former waxed and the latter painted white. The roof is made of perforated galvanized-steel panels.
The vast main space beneath is designed for Bernar Venet's monolithic Cor-Ten steel sculpture. Angling out from this area, a narrow extension will eventually display his photographs, paintings, and text works along one long wall, which faces a wall of transparent polycarbonate panels. Framed in black-painted steel, the panels offer a virtually unobstructed view of his personal sculpture garden and, beyond it, the pool. "The idea," Llamata explains, "was to have the art be visible from the other parts of the property."
When Bernar and Diane Venet purchased it in 1989, the main attraction was a 15th-century stone manor with a century-old water mill in the basement—still generating electricity. In addition, a riverside gravel path lined with weeping willows connected the manor to a factory-warehouse where the previous owner, an inventor, had developed and produced a copyrighted machine to improve the precision of railroad switches.
The 18,000-square-foot factory is the Venets' summer home. With its three exhibition areas, unified by stainless-steel floor tiles, it's large enough for the artist's monumental corkscrew arcs. Llamata + Berthier's contribution was a small open kitchen that hugs a corner of the lofty living space. The challenge the architects set for themselves, Berthier says, was to use the same waxed steel as Bernar's sofa and cocktail table, "yet not compete with them." The solution was a steel module featuring a peninsula clad in a sheet of 1-inch-thick stainless steel.
In the winter, the Venets move into the manor. Back in 1960, a tavern scene for the medieval drama Le Bossu was shot in the house, but it had lain vacant for five years before the couple arrived—and needed to be completely modernized. So they had everything painted white, from the oak ceiling beams down to the original terra-cotta floor tiles.
For both residences, Bernar Venet himself designed virtually all the furnishings: beds, tables, desks, bookshelves, lamps, sofas, and chairs—invariably fabricated in steel. Each and every chair weighs in at a stupendous 130 pounds. "You come to them. They don't come to you," Diane Venet says with a smile.
Upstairs and down, Bernar Venet's colorful "equation" acrylic paintings and murals and "Macadam" photographs mix with work by the likes of Marcel Duchamp, Frank Stella, Robert Motherwell, Donald Judd, Kenneth Noland, and Sol LeWitt. A Carl Andre floor installation of Belgian bluestone blocks dominates the mezzanine's sitting area. In the main living room, Dan Flavin's white neon tubes light up a wall, and Arman's tribute to Venet—a compressed accumulation of his garbage—sits in a clear acrylic box.
It's obviously not for lack of exhibition space that the Venets hired Llamata + Berthier to build their gallery. In fact, for now, they're displaying only one installation there: 140 of Bernar Venet's Cor-Ten steel bars strewn haphazardly across the floor. And only friends and collectors can visit. "Someday," Diane Venet muses, "we might turn it into an art foundation and open it to the public."