A lifelong odyssey brought Jérôme Abel Seguin to Bali, Indonesia
Peter Webster -- Interior Design, 10/1/2009 12:00:00 AM
Say "Bali," and most people think tropical paradise. Not designer-artist Jérôme Abel Seguin, who says he found Indonesia's fabled tourist destination "disappointingly inauthentic" when he first visited. It was the much-less-traveled Sumbawa, a volcanic Eden two stops farther east on the seemingly endless archipelago, that touched the Frenchman's creative imagination. Inspired by the remote island's woodcrafts, particularly the hand-carved dugout canoes, he abandoned his Paris career styling windows for Hermès, Louis Vuitton, and other luxury brands to begin producing furniture and sculpture from local materials on Sumbawa. "My idea was to get far away from it all," he says. "It was a fantasy, like Robinson Crusoe." Or Prospero.
For more than a decade, Seguin spent half the year on Sumbawa, living with sweeping views of the azure sea and building a 20-man workshop to transform unique pieces of hardwood, found objects, and industrial salvage into heroically scaled furniture that dissolves the boundaries between function and art. The irony was that most of the wood and other materials, natural or man-made, had to be bought in Bali, and all the finished products had to be shipped there on their way to the outside world. "Also, it was difficult for friends to get to Sumbawa, and there's not much social life," he adds. "After 15 years, I was bored."
Slowly, Seguin began the process of moving his business and home to the once-scorned Bali. He first established a workshop in what he admits is "a touristy area." (However, lots of crafts ateliers are there, and it's close to the airport.) He then looked for a nearby factory to convert into living space. "I soon discovered, of course, that there are no 'factories' in that sense in Bali," he says with a laugh. "So I designed and built one myself." After leasing a vacant lot in an unprepossessing, crowded district a couple of miles from the coast, he followed his neighbors' example and enclosed the property with high walls. This created a sequestered setting for the hangarlike structure he built inside.
The single-story, 4,000-square-foot building contains three small flat-roofed boxes, asymmetrically arranged. Two are bedrooms, each with its own bathroom; one is an office and laundry room. All are air-conditioned, while the outer volume, which houses the living and dining areas and the kitchen, is cooled by ceiling fans and natural cross-ventilation enhanced by giant louvers in the end gables. The latter give a nod to Jean Prouvé's Maison Tropicale, a 1949 prototype for prefabricated housing in France's African colonies.
Materials for the outer building are simple and apposite. Iron columns and beams were salvaged from neighboring Java, the end walls are framed in teak, and a colonnade of recycled telephone poles runs the length of the entry. "I tried to use what they have in Indonesia," Seguin says. For the walls, he specified local handmade bricks covered with a traditional coral-powder plaster. Flooring is small-stone terrazzo, also typical of the region. Massive counters in the kitchen and bathrooms are polished concrete.
With expansive public spaces, a muted palette, and carefully modulated light, Seguin's house bears more than a passing resemblance to a gallery, an ideal environment for displaying his art-inflected furniture. "I was immediately drawn to the whiteness when I walked in one night for dinner," says Interior Design Hall of Fame member Vicente Wolf—who met Seguin on a sourcing trip to Bali and subsequently photographed the house for this story. To Seguin, however, "It's more like a laboratory, a place where I can live with new pieces, observe them closely, and really see if they work." This philosophy certainly informs the living area, where a simple, all-white armless sofa and slipper chairs surround one of the cocktail tables he sells through ACD/Jerome Abel Seguin. Topped by an enormous split slab of a reddish knotty hardwood from Borneo, floating elegantly on stainless-steel legs, the table exudes a powerful aura that comes from the application of superbly refined craftsmanship to a singularly beautiful natural object.
Though Seguin's move to Bali has not changed the fundamentals of his craft, the greater diversity of readily available local materials and the easy access to resource-rich Java have expanded his range. "I've had more opportunity to work with very big tree roots," he offers. In the entry sits a sculptural example mounted on a steel base: a boulder set like a colossal jewel in a mass of petrified roots as black and polished as obsidian. "The root system grew around the stone," he explains. Near this magnificently oversize bijou—stranded on the smooth terrazzo like jetsam from some long-vanished civilization—a giant rusty anchor provides a fine symbol of Seguin's alchemy: A proud industrial object, humbled by a sea change, is reintroduced to the human realm by the skilled hands of artisans. Potent art. Rough magic.
Photography by Vicente Wolf.