February 9, 2009

A Little Shop Just Out Back and Thousands of Miles Away

An interview with Gérard Dumora and Jacqueline Lauth of Pacific Art Design
Part 1 of 2 (link to Part 2)

The process for getting this interview up and ready is almost worth a blog itself. I had in fact met Gérard and Jacqueline just over a year ago at the Winter 2008
Maison & Objet show (see also here). At the time, I confess to giving their stand a quick glance, picking up as much information as I could and then continuing my journey onward in this Paris-based show covering roughly 10 million square miles (well that’s what my feet felt like afterwards).

Then one day some months later I was going through my collection of materials and noticed that the PAD team in fact just lives down the road from the Nixon’s. So I essentially yelled out the window (seriously, we can almost see their village from our office) and asked if they’d be interested in an interview, to which they kindly said yes and even invited my wife and I to visit them at their nearby home.

The interview itself was fascinating and a very well hosted event I must say (read on to find out why this is so important to say!). It was also very typical for an Alsatian gathering, namely there were conversations flying all around and at least two languages in use at any one time. And oh yes, delicious pie was served, oh man, was that good. Still, despite my pretensions about actually being able to comprehend the French language when sitting with someone – and I did pretty well when we were “live” – I did find that understanding the input from our interview tapes to be all but impossible.

So I will fully confess here front and center that without Mrs. Nixon’s very patient help, that this particular input would not be possible. But now that I’ve thanked the wife (and saved my own ‘peau’) and also now apologize to our new-found friends for the delay in getting this article ready, let’s move on to meet these talented, interesting and very friendly people:

Gérard, Jacqueline – Why did the two of you decide back in 1998 to move to the island of
Moorea in the French Polynesian region of Tahiti?
G: Basically our wanting to move – call it a kind of ‘wanderlust’ if you will – happened because we both wanted to go there to find different values and experience new cultures. These aspects in Tahiti interested us in particular. And the environment and way of thinking we found there were very close to our own set of values.

At the beginning of our relationship – even after only being together for just 2 hours! – we were even then talking about leaving France for such a journey. You see, both of us grew up in families that moved around a lot and we both had the same sense of knowing that whenever we arrived somewhere, we started already to have a desire to leave again. It seems to have worked out pretty well, as we’ve been together now for 17 years.

Interestingly, when we decided to move to Moorea, I was working in Switzerland as a carpenter. I was making a good salary and we were living in pretty good conditions since the cost of living in France was so much lower. A lot of our friends were even ready to buy houses or property and begin settling down. But we were not ready for this – it’s still the same way today because whenever we feel tied down we want to move again.

Sure, it’s reassuring to have a type of ‘home sweet home’ you can come back to whenever you return from a journey or a trip. But on the other hand we find it good to have freedom to live where we want when we want. Of course it’s not easy to leave a place whenever you’ve made good friends and have family nearby; but when we make our moves we’re not just leaving on a whim. It’s all very much planned and really adds a little bit of spice to our lives.

And when we do move, it’s not like we’re just camping out; we really try to install ourselves and make a commitment to the place where we are. We integrate ourselves into the local culture and really try to make friends and live as normal as possible. Yes, it’s a bit like starting from scratch each time but we don’t want to fake it when we move. This is really important to us otherwise we know we wouldn’t be satisfied anywhere.

For now at least, being located in the Alsace has been very good for us but we still have plans to leave at some point. Our daughter is finishing her studies and we’re focused on her getting her (high school) degree.

Gérard, I understand your father played a role in your interest in other cultures and travelling?
Yes, because of my father’s military career we moved a lot when I was much younger. In terms of how it affected me, well, when I think about my sister, she always adapted very well to new schools and did very well academically. On the other hand, I didn’t do so great in school but I always quickly adapted to new social settings. It’s just really a question of basic character in terms of how you adapt, but certainly it influenced my life tremendously.

Jacqueline, how did you find yourself so far from home (Guyana)?
My father was a geologist and so we, too, moved around when I was younger, returning to France when I was six. It was this strong point Gérard and I had in common that attracted us to each other and helped our relationship get started and to grow. We really matched up well in this regard.

We’ve met other people who’ve moved as well in their childhood and in some cases they don’t want to ever move again. With us it was different and it was a very positive part of our lives and again, helped form our character.

Gérard, you are a trained carpenter, correct?
Yes. Again, I studied carpentry as a practical, technical based education in large part because I hadn’t done so well in school. Sure, I was bright enough to do better in my studies but I always had the trouble adapting to the new teachers and classes when we moved.

Playing with words for a moment: Would you say then your start as a designer was because you were (1) a carpenter who was interested in learning and developing his artistic ideas OR (2) a designer – who happened to have learned carpentry – finally getting the chance to express his true calling?
That’s a very good question.

I thought about this a lot before you visited. I think if it had been 5 years ago, I maybe would have answered that I was a carpenter interested in learning more about my craft in general. Today, I feel that I’m much more of a designer who has had training in carpentry.

(Jacqueline interrupts) I don’t totally agree, I really think you’re both.

G: Okay, it’s obviously a difficult question to answer. Sure, a carpenter doesn’t just nail two pieces of wood together. He can be creative in even the basic practice of his trade. It’s like in any other work that requires any amount of creativity.

J: If I think about the past years, I think Gérard was born with this talent and the ability to turn his ideas into lovely creations. Learning to be a carpenter was something that happened by chance and allowed him to be skilled at working with a material like wood. The great advantage he has is that he has the skill to express his ideas in such a beautiful way.

You do have a lot of people that find when they have ideas they don’t know how to bring them to life. It’s the same with me: I may have an idea for our work but I personally have no idea how to do it, that is, actually create the object. Gérard can then take the idea and make it a reality.

G: Yes, it was a plus to have the training and job experience as a carpenter. Still, even if I hadn’t done all that before I think I would have found some way to express my creativity. But designer is not really the word I would use. I think Jacqueline said it best, I think of myself mostly as a creator.

I mean, I never had this step where I had to go get a blank piece of paper and sketch out an idea to see what it should look like. For me, I’ve always been able to visualize my pieces in my head and then just make them. And even if I do rarely use paper to sketch out an idea, it’s only because I want to run it by Jacqueline. So the drawing helps her visualize it as well – just like it’s in my head – and critique it. But this is pretty rare, also because we understand so well what most of the ideas are meant to be and what I’m aiming for.

J: But really he typically just makes the prototype and shows that to me. This is great for me, because he’s always bringing in these wonderful surprises. It’s always so exciting and I love that part of our work together.

What was the inspiration for starting your first designs?
For the pieces you see now, my first inspirations came from the Polynesian culture. Also, I had a really important encounter with a Polynesian artist that was also very significant. And of course, in Moorea the rapport with nature was very strong in influencing my work.

In fact, I think the reason that I initially had success is that I fed off this power I got from the local nature. In my eyes you always have to be ready to make an exchange between nature and your ideas in order to have them work. This was not something I planned or calculated on, but it is an intricate part of my work – including for the range of pieces I presented then and am continuing to show today.

What I mean then by an exchange is that nature provides me for example with a wonderful piece of wood. And when I see this, I know right away what I want to do with it. So I continually feed on this strength.

From the start, you have been fascinated by lighting. What drew you towards designing so many different forms of lamps and working with light?
For me, light represents life. And wood or trees are also an essential part of life in that they provide us with protection, shelter, and many other uses. The mix of these two elements always attracted me and the combination was something I liked very much. Plus light allows for so many interpretations and usages.

Also in Moorea the evening comes very early and the sun sets very quickly. So you really gain an appreciation for light and its importance. I also looked around at other artists and saw that many – especially the younger crowd – started out as well by working with light. There would always be such terrific displays of the different works and crafts at the stands in the market. So for me it was an obvious starting point.

In comparison, creating furniture is different. It seems to me that furniture always has the same type of lines, its square or has basically the same form and function. But with lighting you can have different categories, including hanging lamps or standing pieces. There are just so many ways to use it and to express it creatively.

How would you best describe the art and design of Tahiti to someone who is not familiar with the region or its people?
The Tahitian people are not artists in the sense of what we think of as ‘beau art’ (fine art) makers. Instead, they create their art out of necessity, when they need something they make it both functional and also they pleasing to the eye. Actually, in terms of my work, it was only after we moved back to the Alsace when someone said “wow, this is art” or “wow, Gérard you’re an artist.”

Traditionally, the art in Tahiti includes wood sculptures, or objects made out of stone, or that even made from the mother of pearl, the shiny black sea-shells that come from there. Really though, they work with any kind of material they find, whatever nature provides them with. They also incorporate a lot of weaving from available fibers, including from vines or coconut husks. They’ll make hats, baskets, the roofing of their houses, and so much more. The people there are very manually skilled and it seems like they’re almost born with this talent.

In particular, the artists of Tahiti per se create sculpture. They do really nice statues, some truly amazing things. It’s funny, but the art of Tahiti and even New Zealand is not very well known. Usually most people are familiar with African art or even Asian art but Polynesian art is not really that well known. Well, I can say from experience that this is true in Europe, where most people probably can’t even find Tahiti on the map or even maybe confuse it with Haiti (note ZN: I don’t think the USA would win any geography contests either).

J: Gérard’s work in Tahiti was in so many ways a struggle because he was showing a kind of new face of Polynesian art. His designs were actually more contemporary than what the locals offered. But this also helped attract the interest of European and American tourists.

G: I mean, I could really only base my work on the present, that is, the time we experienced there. We weren’t natives, so naturally it was easier for me to create a more contemporary style of art compared to more traditional Polynesian works. After all, you need to know and experience the rich traditions of Polynesia in order to truly understand the traditional arts. Their traditional art is so intertwined with their culture. Still, it was for me an unbelievable inspiration and I was able to integrate this into my work immediately.

Maybe with the more “contemporary” Polynesian style of art that I make, well, perhaps you don’t really need to understand the object in order to appreciate it. The form of the object or the design or even the painting is enough to make you think it’s nice. If you want to define it a little better, I think of my work as ‘something done by Gérard Dumora with Tahitian inspiration’. For example, take the columns you’ve mentioned: for me, they’re something that was created and made in Europe but they were born in Tahiti. This ‘tower’ design really evolved only once we were back in France, even though I tried to put as much of Tahiti into as I could.

The pieces I’ve worked on here have perhaps less to do with nature than my previous work in Tahiti. There when I was using wood I might look for hours in the forest for the right starting pieces or I might also try to find some coconut fiber or other materials to use. This was very important to me as so much of not only my materials but also inspiration was provided by nature, or the marine life or how the locals lived. I want to work to keep the modern and the traditional in balance, where I am always trying to integrate one with the other.

Tahiti was just one step, one part of what I do. We left with the goal of not doing just Polynesian work once we returned. And here in France, my inspiration comes a lot from the environment here. Who knows, if we had moved to India – which we considered – I would have found some great inspiration from the environment there. My creations are definitely not tied to fashions or current trends; instead my inspiration comes from what is around me.

Of course as you may hear all the time, the difficulty when you work this way is creating pieces that catch the right moment, that are going to be fashionable in some way now. In many ways, some of my pieces have turned out to NOT be suitable for the present tastes of consumers. But we might find that later on, they are suddenly quite fashionable.

Continued in Part 2: “Working Together and Tales of the Trendy Tub”

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