Artist Joana Vasconcelos, Known for Spectacular Dior Installations, Transforms Roche Bobois on Madison Avenue


For Joana Vasconcelos, the groundbreaking Portuguese artist, color, fantasy and scale are central to her work.

“Color means light and beauty, and with light you have hope. Beauty brings harmony,” she said.

“From creating a fantasy, something that does not exist, you create the future. Without fantasy, there is no future.”

Scale, she said, “is important to relate to the space, to create a dialogue with architecture and share the space with the architects . . . . I never do things big just because they’re big, but more to have a relationship with the space.”

Last Tuesday, WWD caught up with Vasconcelos at Roche Bobois, on the corner of Madison Avenue and 35th Street in New York, where in celebration of the company’s 50 years operating in North America, she’s transformed roughly a third of the 17,000-square-foot showroom.

It’s a collaboration that pushes the boundaries of contemporary furnishings by blending Vasconcelos’ artistic flair with functionality. She’s designed the Roche Bobois “Bombom” indoor/outdoor collection of sofas, pillows, area rugs, ceramics, cocktail and side tables, and she’s “intervened” on reinterpreting the Roche Bobois’ “Mah Jong” modular sofa (an iconic piece most suitable for living rooms and recreational rooms) with imaginative armrests, backrests and embellishments. The piece de resistance is Vasconcelos’ installation of an edition of her spectacular “Valkyrie” series that became the kaleidoscopic backdrop for Dior’s fall 2023 runway show. The artist’s elongated, inflatable serpentine and bulbous Valkyrie sculptures, wrapped in colorful fabrics, wend through the showroom. The installation, entitled “Amazonia,” will be up until Oct. 31, and it checks all the boxes — colorful, fantastical and big.

“The idea is to bring to Roche Bobois this kind of magical nature, like a strange plant that grew here, in a way that interconnects the spaces and creates a dialogue between sculpture and furniture. So for Roche Bobois, being a very contemporary brand with furniture from different designers, my sculpture serves as the connection,” Vasconcelos said.

The artist’s partnership with Dior goes back to 2003, when Bernard Arnault, chairman of Dior’s parent company, LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, bought one of her sculptures. She also created a permanent Valkyrie piece for the Dior shop in Lisbon that opened last year. For Dior’s fall 2023 show, Vasconcelos sewed, knitted and crocheted fabrics from Maria Grazia Churia’s collection to form giant textile sculptures with floral designs. It was an homage to the sister of Christian Dior, who was a florist.

Joana Vasconcelos' "Amazonia" installation amid the "Bombom" furniture line at Roche Bobois.

Joana Vasconcelos’ “Amazonia” installation amid the “Bombom” furniture line at Roche Bobois.

MIRRA STUDIO

For the Roche Bobois Bombom collection, Vasconcelos created fluid, amorphous shapes as well as colors atypical of outdoor furnishings.

“I decided to use these very bright colors inspired by the sunset in Lisbon with its very light pink, light blue and kind of yellow colors that happen just during the summer, and in a certain hour of the day,” the artist said. “It’s like somebody painted the sky, and I wanted to bring that to the outdoor furniture. When I designed and presented it, they said this is not possible because there are no such colors in outdoor furniture. It’s beige, white, gray or brown, and that’s it. Those are the outdoor colors.’”

She was told the thread for the technical fabrics required for the outdoor furniture was unavailable in the colors she prescribed. However, one Portuguese supplier agreed to take on the project provided the orders were large. “This was a problem but Roche Bobois decided to go for it,” Vasconcelos said, noting that the collection has been selling well. “I’m not a fashion designer or an interior designer. I don’t really know the rules,” the artist said. “Roche Bobois taught me how to build something comfortable and usable. If I was on my own, I could never have succeeded.”

The Joana Vasconcelos

The Joana Vasconcelos “Amazonia” installation at Roche Bobois.

Since launching her career in 1994, at age 23, the Paris-born, Lisbon raised Vasconcelos has had more than 500 exhibitions, permanent installations and public artworks in 35 countries. Her studio in Lisbon has a total of 60 employees including knitters, embroiderers, those crocheting, ceramicists, engineers and architects. Everything is handmade.

Her career has consistently melded artistic experimentation and the artisanal, and commentaries on feminist concerns and societal conventions. As a woman in contemporary art, a field dominated by men, Vasconcelos has caused a sensation on several occasions. In 2012, she became the first woman and youngest artist to exhibit at the Palace of Versailles.

“That was pretty cool because I could create a dialogue between the over-decorated space, the tradition, and all the heritage with my own body of work, outdoors and indoors. One-point-six million people saw my show. I did the Queen’s areas; I covered more than half of Versailles, like 17 rooms or something.”

She said the Versailles show took two years to prepare, but it wasn’t the longest of her projects. A piece she created for Lord Rothschild in England took five years. “It was a wedding cake, made of tiles over four floors, so you can enter the wedding cake and climb up and become like the two little figures on the top. That was amazing.”

In 2018 she became the first Portuguese artist to hold a solo exhibition at the Guggenheim Bilbao in Spain, and in 2005, at the first Venice Biennale curated by women, she presented “The Bride,” a five-meter-tall chandelier made from 14,000 tampons.

Again transforming everyday objects into a monumental work of art, she used shiny stainless steel pots, pans and lids to create these colossal-sized shoes, including the “Marilyn” high heels, which appeared at the The Sala Bianca in the Pitti Palace, inspired by the footwear Marilyn Monroe wore in the film “The Seven Year Itch.”

“It has been an incredible journey because I never think that I am the first and when I realize that I am, it’s like, Oh my God, why me? Why other women before me didn’t get this chance. It’s because of the timing. I was born in a certain period enabling me to do certain things that women before me couldn’t. But we still have a lot to conquer in the sense of equality.”

Those giant shoes of pots and pans broadcast what she describes as “the duality between the traditional female role of today, the housewife, the kitchen, and the contemporary woman in public life, in stilettos. “The stiletto represents women,” Vasconcelos said.

In the U.S., Vasconcelos has exhibited in several cities, including Boston, San Francisco and New York, in group or small shows. “Of course, I would love to do a big project in a big museum in the U.S. I’m part of the group of artists that does monumental sculpture, which is much more understandable and natural here than in Europe, because here you have very large spaces, big roads, and deserts. In Europe, you have smaller spaces, smaller cities. I do big museums all over the world. But the strange thing is it’s difficult for European artists to cross the Atlantic and difficult for American artists to do the same in Europe. It always the same discussion. How do we cross the Atlantic?

As a woman, the issue is compounded. “There are very few female artists in monumental sculpture,” Vasconcelos observed. “It’s a world dominated by men. So the truth is, it’s really important to give a voice to women. I would like women to be treated the same way as men.”

Joana Vasconcelos's "Valkyrie" set design at the Dior 2023-2024 fall/winter runway show.

Joana Vasconcelos’s “Valkyrie” set design at the Dior fall 2023 runway show.

Courtesy image



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