AD Peeks Inside a Hidden Atelier Chock-Full of Icons
The land around Charles de Gaulle Airport is dotted with drab corrugated-metal warehouses, and the one I pull up to with Julien Lombrail looks no different. Except, that is, for the arresting cluster of solid bronze conical pods on the front lawn, with what seems like a giant’s throne sticking out of them. Is it a sculpture? Is it a chair?
It turns out to be both. Lombrail has taken me to the hidden atelier of Carpenters Workshop Gallery , the international design empire that he and his childhood friend Loïc Le Gaillard started 11 years ago out of a woodworking atelier. That oddly beautiful chair? It’s a piece by Wendell Castle —one of more than 30 leading lights whom the gallery represents.
Chronicled in a new book published by Rizzoli, Carpenters now has permanent outposts in London, Paris, and, most recently, New York, on the top two floors of a Fifth Avenue building. But unless you’re an important collector, you can’t get into the warehouse, which opened in 2015 in the suburban town of Roissy. Much of the structure’s 90,000 square feet is taken up by studios where some 25 artisans fashion wax and plaster molds, forge metal, and transform parchment into desks and cabinets. When I tour the space, a young woman is slathering a pirarucu-fish skin with silicone to make a mold for an aluminum commode by the Campana Brothers . Her progress is slow going—the silicone keeps flattening the fish’s large, rough scales—and the piece will likely take over a month to finish.
Works by Studio Job and Ron Arad fill the vault.
As I soon discover, Carpenters doesn’t display its most valuable pieces. Those Lombrail and Le Gaillard store in a locked vault, a space reserved for only their most VIP clientele. “It’s like a bank safe, but the size of a room,” says Lombrail. “The whole workshop has a security system and 24-hour surveillance, but the vault has its own protective system over and above that, along with special temperature and humidity controls to protect the pieces inside.”
The works here are intended as a survey of the best in art furniture, a kind of secret museum. Most were made by the gallery’s own talents, but several were not. “The only criterion is that the piece must be an icon,” says Lombrail.
He punches in the code. There stands Vincent Dubourg’s Nouvelle Zélande double buffet, which looks like a large wooden console ripped in half, its planks violently shredded, except that it’s made entirely out of steel. On a high shelf sits Marc Newson’s Orgone chair—contemporary design doesn’t get more collectible than that. Nearby, Studio Job ’s massive Robber Baron cabinet reveals a jagged hole in its middle, as though a cannonball has blasted through it. The humor doesn’t obscure the skill required to make it.
Not everything gets played for laughs, which is a good thing. An Ingrid Donat commode is pure craftsmanship, its bronze surface enlivened with a pattern of interlocking flywheels. Donat, who has a permanent studio here, also happens to be Lombrail’s mother—and one of the first artists on Carpenters’ roster. She didn’t take up professional furniture-making until she was in her 40s, just about the time Lombrail was figuring out what to do with his life, and the two forged their careers in tandem.
“When our principal foundry went bust in 2015, we decided to jump into the deep end and create our own atelier,” notes Lombrail. Many of that foundry’s best artisans continue to work here, producing about half of the pieces Carpenters shows. “For a bronze piece, there are anywhere from 25 to 30 steps—25 to 30 chances for something to go wrong,” he says. “It may be art, but a cabinet’s doors have still got to open and close.” carpentersworkshopgallerom