VOL. MMXIII..No. 209

Notes from Abroad | Tracking Global Retail

In Paris, Fondation Louis Vuitton Makes Bold Statement for Luxury Icon

On a brisk November day, a well-heeled crowd of mostly French people competes to get the most artsy shot possible of the newly opened Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris.

 

The highly sculptural structure is a commanding presence, every ounce a Frank Gehry project and when one comes upon it, it does indeed take one’s breath away. The crowd hangs back from handing over their tickets, still too dazzled by the building’s remarkable engineering and taking all manner of shots of the building, as if afraid it will float away from them.

 

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The museum rises from reflecting pools and a massive staircase of water, further echoing the nature motif as water rises into “cloud.”

Once inside, however, rather than rush in to see the exhibitions, they queue up for lunch at Frank, the museum’s namesake restaurant. Some things do not change in France: Le dejeuner est sacré.

 

While Hermes and Cartier have long had their own art collections and eponymous art museums, LVMH did not. The world’s largest luxury conglomerate was perhaps too busy making money.

 

In fact, LVMH CEO Bernard Arnault, is one of the most prolific contemporary art collectors in the world, but few have been privy to just what his collection held – until now.

 

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Gerhardt Richter Strip (921-5) and Strip (921-2)

From top: Isa Genzken’s Rose II (2007) glooms over the entry hall; a room of Ellsworth Kelly; and Gerhard Richter’s Strip (92105) and Strip (921-2).

Eight years in the making, the Fondation Louis Vuitton is Arnault’s carefully planned dream made real. It had to be designed by the right architect, someone who could mastermind something that garnered the same kind of accolades as say, the Guggenheim Bilbao. So it’s no surprise that Arnault chose Frank Gehry.

 

“I dream of designing a magnificent vessel symbolizing France’s profound cultural vocation,” said Gehry, when he was first approached to do the project. That’s the kind of bold statement that gets a client excited.

 

You could easily replace the word “France” with “Louis Vuitton” or even, “Bernard Arnault.” The fact is none of the world’s museums could exist without a benefactor with very deep pockets. As the fifth richest man in the world and the richest in France, those are deep pockets indeed.

 

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One of the largest halls is devoted to Frank Gehry’s design process, with countless iterations of the building rendered in 3-D models, drawings, and digital animation.

 

At nearly 126,000 square feet, the monolithic structure houses both a permanent collection (most of it Arnault’s) and eventually, a rotating roster of commissions and temporary exhibitions.

 

It’s been likened to a cloud, the sails of a boat (a telling description, since it aligns with Louis Vuitton’s sponsorship of the World Yachting Cup), an iceberg, and the shoals of fish, an awesome, almost extraterrestrial sight that floats above the lushness of the Bois du Bologne.

 

Do not expect a Renoir, Matisse, or Picasso here. This is a modernist cathedral for those who worship the most avant-garde of contemporary art: a giant rose (Isa Genzken’s Rose II, 2007) towers over the arrival hall. A sandwich of landfill featuring Nike sneakers and random garbage (Adrian Villar Rojas’, Where the Slaves Live, 2014). A graphically brilliant display of neon tubes (Bertrand Lavier’s Empress of India, 2005).

 

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In the museum’s “grotto” is Olafur Eliasson’s Inside the Horizon 2014 one of several private commissions for the Fondation.

 

The museum, however, remains the star attraction and one of the museum’s first exhibitions is about the Gehry’s design process and innovation. The exhibition reveals the countless iterations in both drawing and model form of the building’s evolution. The massive glass panels for the building required the creation of a special furnace in order to manufacture the specific curved shapes and projection capacity imposed by the designer.

 

It’s not often that we are given access to the whole range of hits — and misses — as a designer moves closer towards a brilliant idea.

 

One model displays what must have been an early awkward moment between client and designer, where an obvious design gestures is meant to flatter but instead falls flat: the iconic Louis Vuitton monogram is rendered as a multi-storey abstraction of a trunk. One sighs with relief that it never saw the light of day.

 

Nevertheless some vintage trunks are embedded in the wall of the restaurant and gift shop, a reminder that this is the house that Louis Vuitton built, the humble malletier who no doubt never dreamed that his name would grace the front of a museum in Paris.

 

Watch a time-lapse the building of the Fondation Louis Vuitton.

 

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