A Conversation with Sophie Dries

December 7, 2022

“Manufactured objects surround us. I want my objects to show how they are made and the magic and specialness of the incredible craft. Without these exceptional objects being made today, some crafts would cease to exist”

I wanted first to ask you about your studies because you attended two different schools, both in Paris and in Helsinki; what did you study, and what were the different approaches between the two schools?

⎯⎯⎯ I first graduated as an architect in Paris and did a master's in interior and furniture design in Helsinki, Finland. This is where I learned about craft because that country values hand-worked craft and materials such as ceramics, wood, glass and textiles. At that school, I had a chance to access the facilities and essentially had a year dedicated to exploring different mediums. This was great because it allowed me to develop the idea of connecting furniture with architecture.

Did you intend to start designing furniture and objects going into Helsinki, or was the intention to learn more about craft and materials?

⎯⎯⎯ I have always had an interest in doing that, which is one of the reasons why I wanted to study architecture. I knew I could do furniture at some point, but it was going to Helsinki that confirmed that. I began making things connected to craft with my hands that were definitely small-scale, as well as creating spaces.

So designing the whole environment, the space and what goes in it?

⎯⎯⎯ Yes, it was with my discovery of Alvar Aalto’s work and visiting all the houses he designed in Helsinki. He and his wife designed everything in the house, from the door handle and the textiles to all the landscape architecture, from the widest to the most minute detail. In the same tradition as the architects Frank Lloyd Wright, Carlo Scarpa and many others that I admire, they all work on a detailed scale to a city scale.

Do you find you have a similar approach to your home? As we sit in your living room and I look around, I see many personal touches.

⎯⎯⎯ Yes, for sure, I enjoy designing a full space as much as designing the detail items. For me, it’s not a different job; it’s just a different focus. I enjoy making the vases, the handles, the sofa we are on, as well as the general plans of the space.

Interior of Sophie’s living room
Interior of Sophie’s living room

Have you ever designed a space from the ground upnot creating it within a prebuilt environment?

⎯⎯⎯ I did, and it was for my parents. They bought land in a suburb in Paris, and I made a radical, almost rationalist house for them. I feel like in France and Europe, it’s quite challenging to express yourself in architecture, which is also a reason I shifted to interior and furniture design. I feel there are more possibilities to explore and be creative, and there are fewer regulations than really building from the ground up.

You have also designed commercial spaces, and you recently did a shoe store in Paris with a wood interior and a flower shop with an innovative plaster wallDid you have a lot of creative freedom with those spaces as they have different use and restrictions than a space intended for living in?

⎯⎯⎯ Yes, residential is super personal because it depends primarily on who lives there. I often say that doing an interior is similar to doing a portrait of somebody, you can create, but it is limited by the person who inhabits the space. When you do a shop, it is still like a portrait, but you dig entirely into the brand's universe creatively and can create a total look. With this, you can go much farther into the concept, more than with a home, while still respecting its particular use. For the shoe store, we did a big wooden wave 15 meters in length and 5 meters tall. This wave is a strong architectural gesture, definitely inspired by Alvar Aalto and the artist Richard Serra, but it also is a functional tool in the store to hide all the technical aspects like air conditioning and storage.

Arturo Arita, Flower Gallery in Paris France, 2019
Arturo Arita, Flower Gallery in Paris France, 2019
Michel Vivien, Flagship Store in Paris, France, 2020
Michel Vivien, Flagship Store in Paris, France, 2020

It creates a streamlined feel inside the store.

⎯⎯⎯ The space we had to work with was very long and narrow, so I had two approaches I could work with: Make it smaller and deviate from the long and narrow layout of space or accept its length and emphasize this uniqueness. So to do this “canyon of wood” I embraced the longness of the space.

It’s always best not to hide the true nature of the space or material.

⎯⎯⎯ Exactly. I am more into emphasizing true materials instead of covering them or making a synthetic or chemical transformation.

Or try to disguise a material as something elseI also noticed that your work, such as your papier-mâché chandeliers Glowemphasizes the raw material and showcases it.

⎯⎯⎯ I am obsessed with rawness and using genuine materials and techniques. With all my objects and interiors, I also try to reveal the craft behind them. Manufactured objects surround us. I want my objects to show how they are made and the magic and specialness of the incredible craft in France and Italy. Without these exceptional objects being made today, some crafts would cease to exist. So I always use genuine materials such as glass, papier-mâché, wood, metal, textiles...

or travertine... which you’ve dyed

⎯⎯⎯ Well, the story behind that piece is that as a child, I dreamed of being a chemist. So in a way, I was always into transforming things, making potions or making secret recipes to transform something from A to B or C. I like to think that this is what I do with so many of my objects. It is evident in the dyed travertine or in cases like including minerals in glass, rusting metal or engraving in ceramics.

The plaster and rust mirror Sophie designed
The plaster and rust mirror Sophie designed

I see the mirror above the fireplace is a plaster frame with rust fragments.

⎯⎯⎯ Yes, and it slowly evolved from the day I hung it, and you can see the rusting process continues as the plaster gets darker with time. I am interested in processes, which is frequently my starting point when creating new work. I never start by saying—for example— I want to do a chair, mirror or lamp, but I will visit a workshop and look at how things are done. I try to understand the craft and its magic. So I say, let’s try this; let’s make an experiment. Maybe the experiment leads to nowhere, or it leads to something else, which is even better. Afterwards, I know where the craft can be best applied, so the papier-mâché on the lamp is to emphasize its transparency. The function arrives after the research.

Glow chandelier series designed by Sophie
Glow chandelier series designed by Sophie

How do you organically incorporate your furniture designs into your architectural projects?

⎯⎯⎯ Many clients that are drawn to my work will acquire pieces or request commissioned works by me. Every interior is also an opportunity to prototype. The pieces created for the shoe shop are now being sold independently, such as stools and rugs. It is always an opportunity to create something because you have context and can be inspired by the conceptual project.

Do you find it easier to design something when there are boundaries?

⎯⎯⎯ Of course, when there is a frame, it is helpful. Also, regarding my collectors and clients, yes, they have the opportunity to buy works designed by me or commission special pieces when I do their interiors, but I don’t want to do a total look of just my work. I like to mix my pieces with vintage, such as I have in my home, as a way to present contemporary designers. I collect Max Lamb, Gaetano Pesce, 80’s and 90’s Philippe Starck, Noguchi, Sottsass … voilà it’s a long list!

I find it important to include these legendary designers because they inform the work todayso to see them side by side is also a conversation in the home.

⎯⎯⎯ Absolutely, it is a conversation; they influence each other and me. In this home, my manifesto apartment, which I share with my partner Marc Leschelier, I try to show that in a bourgeois and very classic context, you can live with super contemporary design. This is the contrast we also try to show here with art. We have an etching by Dürer from the 15th century alongside contemporary photography such as Ryan McGinley. I like to go across different eras, like the art historian Aby Warburg wrote about in his Atlas; it’s not about chronology but how the dialogues can happen.

A very active dialogue. In this room, a car hood is also hung on the wall.

⎯⎯⎯ Industrial meets art. What is interesting to me is to have no hierarchy between traditional materials and art and mainstream or vernacular art. I think rust is as beautiful as Murano glass, brass, or burl wood. I like to break the hierarchy between materials and art, like with the raw industrial art piece together with a classical painting.

Car hood artwork by Thomas Lelu
Car hood artwork by Thomas Lelu

In the past, you’ve mentioned you are inspired by the late 60’s Arte Povera movement and its materials. Can you talk about that?

⎯⎯⎯ Yes, definitely. I believe Arte Povera artists explored materials that were around them and transformed them, such as Yves Klein did with fire or cutting like Lucio Fontana did to his canvasses, or to deform them like Enrico Castellani. I think this is also what I am exploring in my design, cutting ceramic and burning rugs. I think I definitely align with their philosophy.

This treatment of materials is like a juncture between your interest in chemistry and art history.

⎯⎯⎯ Absolutely, and it also says a lot about the world we live in; we see Pistoletto’s 1960s art installations of the mountains of piled clothing and today, we still are in a world full of objects. The ethics we need to follow now and the sustainability and responsibility we have is a big question for a designer. I often ask how we can make new pieces in this world that is so saturated with objects, and for me, the answer is working with existing materials and natural materials that will age well. A 500-year-old wood piece is still beautiful, but many new materials derived from chemicals like oil are already not aging well and are harmful to the environment. That is one of the reasons that propelled me to discover old techniques like papier-mâché, which I learned in the south of Italy, where I worked with a traditional family factory that has a history of repairing church statues.

Was this in Puglia?

⎯⎯⎯ Yes, there. The statues in that region were traditionally made in papier-mâché because they couldn’t afford plaster or stones. I’m interested in natural materials, the different ways to transform them, and how they will age with time. This also goes back to sustainability. If an object ages well, then you give it to your children, and it goes through generations. The answer is to create something that ages beautiful, not that you throw it away.

Many materials get even better with age; wood becomes deeperand leather forms a patina.

⎯⎯⎯ All natural materials age well, in my opinion. For instance, I work with the Kintsugi technique, a traditional Japanese technique to repair broken objects with gold. When I started with ceramics at the beginning of my career, many pieces would break in shipping or firing, but you give them a second life and make Kintsugi with them. This broken object can be more beautiful than the original intact one.

Sophie’s Kintugi ceramic between a vintage Gaetano Pesce vase and Marc Leschelier’s sculpture
Sophie’s Kintugi ceramic between a vintage Gaetano Pesce vase and Marc Leschelier’s sculpture

It adds beauty and does not hide but emphasizes the object's story.

⎯⎯⎯ I think this philosophy of emphasizing defaults or negative aspects and showing them in a more beautiful way is very much my philosophy. Scars are more beautiful than perfect skin because it tells a story and has uniqueness.

You mentioned architects that inspire youlike Alvar Aalto and natural materials tied to where you studiedWhat else inspires you?

⎯⎯⎯ I work a lot and frequently visit art galleries and artists. So that definitely inspires me. The rust is a homage to Richard Serra, and I am very inspired by contemporary art and have studied its history at the Louvre. Another strong inspiration is the research of minerals and alchemy. This study has strong philosophical sources and historical roots in the mystical behind it. I do design, but I could have done something else with the same philosophical research. I just apply my findings to design in my case. Still, I am very interested in global and intellectual concepts. As I mentioned briefly, Aby Warburg is a significant influence because he broke the boundaries of the chronological reading of art history. He was as interested in anonymous work as he was in historical masterpieces. Instead, in traditional interior design, one of my big influences is Jean-Michel Frank. In his 20s and 30s, he worked for billionaires like Marie Laure De Noailles or Givenchy. With his designs, he was breaking every classical code, redefining the parquet, removing the moulding and creating space that was super stiff and dry for the first time. He is the one who brought the material Mica, the same one I am using in my glass works, which at that time was solely used in industrial applications; he brought it to a decorative level. I think he was a punk at his time, which is what I am trying to do today. I don’t connect with decorators of my age. We are all millennials that are into the nostalgia of that time. What is important to ask is what Jean-Michel Frank would do in 2022. Not what did he do a century ago, but what would happen today?

How can designers break from the past and create for today?

⎯⎯⎯ Of course, it is important to study, you can do a tried and true interior and be a good student, or you can try something that is a big risk, even with objects. Sometimes it works out, sometimes a bit less. You have to just accept that some projects are better than others, but at least you tried to do something new. I see on many social networks today that there is a lot of nostalgia, and in fashion, it has always been this way, and we post things like souvenirs from childhood. I don’t understand why people my age would collect 40s and 50s designs. Of course, it is beautiful, but it’s for another generation of designers. I think we are always nostalgic for our childhood. Mine was in the 80s and 90s, so I collect that era of vintage and have always promoted it in my interiors. So to design for today, I think it is important to try something new, even if it’s difficult! Creating work that has already been accepted or elaborating on something already being worked on is super easy and safe.

So to be radicalbreak the rules and take a risk!

⎯⎯⎯ Yeah! Only brave or advanced clients and collectors support you in the beginning. Then the followers will come after. If you do something already worked on by an architect or of another era, it will sell. It has already been stamped as a guarantee. I prefer to experiment and try to show what’s in the air right now, even if it has not been guaranteed as good design.

Also, what today has regarded as the most important and historical designat its launch, was groundbreakingHad they not done what you are saying to do today, those designers would have just carried over the previous era’s style in a cycle reaching up to today..

⎯⎯⎯ I show my clients and older collectors that it is right to go in the new direction. I constantly promote my generation in what I collect and support their work by including them in interior projects I design.

East Room is a shared workspace company providing design-forward office solutions, authentic programming and a diverse community to established companies and enterprising freelancers. We explore art, design, music, and entrepreneurship. Visit our news & stories page to read more.