Since 2010, Galerie BSL in Paris has been breaking new ground in the world of collectible design with startingly imaginative commissions. In this fantastical place, founder Béatrice Saint-Laurent showcases pieces of furniture that have been transformed into sculptural pieces that elevate them above pragmatic functionality, pushing our understanding of what furniture can be.
A collection of biomorphic mirrors by German artist Pia Maria Raeder are meticulously constructed from thousands of tiny beech wood elements to evoke the beauty of the ocean floor; sculptural furniture pieces by Montreal-based artist and cabinetmaker Gildas Berthelot are realised as imaginary creatures, crafted with breathtaking precision from timber; and Dutch designer Djim Berger has reinvented porcelain to create playfully tactile seating that challenges our perceptions of a conventionally fragile material.
“Design art is about objects that can trigger emotions and create an experience,” says Saint-Laurent. “I want the viewer to be surprised – and for that, the works have to introduce something unexpected into the functional. These functional sculptures belong to the art world because they are questioning and intriguing; there is some mystery. They invite viewers to consider them as more than simply a chair, light, or table.”
Design art is about objects that can trigger emotions and create an experience – Béatrice Saint-Laurent, founder of Galerie BSL
Saint-Laurent grew up with an innate appreciation of design. Her father was an architect and her family founded a renowned contemporary art centre in the Pyrenees in the south of France. She initially studied linguistics at university, then worked in communications for France’s Ministry of Culture and as a partner in a PR agency specialising in visual arts. In 2010, she decided it was time to branch out on her own.
“I had noticed the design field was evolving with a lot of energy and innovation,” she recalls. “There was a new vocabulary developing to describe works that were not only functional but also cultural; and there were fewer design galleries than art galleries. I saw an opportunity.”
Saint-Laurent was particularly interested in the work coming out of the celebrated Eindhoven Design Academy in the Netherlands, which was under the leadership of renowned trend forecaster Li Edelkoort at the time. It was here, at the graduation exhibition, that she found her first two artists – Nacho Carbonell and Djim Berger.
Rather than simply buying existing work to sell onto collectors, Saint-Laurent wanted to contribute to and help shape this rapidly developing movement by commissioning new work. Today, Galerie BSL works hand-in-hand with selected artists and artisans to produce the exclusive one-off or limited-edition pieces, and Saint-Laurent describes the gallery as “a research laboratory”.
It is an apt description given that the work commissioned by Galerie BSL is largely focused on reimagining and reinventing materials to produce new textures and intriguing forms that defy expectations and stereotypes. Much of the work is also concerned with the natural world and how it can be experienced, interpreted and reasserted in new ways, rather than simply copied. Saint-Laurent describes this approach as the “specific DNA” of Galerie BSL, which expresses not only the vision of the artist but also her own vision of the world.
Take Ayala Serfaty’s SOMA series, a cloud-like collection of sculptural lighting which takes its name from the Greek word for the human body. Each piece involves an elaborate process of weaving thinly blown glass which is then sprayed in a clear polymer to create a membrane that also filters the light. “I like it when viewers don’t know what the material is and it creates an effect of wonder,” says Saint-Laurent. “This kind of approach goes beyond the material and evokes emotion.”
I like it when viewers don’t know what the material is and it creates an effect of wonder – Béatrice Saint-Laurent, founder of Galerie BSL
There is no question that some of the pieces exhibited in the ever-evolving gallery space are challenging, both visually and conceptually – which is openly acknowledged by Saint-Laurent. It’s for this reason that she has chosen to forego the conventional ‘white cube’ gallery space for one that is much more welcoming. The large, bright space in rue des Beaux-Arts has a warm and elegant ambience with timber flooring designed by French architect and designer Isabelle Stanislas. It feels more high-end residential than what might be expected in a gallery. “The work is avant-garde and sometimes disturbing,” she explains. “I want visitors to feel like they can actually live with these pieces at home and to feel at ease so they are happy to enjoy the work.”
It is this specific vision that attracts collectors to Galerie BSL’s cutting-edge work. Saint-Laurent’s customers range from interior designers and private collectors to museums and world-renowned commercial brands. While her biggest market is the United States, she has sold work across the world in the UK, France, Russia, Lebanon, the Middle East, and China – and exhibiting at global design fairs, such as PAD Paris, PAD London, Design Miami, Design Basel, and Salon Art + Design in New York is an essential communications tool for this burgeoning market.
“We are the avant-garde of the design market and the challenges we face are completely different from a vintage design gallery,” she reveals. “A vintage dealer has to find rare pieces, the value of which is validated by the market for a long time, whereas we work on the entire chain of life of an object, from creation to production, marketing and sales. We give birth to objects, and we have to finance those pieces and find collectors willing to invest in them.”
Despite these challenges, Saint-Laurent has seen collectible design becoming increasingly popular over the years, as collectors move towards furnishing their homes with work that is just as expressive and challenging as the artwork they display alongside it.
“A strong design-art piece should involve a dialogue between the object and the viewer in some way,” says Saint-Laurent. “The piece is functional but, like an artwork, it should also have soul or personality. Our clients actually want more than an object – they want an experience. And I want to bring something enchanting into their homes, with work that inspires fantasy, poetry, wonder and happiness.”
Effect Magazine is brought to you by The Bruno Effect