A visit to the Atelier Petit H Hermès in Pantin – then in Paris, in Rue de Sèvres, in the iconic boutique. Between the craftsmanship and the oniric adventism of the maison
Quand je serai, grand je veux rester Petit, are the words in large characters on a poster jam-packed with signatures and mottos, wishes and a host of different thoughts. We are in the atelier Petit H Hermès of Pantin, an anonymous industrial suburb of Paris that is famous for becoming, in recent years, the place in which certain huge abandoned factories, are now the decentralized venues of the greatest galleries of contemporary art of the French capital. This poster is somewhat symbolic of a true revolution, proof of a successful wager that is now working its way into the future.We are at Hermès, inside a production district of this legendary brand where, despite the apparent almost austere simplicity of the laboratories that await us, the weight and prestige of this myth can be felt very strongly. That this is a world of its own becomes immediately obvious once you have gone through the entrance hall, past security controls and the canteen, where the artisans of Hermès, who weave a timeless and constantly evolving dream, will later eat next to us in a relaxed, intimate atmosphere. The Petit H project was launched in 2010, after being contemplated for at least five years. It was conceived and strongly desired by Pascale Mussard, a member of the sixth generation of the Hermès family. Pascale, with her mediumistic charm, masterly elegance and absolute discretion, is a person with far-reaching intuition, totally dedicated to research, with sharp capacity to read creativity in her very own way.
An incredible cocktail of passion and freedom, imagination and rigor. As Pascale likes to underline, from a very young age she tried to experiment, understand and go beyond prejudice and superficial barriers. ‘I had a real habit of destroying my toys,’ says Pascale Mussard with a cheerful smile, ‘to see how they were made and what was inside. I was always stubbornly curious, something that has remained inside me, a sort of vocation, an uncontrollable impulse even in my adult years. My underlying idea for Petit H was the objective to create unique and original objects, starting with what I like to define ‘dormant’ or ‘orphaned’ materials. I’m referring to end-of-series fabrics, leathers and furs, the silks printed with the famous carré for example, items that are already finished and are at times discarded even due to extremely trivial matters, from the draconian screening of our quality control, buttons, clamps, locks, padlocks and bag handles, pieces and fragments of ceramic, parts in wood or metal, excess stock, models that are non-compliant and prototypes that have never taken off – all forming a varied and quivering universe of remnants and colors that are discordant yet precious, from the different departments and processes. It is a mine, a mosaic from which other things can be extracted, to define contours and tasteful apologues never seen before.’
‘At Hermès, we have the world’s most skilled workers, a small army of superb artisans with years of experience and wisdom, patient and virtuous commitment. I have told them clearly that if they had followed me, they would have done something totally innovative and amazing. I wanted to bring together and give a fresh impetus to the value of this tradition, to the centuries-old experience and the masterful use of materials that has distinguished our Maison from the very beginning. My aim was to achieve an imaginary leap, ideally by uniting the highest artisan value, the re-interpretation of objects and well-established techniques and the strong and even rebellious contribution of artists and designers. My approach seemed almost heretical at the beginning. I had been contemplating this topic for a long time,’ adds Pascale, ‘trying to open and develop a path that had never been taken by Hermès until then. After all, I thought, one of our forefathers, Emile Hermès, an ardent collector, cosmopolitan traveler and futuristic spirit, had not hesitated, in the early 20th century, to obtain the patent for the zip fastener in Canada, realizing the radical magnitude of change from every possible viewpoint to the growing manufacturing industry.’ On the wall above Pascale Mussard’s desk, which is overflowing with the most diverse objects, cut-outs, fabrics, oddities and contraptions, photos, letters, drawings and other things in the Pantin laboratory-atelier that is fully dedicated to Petit H, there is a photograph of the Renaissance church of Santa Maria dei Miracoli of Venice. ‘It was sent to me by the Morseletto sisters from Vicenza, Deborah and Sara, who now represent a family tradition dating back to the early twentieth century, which harbors the secrets of the processing of Vicenza stone and Venetian ‘terrace’ floors. Together with them, we created very evocative jewelry using this ancestral technique. It is strange how this magnificent church built by Pietro Lombardo in the eighth decade of the fifteenth century, is extremely connected to my adventure of Petit H. Sara and Deborah could not know this at the time, but my uncle Jérôme, to whom I had revealed my doubts and hesitations before proposing this project to the family, had given me a postcard depicting that church to cheer me up, urging me to go to Venice as soon as possible to visit the it. It was a sort of revelation.”
‘The terrace floor of the Marian temple suddenly became the schematic layout of my thoughts. The Venetian terrace is an organic and harmonious composition of casual remnants, including Hermès buttons in mother-of-pearl and metallic components, such as small padlocks, keys of bags, and parts of buckles. An expanse of mineral and vegetable elements, various types of shell, a ratatouille of colored marble and oriental porphyry, mosaic tiles in glass, sand and flakes of mother-of-pearl, finished with pigments and oil. The Miracoli church was the leitmotiv of this project. I wasn’t able to quibble and I asked for at least one test to be carried out. The rest is all here, a continuous movement of perpetual overtaking. And to think that I’m not even catholic but protestant.’Pascale Mussard selected each of the artisans who work at her side from the top workers in the Maison. She knows them all perfectly well, just as she knows everything about their professional and personal background. The recruitment of the artists and designers involved in this creative journey, however, were brought together in totally different and varied ways. They include old acquaintances and new discoveries, recommendations from exhibitions and schools such as Parsons, from galleries, art dealers and friends. There is also no lack of unknown young people, beginners who have made their way by sending letters and portfolios, or even contacting the Creative Director by sending short emails that evidently awakened her curiosity, an eclectic bunch of people with different characters. Others included names such as Christian Astuguevieille, Stefania di Petrillo, François Azambourg, Stephane Parmentier, Marc Novello, Gilles Jonemann, and Isabelle de Borchgrave. At the Pantin workshop, there are boxes closed with lids bearing the word ‘Reservé’, next to the signature of the person who has managed to obtain the most suitable loot for his/her vision, rummaging through the left-over treasures that have reached here from each production sector of Hermès.The containers are lined up on shelves: These precious, selected leftovers will come out of the containers totally revamped, an endless array of different objects for new uses. Jewellery, furniture, lamps, stools, fantastic stuffed animal toys, such as the huge, very sweet teddy bear made of leather that exudes pop luxury and was made to order by maître Frédéric, who has just finished it and takes out a large crate ready for shipment. The cabinet with a vaguely Mollinian dancing silhouette, inspired by a glass cabinet structure used in the Boutique of Brussels. ‘The greatest value lies in this integrity,” explains Pascale Mussard. ‘I am pleased that this palpable and explicative platform is able to inspire and give shape to different ways of looking at things and reflecting on time. Imperfection and fragments are incomplete elements that are transformed into an outburst of beauty, as if in an alchemical metamorphosis. Beauty that is never predictable but obtained by gambling.’
Surreal birds have been made using old pans, oven trays and kitchen utensils by Julio Villani, a Brazilian artist who spends part of his time in Paris and Madame Mussard met only recently, immediately offering him the chance to expose his works in the shop windows in rue de Sèvres. Since 2013, this has been the only permanent address of Petit H, in the initial part of the large Hermès boutique that over-looks this main street of Paris. On the other hand, the Petit H program was intentionally designed with a touring, ephemeral soul, which independently decides to take it for short displays, never the same, in the Hermès flagship stores all around the world. On average, they last around two weeks. It arrived on 30 March in Rome, in what was the brand’s historic store at 67, via dei Condotti, and is now used exclusively for exhibitions, events and special installations, following the opening of the new and large flagship store at 23-27 via Bocca di Leone. It will stay there for a record time of around three months, with its zealous collection of objets uniques and magnificent and desirable one-shot provocations, which almost reinforce the deep bond between the Eternal City and the French Maison. “Petit H,” concludes Pascale Mussard, ‘feeds on enthusiasm, the quest for poetic and undefinable implications. To be a part of this, you have to have a wandering eye, be receptive to novelties and never blasé.’ She smiles again and whispers: ‘I hate people who are blasé.’