de Virieu: Hermès makes useful objects that put a smile on your face

SINGAPORE (Jan 23): In 2010, Pascale Mussard, the sixth generation of the Hermès family, founded a workshop where discarded materials from the French luxury house’s métiers are saved and turned into new objects. In 2018, she passed the baton to Godefroy de Virieu, who is the current artistic director of petit h.

petit h, a creation in reverse features reinterpreted objects such as leather pendants, mushroom paperweight, fish-shaped bags and silk necklaces

Late last year, the petit h collection was shown in an exhibition in Singapore. Featuring reinterpreted objects such as leather pendants, mushroom paperweight, fishshaped bags and silk necklaces, petit h, a creation in reverse is all about showcasing the playful part of what the talented craftsmen at Hermès can do with pieces of discarded materials such as leather, silk, crystal, porcelain, horsehair and metal. To Hermès, creation begins in reverse because it originates not from a preconceived idea—craftsmen combine, adjust and assemble these pieces individually to give them a new lease of life.


The concept for the Singapore exhibition was created by Singaporean designer Olivia Lee. de Virieu explains, “What I love about my meeting with Olivia [Lee] was the way she tells stories. She spoke so well about petit h, even better than me, so I was really impressed. I love how she interprets things. She sent me little drawings, much like a children’s book.”

In Lee’s book, she illustrates an astronaut discovering an incredible planet, h. The astronaut lands on the planet—a metaphor for Hermès—and picks up materials to work on. He then starts to invent beautiful objects in his laboratory. de Virieu likens the space where petit h work is done to that of a science laboratory. A parallel can also be drawn between Singapore and the use of our limited resources, and the way the astronaut has a small space and makes good use of it.

de Virieu graduated from the Ecole Nationale Supérieure de Création Industrielle (ENSCI) in 1998. He started his career by collaborating with his classmate and friend, renowned photographer Rip Hopkins, where “watch, listen and observe” is key when it comes to the design process, something that de Virieu still practices today.

In Singapore for the opening of petit h, a creation in reverse, the Frenchman made time in his busy schedule to have a chat with Options.

FROM YOUR EXPERIENCE WITH PHOTOGRAPHER RIP HOPKINS, DO YOU STILL WATCH, LISTEN AND OBSERVE FIRST BEFORE YOU BEGIN YOUR DESIGN PROCESS?
This is the starting point of anything: to observe and to look carefully at what’s going on. I love to meet craftsmen in their factories. This is what I used to do with my partner Rip [Hopkins] when I used to work with him. This is actually the way we start to design things instead of waiting for specifications.

After our student days, we visited places around Paris just to observe products and the materials used. As designers, we think about the usefulness of a product. We think about how to make the best use of it while keeping its identity, but at the same time, to try to find new solutions for the product.

SO FOR EXAMPLE, THE USE OF THE SADDLE—YOU RETAIN SOME OF ITS ORIGINAL SPIRIT?
We always want to keep the original and link that to a creative process. When I started in 2000, it was very much linked to the process—and it is something related to the principle of petit h’s creative process.

But what I like is to meet people; besides the craftsmen, I like to meet [those] who own factories, especially if they have been in the family from generation to generation. We look at the tools they use and we see if we can use them too with some modifications.

We start from the technical points and look at it with the creative eye of a designer. Then we work with the craftsmen to come up with something. We speak to the craftsmen and ask ‘Is it possible to do it this way instead of doing it that way?’ He would say, ‘Oh I never thought about it that way, yes let’s try it.’ If it works, we go forward to explore new product ideas.

At petit h, this is something that we do a lot because we are at the forefront of the design process. We assemble things that have never been assembled before to find solutions. It is very interesting to see this meeting between creativity and knowhow, and how it ends in ideas.

WHAT IS THE STORY THAT PETIT H IS TELLING?
This is the state of mind that Hermès always had since 1837 because they have always sought products that can be repaired by using the best quality material. This was probably the starting point of sustainability for us. If you know how to repair a product, you don’t have to produce too much in the first place. You produce once, and you keep it for life. This is what Hermès is known for.

Pascale [Mussard] told me this story about her great-uncle at the Faubourg Saint-Honoré store… She saw her great-uncle take a piece of unused leather out of the trash, and with it he made a wallet. He started making the wallet at 10am and finished it by noon, and he placed it in the store to see if it would sell. And it was sold, so they decided to put it into production. This is probably the starting point for petit h.

Hermès is really close to its customers because they find ideas to play with [for] the products. There is a connection when you look at something at Hermès... There is a sense of humour that creates a link between the customers and the maison. Hermès is here to tell stories and to make customers dream.

WHAT INSPIRES YOU?
Daily life inspires me. I like very simple things. I like to take walks. I like to go to the market. I like to see how people live. When I travel, I will try to visit a hardware store because in a hardware store you see how the local people live. This is one thing I love to do.

I am very interested in objects, in the way they use it in the same way Hermès does. This is why I love the company because Hermès never produces decorative things; they always create useful things—since the beginning of time, such as the saddle.

WHO INSPIRES YOU?
My daughters, aged 11 and 13. They were little when I started working for petit h, and they sometimes offer ideas.
My daughter wanted a swing and she asked me to make one. To make the swing, I went to an equestrian store in my countryside house in Burgundy and I found a pair of stirrups. In my wood workshop, I did the prototype and it became the petit h swing.

In another example, I asked my daughter for ideas and she said, why don’t you make a jump rope? So, I went to the workshop and we found the materials to do it.

WHAT DO YOU MOST LIKE ABOUT WORKING FOR PETIT H?
It is a dream project. I have all these beautiful materials and the best skilled craftsmen of Hermès to work with. In the petit h team, there is a guy who asks all the departments to give him materials they don’t use. He shows me what he has and this is the starting point of petit h.

WHEN YOU SAW THE PHRASE ‘A CREATION IN REVERSE’, WHAT WAS YOUR INITIAL REACTION?
We need to explain to people that we are not just doing upcycling because this is not a marketing or communication point that we want to push. We need to define what petit h is. It all starts with the team and the theme. Because we reuse the material, it is a joyful way to speak about Hermès. ‘A creation in reverse’ needs to be seen when you look at the product. I love how people look at the petit h objects and smile. They smile because they understand it. For example, this guy came up with this idea for the salt and pepper shaker. He asked the craftsman to make the hole at the top here [using a button]. So, when a Hermès customer looks at it, they will know that the button is from the ready-to-wear collection. Hermès makes useful objects that put a smile on your face. It says so much about petit h.

YOU WORK CLOSELY WITH YOUR WIFE, HOW DO YOU COMPLEMENT EACH OTHER?
We both love creating. She is more focused on colours while I am more focused on structure. When we build things together, I look at it from a technical point of view while she looks at the details. This is the way we work for petit h.