Pierre Charpin, Mes Fantômes, special commission for the exhibition Text, 2023, Triennale Milano, courtesy of the artist

Hunting for ‘Ghosts’: An Interview with Pierre Charpin

July 3 2023

Drawing and writing have always gone hand in hand for this French designer. The work commissioned for Text brings these two elements together in the single space of three large sheets, evoking spectres of a peculiar sort: those inhabiting designers' computers.

An artist and designer, Pierre Charpin (Paris, 1962) combines a strong narrative streak nurtured and developed during his years in Milan—where he worked in George Sowden’s studio and absorbed the Memphis by spirit proxy—with a rigorous geometric style inherited from his home country’s tradition, particularly Le Corbusier. His work cuts across all, or almost all, design sectors, from industrially produced furniture to limited editions for galleries and collectors, from glass to ceramics. For the Text exhibition, curated by Marco Sammicheli, he has created Mes Fantômes, a series of three posters that pay homage to the ghosts of projects that were never realized—projects that may have been studied down to the tiniest detail and fussed over before being aborted. Charpin has compared them to the Yūrei of the Japanese tradition, the restless spirits featured in many tales and legends and even celebrated with an annual festival on 26 July. In the garden of Triennale Milano, he told us about the genesis of the work and the way he uses the written word to record memories and sensations.

What was the starting point for this work?

When Marco Sammicheli contacted me and told me about the exhibition, he was mainly interested in the fact that I always write about my work at the end of each project. So it was immediately clear that my work would focus on the relationship between text and image.

What kind of texts do you write?

They are not theoretical texts or explanations, but rather attempts to define with what sensitivity a particular project was approached and how it developed over time. It is a process that rarely unfolds in a straight line: usually there are comings and goings, second thoughts... I also absorb certain elements from the context, often in a way that is not entirely conscious, and they feed into the project. For example, in June last year I presented a collection of tableware and lamps here in Milan (it is called Cadence and consists of 29 pieces, all characterized by a horizontal and vertical striped motif, -ed.). I designed it for the Saint-Louis crystal factory, a long-standing French manufacturer now part of the Hermès group. The factory is located in the east of the country, in the Vosges region, in a small village surrounded by forest. Only at the end of the work did I realize that the environment, together with the manufacturing techniques and the company’s know-how, had somehow influenced the project, and I tried to explain this.

Pierre Charpin, Mes Fantômes, special commission for the exhibition Text, 2023, Triennale Milano, courtesy of the artist

Is this a way of explicitly laying out certain stages that would otherwise remain implicit?

Yes. But writing these texts also allows me to let the project approach its destiny, its life as an object offered to others. Writing is an activity that costs me some effort: it is very important to me, although I am more comfortable with drawing.

At the heart of the work you present in Text are so-called “ghost images”. What are they?

This expression comes from a text I wrote during Covid about a phenomenon that all designers are familiar with, although perhaps not by this name. We begin many projects and, for various reasons, many of them are interrupted at some point. When working with computers and 3D modelling, details have to be defined very precisely at an early stage. Even though, as far as my studio is concerned, we do not have a hyperrealist rendering culture, we deal with images that are already very realistic—with things that look real but are not. In the text, I compare these to the ghosts in the folklore of Japan, a country I love and which, like Italy, I consider somewhat of a second home.

Being immaterial, “ghost images” tend to disappear in the meanders of computers’ memory, only to suddenly reappear when research is carried out to study technical or formal solutions already used for previous projects.

So you decided to “summon” some of these ghosts.

Exactly. Talking with Marco, the plan slowly took shape to superimpose the text I had written in French and its translation into English and Italian on three images from projects that have not been realized and certainly never will be. We chose renderings connected to three different projects, without specifying for what company or gallery they had been created or when, because such information was not important in the context.

Could you tell us more anyway?

One of the three projects, the chair, was part of a research I had begun for Galerie kreo in Paris, a collection of carbon fibre furniture. Another project was carried out for the Italian company Magis. Another reason we chose to superimpose the texts upon the images, however, was to avoid making them too readable, reinforcing the idea that they are ghosts in a way.

Pierre Charpin, Mes Fantômes, special commission for the exhibition Text, 2023, Triennale Milano, courtesy of the artist

Milan was very important for your training. Here you had the opportunity to work with designers who had joined the Memphis adventure, such as George Sowden, and to meet great masters like Sottsass and Mendini. They too used to write a lot…

For me, the textual aspect has always been part of design. I trained at the Academy of Fine Arts, so design was not an obvious choice for me: a decisive factor was the discovery of Italian design through magazines like Domus and Modo. In Alchimia and Memphis I found an energy similar to what I had found in the English music of those years. When visiting Milan, I would take the opportunity to buy books: one that proved particularly important to me was Alessandro Mendini’s Progetto infelice (RDE, Ricerche Design Editrice, Corsico, 1983); another was Ettore Sottsass’ scrapbook with a yellow cover (Sottsass. Scrap-Book. Disegni e note, Grafiche Milani, Segrate, 1976). I spoke little Italian at the time, but I translated the texts of these books as best I could, because I was interested in understanding the spirit of their work. I did not, however, completely abandon my interest in art and the practice of drawing as such—that is, for its own sake, rather than as a stage in a project.

You also worked with Mendini on the design of a fundamental exhibition he curated, Quali cose siamo (2010), right here at the Triennale.

When Alessandro suggested I become involved in this exhibition, I felt honoured, because he was a wonderful person. I still remember this as one of the most intense design experiences of my life, not least because in two months I had to get around 800 objects into the museum, ranging from a ring to a car. It was also wonderful to work with him because he had something to say about each of these things: whether it was personal stories or anecdotes, they were all very “inhabited”.

Quali cose siamo, installation view, 2010, photo Giovanni Chiaramonte

Quali cose siamo, installation view, 2010, photo Giovanni Chiaramonte

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