Charles Kalpakian // Where East meets West
Charles Kalpakian learned from the masters before spreading his wings and venturing out on his own. He has just created a series of three boxes for Habitat with a design inspired by faraway cultures. Born in Lebanon of Armenian origin and brought up in France, Charles Kalpakian likes to describe himself as a 'Mobile Designer'. His designs are a wonderful fusion of eastern influences with a resolutely modern western take.
What's your background?
After I obtained my diploma in Product Design, I did an internship at the Ora-ïto agency, then worked as a creative assistant for Le Berre and Guillois architects, I also collaborated with Frédéric Ruyant, Chafik Design and Venise Workshop. I was then given the opportunity to manage a team at the Christophe Pillet agency, which allowed me to gain solid experience in interior design and architecture. Three years ago, I decided to set up on my own and created Studio Hellokarl. Meeting Béatrice Saint Laurent, founder of Galerie BSL in Paris, was also key to helping me establish my own style.
How would you describe yourself as a designer on today's design scene?
I like to describe myself as a mobile designer as I don't see myself purely as a product designer. I come from the culture of street art and my work incorporates elements of both graphic and set design. The cinema really inspires me. And my Lebanese and Armenia origins guide me in all sorts of historical and cultural projects. Everything is open to interpretation; nothing is set in stone. It's also important for my own development to work with others, just as it is to take a step back in order to create something new.
Your creations fuse East and West, what is the basis of your designs?
My roots, which make me who I am. My grandfather was a cabinetmaker in Lebanon. He made furniture for churches and I still have his drawings and tools. And my father, who was a graphic artist. So, thanks to this legacy, I want to emphasise craftsmanship, the arts and industrial savoir-faire. I like reinterpreting the past and bringing it up-to-date, mixing techniques and disciplines and exploring the use of different materials and above all colour. For example, using iconic patterns traditionally used in marquetry and associated with the history and geography of Lebanon, such as the Cedar of Lebanon, but filtered through urban and contemporary culture.
What was the inspiration for the boxes you designed for Habitat?
I was asked to design accessories that could be placed on a table in an entrance hall, for example. I chose to make boxes as I like the idea that these containers have multiple uses and that their function is to house things - maybe secret things! They are also a nod to my eastern culture, where it is customary to welcome guests with tea and sweets arranged in a box. I opted for an octagonal shape, which I then softened. I also chose to use lacquered wood to break with tradition. Brought up to date, the boxes come in three different sizes and colours. Sober and contemporary, the black acts as a counterpoint to the eastern connection. The yellow represents the brilliance of the sun, while the powder pink evokes femininity - a place to keep jewellery perhaps.
If you were asked to design another piece for Habitat, what would you choose?
Rather than an object, I would create a massive public art installation (in Place de la République for example!) whose aim would be to decipher the creative design and product manufacturing process. Design involves a wide range of expertise but at its heart are the men and women who work in the design studios, the workshops and factories - all contributing in their own way. I have a lot of respect for this human chain and I'd like the general public to understand how it works; to explain the human involvement in the creation of a beautiful object - whatever that may be.
What are your views on design today?
I am interested in culture and savoir-faire and the role of human beings in this process. For me, design has a social aspect in the sense that it is useful to society by encouraging creativity in all areas. But it's also a cultural marker that acts as a driving force. I think that creativity is a source of renewal and inspiration for us all. You only have to look at what the Egyptians left! If there is no foundation or basis then there is no creation; Habitat draws on what has gone before to come up with new well-thought-out designs resulting in beautifully finished yet accessible products.
What are you up to now?
Since 2011, I have been involved in product design, creating lights, furniture, tableware, packaging, logos, posters, re-releases (a range of lights by the post-war designer B.Schottlander), set design in collaboration with Darenart, Pierre Gagnaire, La Chance, Galerie BSL, Omikron Design and the publishing company DCW… And on the horizon, suspended lamps for Nemo Cassina and a self-produced armchair, which I will be exhibiting in my studio soon. I'm also interested in materials and weaving. So I'm focusing on felt, carbon, wool, leather and so on. Today, it's important to have time to experiment, design and reinterpret in order to provide added value and not seek to replicate what has been done in the past, even though today we tend to consider that the epitome of design belongs to the 30s, 40s and 50s. To drive things forward, even change the role of the designer in our society - that's my goal!