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At an Hermès Workshop, Waste Gets a New Lease of Life

By Kames Narayanan

The petit h workshop where materials gathered from the Hermès ateliers are repurposed into objects by a team of designers and artisans.
 
Hermès
The petit h workshop where materials gathered from the Hermès ateliers are repurposed into objects by a team of designers and artisans.

The timeworn adage, “waste not, want not”, is always sound advice, but to make it worthwhile in business takes special dedication. This ethos resonates deeply with Pascale Mussard, the founder of Hermès’s petit h collections — a line-up of whimsical objects birthed from a plethora of materials rendered as waste at the French maison’s ateliers. Inaugurated in 2010, the workshop sees Hermès tapping on a diverse crop of artisans and artists from varying fields to breathe a renewed lease of life into discarded materials that run the gamut from scraps of leather to pieces that have failed the atelier’s stringent quality control checks. 

Unbound by the conventional perimeters of design and subject only to the mentorship of creative director Godefroy de Virieu, the artisans and designers are granted creative carte blanche to bring the objects of their imagination to the touch of reality. The catch-22: a design process that is reverse engineered. Granted the nature of the petit h workshops, designers work within the boundary of a fixed line-up of materials rather than finding a fit for a preconceived idea. 

While the eventual rundown of objects may seem random, a sense of alchemy and wonder is ever-present across the collections throughout the years. The most recent collection making its round around the globe shows off a wide-ranging array that counts pendants, skateboards and a fox mask as a part of its selection. Here, we delve deeper into the collaboration between artisans and designers at Hermès in an email correspondence with Virieu. 

Hermès
 
HermèsClockwise from top left: Amongst the items created at the petit h atelier are a clutch pencil case in lizard and copper braiding; saddle bow chair crafted in crocodile and taurillon calfskin; a fish shaped bag made from clemence bullcalf; and mushroom paperweights in ostrich and clemence bullcalf.
Clockwise from top left: Amongst the items created at the petit h atelier are a clutch pencil case in lizard and copper braiding; saddle bow chair crafted in crocodile and taurillon calfskin; a fish shaped bag made from clemence bullcalf; and mushroom paperweights in ostrich and clemence bullcalf.

KAMES NARAYANAN: What do you think are the novelties of creating in reverse rather than the other way round?

GODEFROY DE VIRIEU: This is the purpose of petit h, it is a laboratory of creation in reverse that means everything starts from the material. All the departments at Hermès give us sleeping materials every day that are remnants of the collections, instead of throwing them away. All these materials become the brick of our workshop and within the workshop, we have the artisans that use these materials to create some new objects by looking at these materials. 

We invite some artists, designers and illustrators to explore the materials, speak with the artisans and later, in a workshop to start thinking about what these materials could be. Instead of starting from product specification to an object, we start from the material and work backwards to the object, so it is a very different way of thinking and creating. 

KN: Do you see any advantages of this approach?

GDV: What is easy for a designer is having a product specification, but when they don’t, they have to create their own. The only way to do so is by using the material but sometimes it is not enough, they’ll need directions and they would want help. Which is my job at petit h now, to help designers, creators, and the creative people to understand them, to direct them, to make an object. 

KN: Tell me more about your role in petit h.

GDV: To facilitate dialogues and discussions. We need to discuss and sometimes, I can tell if they are abit lost because it’s too much [materials]. The artisans and craftsmen have stars in their eyes [while] looking at all the materials as they are very impressed. So, I need to make them feel comfortable by speaking with the craftsman, sharing their ideas, looking at the technical aspects and the point of views of the craftsman as well as, the views of the creative. From there, we develop an object. 

Alchemy is very important in this project. Sometimes the artisans and craftsmen don’t say anything, but they get it, sometimes you look at them and they don’t say anything; but you can hear what they don’t say. Now, this is very interesting because there is something very intriguing in the eye, in the way they move and the way they touch things. You can see if someone would be good in the project or if he needs to be more challenged. 

HermèsArtistic director Godefroy de Virieu at the petit h workshop.
Artistic director Godefroy de Virieu at the petit h workshop.

KN: What would you say is the intent of the petit h collections? 

GDV: I think the real value of petit h is to consider that unused material still has something to say when one knows how to look at it. It is to show people that with creativity and technical know-how, we can recreate objects with leftover materials and existing resources. It is to prompt a shift in the state of mind; but the important thing is for Hermès to create a creative solution to its problems and turning it around as an opportunity for creation. One can think of Hermès as alphabets that are used to form words. You take some of these words and create a new sentence with an object to create new meaning. It is still Hermès in the object but in a rather abstract way of thinking — more as something that still gives you emotions, that speaks to you. 

KN: What are some of the things that you consider when you curate the list of artists to work with?

GDV: I was thinking about that and especially for petit h, what I am really looking for is people who bring emotions into their products. That’s why I have recently started working with some illustrators, people who are not used to making objects. Yet, through the way that they draw, they bring something to the table that impresses me emotionally. And I’m thinking that if they know how to do it with just drawing they can do it with an object and this is very interesting for me because that’s also what petit h want to explore. We don’t only want to work with designers, why not, one day... we [can] work with a comedian, a singer, with a philosopher, these people can have some ideas. 

In Singapore, the travelling ‘petit h: A Creation in Reverse’ installation opens to the public at Hermès Liat Towers, 540 Orchard Road, from 22 November 2019 till 15 December 2019. petit h workshops are open to the public. Reserve a slot here.