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People to Know: The Artist Couple Making Ceramics on a 19th-Century Farm in Paris

By Alice Cavanagh

The artists Michel and Andrée Hirlet in the tree-filled courtyard at their home and studio in Paris’s 16th Arrondissement.
 
Alfredo Piola
The artists Michel and Andrée Hirlet in the tree-filled courtyard at their home and studio in Paris’s 16th Arrondissement.

The branches of the quince tree hanging over the front gate of the Parisian home of the ceramic artists Michel and Andrée Hirlet heave with knobbly yellow fruit, adding colour to an otherwise grey streetscape. “There were more a few days ago, but we put a note on the gate saying that we are giving out quinces, and now we have the jam the neighbours have made,” Andrée reports, gesturing through the open kitchen door to the glass pots resting on a bench.

The couple’s 16th Arrondissement abode, with its verdant inner courtyard surrounded by light-filled rooms and wide-windowed workshops, has a provincial feel. Indeed, it was built as a city farm in 1830; in the living room, Andrée produces an old floor plan that maps out horse stables, a saddlery and storage space for wine. “When we arrived, it wasn’t in very good condition,” she says. Nevertheless, the couple, both 84, have now lived and made ceramics here for 50 years. Working outside of any wider artistic community or movement, and through intuitive collaboration, they have created a vernacular all their own, experimenting with bold colours and developing a unique approach to form that appears at once ancient and strikingly contemporary.

Alfredo PiolaThe larger of the couple’s two ceramic workshops houses three kilns, including one that Michel constructed himself.
The larger of the couple’s two ceramic workshops houses three kilns, including one that Michel constructed himself.
Alfredo PiolaLeft: In the garden are two imposing ceramic works, including this one which dates to the 1980s. Right: On an upper floor, the Hirlets keep a gallerylike display of their works. “We don’t want to sell everything, we want to keep some for us,” says Andrée.
Left: In the garden are two imposing ceramic works, including this one which dates to the 1980s. Right: On an upper floor, the Hirlets keep a gallerylike display of their works. “We don’t want to sell everything, we want to keep some for us,” says Andrée.

Currently, over 20 of the Hirlets’ pieces are on show at the Dobrinka Salzman Gallery in New York in their first United States exhibition. Much of the work is in their signature style: glazed ceramic sculptures made from interlocking geometric segments that appear to have been puzzled together. This technique, Andrée explains, was born of happenstance: “We started to receive some larger orders and the kiln was too small, so we had to cut them up and assemble them together afterwards.” One brilliant blue, spherical 10-inch-high work bears an angular relief of a face, half concealed, as if disappearing into a different form; another rounded 12-inch-high piece features coloured graphic motifs painted across the two interconnected parts.

Until now, the couple has kept a low international profile, focusing on exhibitions, commissions and public works projects in Europe, such as a labyrinth-like 36-foot-long water fountain in the French town of Saintes and giant hand-shaped public benches for the town of Villepreux, near Versailles. Still, some collectors have managed to find them. “Two years ago, we were part of PAD Paris,” Andrée recalls, referring to the annual art and design fair, “and an American bought one of our works. Who was it?” Sitting opposite, Michel replies: “Peter Marino,” the acclaimed American architect. “He wanted something else similar,” continues Andrée, “but we didn’t have anything left.”

Alfredo PiolaLeft: More recent works on display in the mezzanine gallery. Right: “There is a lot of research for the color — that is the most complicated part,” Andrée says. The process involves writing down an exact recipe of the pigments added to the base glaze.
Left: More recent works on display in the mezzanine gallery. Right: “There is a lot of research for the color — that is the most complicated part,” Andrée says. The process involves writing down an exact recipe of the pigments added to the base glaze.
Alfredo PiolaInside the modeling room is a display of interlocked works that are yet to be glazed. “It is sporty work and the great pleasure is to have a small idea, to do a sketch and then realize it with your hands,” Andrée says of the couple’s practice.
Inside the modeling room is a display of interlocked works that are yet to be glazed. “It is sporty work and the great pleasure is to have a small idea, to do a sketch and then realize it with your hands,” Andrée says of the couple’s practice.

The Hirlets met in 1958 at the École Nationale Supérieure des Arts Appliqués et des Métiers d’Art, a graduate art school housed, at the time, in the building that is now the Picasso Museum. They both had general art backgrounds, but it was the technical, hands-on work of ceramics that captivated them. After they married, they moved into the ramshackle site and began to transform it modestly, starting with the kitchen and later installing two bright bedrooms on the mezzanine above. But they dedicated the majority of the 2,700-square-foot site to their ceramic practice.

On one side of the courtyard is their modelling atelier, where they experiment with smaller works before scaling them up. Some of their earlier models, from the 1960s and 1970s, still sit here on the shelves. “That way we can look at them, blow the dust off them, and they might give us other ideas,” says Andrée. Occupying the entire building across the courtyard is an atelier for glazing and firing, with three kilns. Andrée delights in experimenting with colour, and over the years, their palette has broadened, from grainy earth tones to blues, greens and yellows. Meanwhile, Michel excels at blending the clay itself. “Each time we have a problem in ceramics, we call upon a different language,” he says. “There is a moment you need to be a chemist, mineralogist, geologist.”

Alfredo PiolaThe corner dining table in the couple’s open-plan living room.
The corner dining table in the couple’s open-plan living room.
Alfredo PiolaLeft: A painting by Michel hangs above a fireplace. Right: The Hirlets built the coffee table in their living room in the early 2000s from handmade ceramic tiles. One tile is reversible and can serve as a small vessel for flowers or hors d’oeuvres.
Left: A painting by Michel hangs above a fireplace. Right: The Hirlets built the coffee table in their living room in the early 2000s from handmade ceramic tiles. One tile is reversible and can serve as a small vessel for flowers or hors d’oeuvres.

The proximity of home to studio has its benefits. The Hirlets wake at 7:30 each morning and start work around 10, following an unchanging daily rhythm that includes a break for lunch and afternoon naps. They finish at around 7 in the evening, and when Michel retires after dinner, Andrée sometimes heads back into the studio to see how their coloured glazes have dried and developed.

The couple has always worked this way — together and instinctively, bringing to life each new series side by side. “We don’t talk much about what we are doing,” says Andrée. “But if one person goes into their corner and works on a model, the other might walk past and then go back to their corner and work on a variation of that idea.” Two years ago, the Hirlets, who don’t have children, set up an endowment so that the building will be protected after they are gone. The Andrée and Michel Hirlet Foundation, they hope, will offer an artists’ residency on site, and the small upstairs gallery space, in which they keep a selection of their works, will remain as an archive of their distinctive oeuvre.