Public courtyards are a place of perpetual motion, with pedestrian foot traffic carving invisible arcs between points of interest. But they can also offer a well-timed rest, as illustrated by designer Sabine Marcelis’s new permanent installation in London’s St. Giles Square. The low-slung seating has all the solidity of the surrounding buildings; each chair comprises two rectilinear slabs of contrasting stone (travertine, granite, richly veined marble), stacked one atop the other. But a swivel feature reflects the fluid dynamics of their setting, allowing the sitter to pivot into a conversation or face the warmth of the sun. The result is handsome and straightforward—a purist’s kind of luxury.
“I like to make sort of singular, strong gestures: simplicity and efficiency within material use, using minimal resources for maximum effect,” says the New Zealand native, speaking earlier this year in a suite at Zurich’s Dolder Grand hotel. A platinum blonde in her mid-30s, she is dressed in all white, like a chef aiming to keep her palate free from distracting flavors, or a painter working in an empty room. It’s a fitting strategy for a designer whose series of resin pieces—polished (Candy) or opaque (Soap)—come in finely tuned shades like ice lavender, honey, and seafoam green. Here, though, the color at the center of conversation is an elemental blue: the calling card of La Prairie, as seen in this fall’s new extrait, Skin Caviar Harmony.
Earlier this year, the Swiss beauty brand tapped Marcelis to help guide five emerging artists—Jasmine Deporta, Kristin Chan, Talia Golchin, Gloria Fan Duan, and Lauren Januhowski—through a project known as the Women Bauhaus Collective. As the name suggests, seeds of inspiration came from the German art school that operated during the interwar years: a nexus of luminaries (including Mies van der Rohe, Josef and Anni Albers, and Marcel Breuer) where the curriculum integrated traditional craft, aesthetic theory, and modernism. With a nod to that spirit, La Prairie commissioned the chosen five to create a new work investigating notions of harmony. The group visited the Bauhaus for a historical immersion, building upon their own respective studies. A virtual exhibition—our generation’s technological leap—was the primary goal; Fan Duan, for one, filtered Anni Albers’s knot paintings and East Asian textile tradition through the lens of sculptural 3D design. And for a hands-on corollary, Marcelis opened up her Rotterdam studio, where the collective made small-scale pieces that were shown at this year’s Art Basel. “That was interesting, to see how a work could evolve from physical to digital and physical again,” says Marcelis of the exercise in translation. As for her contribution, the designer created tall glass pedestals in a gradation of twilight blue, to show off the sculptures. “I’m really supporting them!” Marcelis adds with a laugh.
To talk about beauty is often to speak in metaphor—and with La Prairie, whose art-world projects include the restoration of Mondrian paintings at the Fondation Beyeler and collaborations with Max Richter and Maotik, it’s especially true. The Women Bauhaus Collective is about one means of interconnected support. The new Skin Caviar Harmony L’Extrait is another, designed to firm and strengthen the skin’s underlying buttresses. It continues the probe into that peak-of-luxury miracle food, which migrated from big-hair cocktail parties to La Prairie skin care in 1987. “The whole world knew that caviar was very nutritious,” says Dr. Jacqueline Hill, director of strategic innovation and science, “so it made sense that it might be good when you applied topically.” The brand’s research bore that out, paving the way for a range of collagen-boosting products. Now, with the translucent extrait, a proprietary Caviar Infinite complex takes aim at the skin ligaments, says Hill, who puts it in arboreal terms: “What we saw is that some ingredients work on the elements of the branches and the trunk; others on these twig-like elements.” Where harmony comes into play is in the maintenance of facial proportions, as the Greeks and others have laid out. “With age, the balance of renewal versus destruction tends to go wonky,” Hill says, rather cheerfully. Skin Caviar Harmony endeavors to straighten things out.
Marcelis sees a kinship with La Prairie’s straightforward mission. “My work is very much about material science,” she says, “and I think they’re pushing the limits within their material in a different way.” An example of Marcelis’s preferred “one-note” design is her polished resin Candy Cube, which Germany’s Vitra Design Museum acquired in 2021 in bubble gum pink. Shortly thereafter, director Mateo Kries came to her with a meatier proposition: that she mine the museum’s 7,000-object permanent collection for a year-long installation. Jettisoning chronology and stylistic lineage, she zeroed in on an uncomplicated organizing structure for “Color Rush!” (on view through May 14, 2023), using palette as her guide.
“It’s about color, pure and simple,” says Marcelis, appreciating how the exhibition sidesteps the need for weighty explanation. “Every other meaning of the objects is stripped from them, so you get these interesting new juxtapositions.” She points out the highly varied tones in the green section—a reflection, she surmises, of nature’s breadth of inspiration. By contrast, the predominant shade of orange is high-energy and saturated, from Verner Panton’s 1969 Living Tower (with double-decker voids for lounging) to Virgil Abloh’s ceramic cinder block, created with Vitra in 2019. It’s an orange that pulses with life as much as it vies for attention.
What object hews closest to a La Prairie blue? Marcelis suggests it might be Hauke Odendahl’s Union Chair (2019), first made with 28 painted-wood slats to reflect the member states of the European Union. “It’s quite a political chair,” she says, calling it “very honest with just screws”: the sort of piece that could be assembled or, more pointedly, disassembled with surprising ease. After Britain’s formal exit in January 2020, the chair—then on view at Vitra in a show about post–Berlin Wall design—lost a slat. Odendahl’s 2.0 version now features 27 pieces to reflect a changed world. (Even La Prairie’s home country finds itself with new positioning in 2022. Long known for its neutrality in global affairs, Switzerland altered course this spring, imposing sanctions on Russia following the invasion of Ukraine.)