Artist Alexandre Benjamin Navet on How He Redesigned Every Major Van Cleef & Arpels Boutique in the World

The artist says he hopes visitors to the stores feel like they are "walking through my sketchbook."

Alexandre Benjamin Navet. Photo courtesy Van Cleef & Arpels.

Collaborations between artists and luxury brands have become par for the course in the past few years, with brands regularly tapping artists to guest-design capsule collections, accessories, and runway sets.

But rarely does a major house lend all of its international boutique space—from windows and interior walls, to floors, ceilings, and shop facades—in every one of its major locations to one artist to fill with original artworks.

Yet last year, the French luxury jewelry house Van Cleef & Arpels did just that when it commissioned the Paris-based artist Alexandre Benjamin Navet—whose multidisciplinary practice spans textiles, oil pastel drawings, and watercolors, and whose colorful trompe l’oeil works are full of humor and kinetic joy—to create works celebrating the house’s historical connection to flora.

From now through the end of the year, the brand’s flagship shops around the world, from New York and Paris to Moscow and Tokyo, will showcase Navet’s colorful “takeovers,” which include hand-drawn bouquets of flowers, living room furniture, and sprawling geometrical patterns.

Navet spoke with Artnet News about the origins of the collaboration, how he worked with Van Cleef & Arpels to realize his vision, and what’s he’s working on next.

A window display by Alexandre Benjamin Navet. Photo courtesy Ricky Zehavi.

A window display by Alexandre Benjamin Navet. Photo courtesy Ricky Zehavi.

Tell us about how the collaboration happened. Who approached whom?

The first time I met the team at Van Cleef & Arpels was during the 2017 Design Parade Toulon [interior design festival] in the south of France, which was sponsored by the brand. I won the Grand Prize that year, and so that was the first time that they became aware of me. 

Then last year, they contacted me to discuss a potential collaboration, which was really amazing and a big opportunity for me to get out of my comfort zone and think about new topics, especially flora, which is a theme they’re really thinking about this year. I’d never done a collaboration of this scale before. 

It is a pretty big opportunity, scale-wise. I think generally, when you think of the ways in which brands collaborate with artists, it’s usually for something smaller in size. What did you think when they told you you’d be installing work in virtually every major boutique of theirs?

You know, the idea really grew over time and was all about dialogue. During the first conversation, we weren’t envisioning anything this big. But over time, we came up with all kinds of ideas and experimented with different scales, from just the interior design, to the windows, or just the facades of the stores, to create interesting entrances. I didn’t realize it would become something like this and maybe that’s for the better [laughs].

It grew as we were talking about it, which continued over the course of the year, and I’m really happy, too, that new people from the design world want to engage with the work, which is an audience that I probably couldn’t have engaged with otherwise. New ideas sort of came to me every week during the planning, and Van Cleef was so great about that. 

Inside Van Cleef & Arpels New York. Photo courtesy Ricky Zehavi.

Inside Van Cleef & Arpels New York. Photo courtesy Ricky Zehavi.

You mentioned that the house is thinking a lot about flora this year. Can you tell me a bit about what your initial inspirations were and how you translated that idea into your plans?

The real themes centered on spring and color in that first conversation. That was really inspiring for me, in part because I had access to the brand’s archives and saw how they interpreted and played with those ideas in really creative ways. I did a lot of research on the house’s history and their link to flowers. So I presented a big sketchbook to them that was full of drawings inspired by archival imagery and visits to the Louvre, where I took inspiration from Florentine and French artists’ depictions of flowers in particular.

They saw how I was using color and the flowers I created—many of which were imaginary—and there was a lot of synergy there because they have the same passion that I do for made-up worlds and poetic language and dreaming. We thought it would be more interesting to explore something spontaneous and not necessarily always faithful to real flowers, but something more dreamy and diverse. 

How and where did you create this work?

I worked on it in my studio. Each original artwork is especially made for the place or the city it’s in, and the best part about this collaboration was having the time to produce original artworks, and to think about dedicated design in every boutique. I have a general range of color, but I adapted my palette to every boutique in a unique way and that was kind of cool. I did extensive research on flowers and now have a great collection of rare books on flora and plants, though of course I’m no botanical expert [laughs]. But those also helped immensely. They’re all pastel works on paper. 

Photo courtesy Ricky Zehavi.

Photo courtesy Ricky Zehavi.

So each piece in every boutique is different and original?

Absolutely. That’s what’s so exciting. And I think it sort of connects back to the fact that live flowers all over the world are of course different, so we didn’t want to reproduce the same ideas in different stores because it wouldn’t make sense. We did fresh flowers for every place and city, based on its culture. 

What was your favorite part of doing all this?

I think realizing the final results after working on this for a while. I really love when I can experience my drawings in real life and it’s great to see what you’ve been working on privately out in the real world and to be able to share it with the public. Of course, I love to draw and create, but to give the work to other people I think means more. 

More of Navet's Work at Van Cleef New York. Photo courtesy Ricky Zehavi.

More of Navet’s Work at Van Cleef & Arpels New York. Photo courtesy Ricky Zehavi.

What are you hoping people will see and feel?

I hope they feel like they’re walking through my sketchbook. I hope they feel inspired and optimistic. I’m grateful I had the opportunity to fill an imposing and solemn space like a Van Cleef & Arpels boutique with all this color. My hope is that it creates unexpected joy and emotion. 

What did you learn from this collaboration?

That it’s hard to reinvent myself and not be derivative. I still have a lot of energy and ideas. I learned the floral territory is really infinite, so that’s interesting. And I also learned a lot more about working with a team, because often as an artist, it’s more of a solitary experience.  

What was the most challenging aspect?

I think realizing the idea in practice, and making sure the project looked like what we were all envisioning in our minds and then communicating that message to the public. I wouldn’t call that difficult per se, but it’s important, so there’s pressure. 

A staircase adorned with original works by Navet. Photo courtesy Ricky Zehavi.

A staircase adorned with original works by Navet. Photo courtesy Ricky Zehavi.

What’s next for you?

There are a few projects I’m working on. I made a giant fresco on the facade of Toulouse’s Hotel des Arts. I love working in that format because the public gets to see everything.

I also have an exhibition in Paris at the Galerie Derouillon. The exhibition is called “July,” the work for which I made during that month. And recently, I found out that one of my drawings will be shown at an exhibition at the Museum of Art and Design in New York next month. That exhibition is going to be about how artists in Paris and around the world work in special situations, so it’ll be a dialogue with pieces by various artists and designers, and I’m really looking forward to that.

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