How Mr Rick Owens Tunes Out The Noise
Furniture by Mr Rick Owens
MR PORTER takes an exclusive peek inside the iconic designer’s “Futurist Superman’s castle” in Venice.
It is 4 July on the Lido, in Venice, Italy, but the great American designer Mr Rick Owens hasn’t given a single thought to Independence Day. “Oh, riiiiiight,” he says, his stone-washed California accent lilting out over the Adriatic. “I forgot all about it.”
And fair enough, since that forgetting – about holidays and the rest – is the direct result of Mr Owens’ own personal sort of independence. As is the apartment he has built for himself here, just down the road from where Mr Thomas Mann’s Gustav von Aschenbach had his Death In Venice. “Though I really hope this doesn’t end with me keeling over on the beach in full make up, hair dye running down my face,” Mr Owens says, deadpan and delighted.
Ritratto se Marinetti by Thayaht, 1935
Mr Owens has been coming to Venice regularly since he moved his manufacturing to Concordia, Italy, more than a decade ago. He might have chosen to acquire a house in Bologna or Modena, both closer to his factory but he has long been enchanted by Venice, because, he says, “it’s the most impractical, magical, legendary city ever”.
Venice, the capital of opulence and license, has of course always drawn the decadents, the grandiose, from Lord Byron on down. And the tiny city-empire that invented the terms quarantine (from quarantina, for the 40 days Venetians made their visitors wait off shore so as to ward off potential bringers of plague), turns out to be an ideal spot to set yourself in a hermitage from fashion as well.
Chair by Mr Eliel Saarinen, 1907
For a while, Mr Owens and his wife Ms Michèle Lamy, both devoted sun-worshipers, were content to stay for long stretches at the Lido’s Excelsior Hotel, mingling with both the well-heeled holidaymakers and the glamorous ghosts of the cafe society who animate the place. “Nijinsky used to dance on this beach,” Mr Owens says, over lunch on the Excelsior terrace. “Diaghilev died in this hotel. I mean, for everybody in the 1920s and 1930s, the periods that I was most interested in, this was the most legendary spot on the planet. And it still has that allure and that history. But not only that, the water is very placid here, I like that. I like the whole cabana/hotel vibe. I like having to get around on boats, and I like that the Olympics of the art world, the Biennale, is five minutes away.” The scale of the village here, and the neighbourliness of the natives, recall his hometown of Porterville, California, he says. “And I love that the Lido is so quiet. There can be a little tinge of melancholy to this place, which I love, too. There aren’t distractions – there aren't night clubs and drugs and pretty people – so that keeps me in a safe space.”
In 2014, while their Paris home was in the midst of renovations, Mr Owens felt like it was time to make his residence in Venice safer still, and a little more permanent. After flirting with a lease on the copper-topped dome suite of the Excelsior, he opted for a penthouse apartment with wide wraparound terraces in a condominium building a few blocks away. To Ms Lamy’s dismay, Mr Owens tore up the 1970s turquoise tile floor to lay down sheets of travertine marble – wall-to-wall marble, floor-to-ceiling marble – save for the walls in the gym which are floor-to-ceiling mirror. The resulting aesthetic Ms Lamy teasingly called “Superman’s castle,” allowing for references to both Mr Christopher Reeve and Mr Friedrich Nietzsche. The 1930s Italian Futurist busts of Mr Benito Mussolini, by Thayaht and Mr Renato Bertelli, are, too, not entirely to her liking.
“The whole Fascist [association] of the heads really disturbs her,” Mr Owens says. “And my explanation is that I’ve always been kind of fascinated by that whole movement because, at the beginning, the Italian Futurist movement was utopian. And, in any kind of any utopian movement, the intentions are always honorable at the beginning, and then they degenerate. But there's something very poignant to me about looking at heads like that. It’s the story of life, of aspiration, and failure and renewal. I think of them as skulls, memento mori, to remind you that all is vanity.”
All is certainly and self-consciously vanity in Mr Owens’s gym, where the double-sided swinging doors of mirrors make for a labyrinthine funhouse effect, “like an acid flashback,” he says gleefully, “opening portals into other worlds.” If, as he suggested in an interview after his most recent menswear show in June, he has been frustrated by any obstacles in implementing his vision, out there, upon the world, in here, and in regards to his body, Mr Owens is in complete control.
At 56, he is in the best shape of his life – superhumanly so, to the point that he calls to mind the emblematic 6ft man who, according to Mr John Berger, functioned as “modular and measure” for all of Le Corbusier’s architecture. Le Corbusier made a mural of this man outside his own slightly severe seaside retreat, Le Cabanon, near where the architect is buried.
And as Mr Owens says, “I have two references that I've always looked at architecturally: Jean-Michel Frank’s interiors and Le Corbusier’s Le Cabanon.” And the aesthetic similarities don’t end there. In his recent retrospective, at the Milano Triennale last winter, for which he constructed a giant worm-y papier-mâché-like sculpture made in part of sand from the Lido, Mr Owens said that he too plans to stay by the sea here for eternity, at a cemetery a few blocks up the road.
Mr Owens has constructed his apartment – and daily regimen – specifically to protect his own purposeful pursuit. “There are not going to be any surprises,” he says. “I know exactly what I’m going to do every day. I get up at 8.00am, and I have coffee in bed with a computer. I go to the beach, order a double espresso, and do my reading, answer emails from the factory. I come here at lunch, then I walk back and take a nap, do the gym, and then get some more work done.” Another apartment on the floor beneath his penthouse functions as atelier, office, and sometimes dormitories for his staff. “And for dinner, I either come back here or make something simple for myself.”
If his schedule and apartment seem a rather rigid scaffolding on which to drape his daily life, Mr Owens doesn’t find it – or his grand, brutalist furniture – to be at all uncomfortable. “I had a very formal vision in mind,” he says. “A very severe formality. But whenever I do that there are huge places to sprawl. People say, ‘The furniture is so severe,’ and I go, ‘Yeah, but I have huge mattresses that you just plop on top.’ So it’s all about reclining.” The black marble toilets, shaped like thrones, he says, “are just about keeping everything kind of supernatural, and being as thorough with an aesthetic as possible.”
And, weirdly, this Superman castle fits very naturally here on the Lido. The travertine is of course very Venetian, covering facades all over the town. And the Art Deco touches are of a piece with the grand casino here, in which the Venice Film Festival begins at the end of August. “It would have been silly to do something overly theatrical, something destroyed and brutalist,” Mr Owens says. “I think this has a real continuity with the community.”
Mr Owens’ remove looks like the picture of purity and clarity. A clarity that he has made marble with his apartment here, the better to keep his attention on the horizon, on the big ideas, on the eternal. “Death, mortality and utopia,” as Mr Owens says, “all my great themes.”
“I needed to create a space that was severe and avoided any kind of sentimentality or attachments, a blank slate,” he says, “to completely obliterate [extraneous noise], to concentrate on listening to what I really want. Living in clutter and chaos and things that are half done or that are half-hearted, I think, can allow you to be a little bit too relaxed. I can’t be relaxed. After you’ve showered and brushed your teeth in a marble cube, you’re going to aspire to something a little higher. You’re going to attempt something more extreme. So that’s what I was doing. I was creating an environment for myself that would force me to demand more and demand something better. And I have to be at my very, very, best.”
The gentle sounds of the surf and the hazy horizon here continue to call one’s mind to the big ideas, eternal, elemental things. Not that he’s exactly unaware of the immediate world around him. He may be happier with his nose in a book, but he goes online. A recent piece in The New York Times declared Mr Owens one of the last great independent designers. And he knows about it, knows what is going on in the business and the culture of fashion, knows where he fits in to it — and where he wants to go. Looking out on the limitless-seeming soft sea, he is making plans for what he calls his “second act,” the next chapter in his life’s work.