Ways of Living – Christopher Farr Collaborates on Sotheby's Classic Design Week

Ways of Living – Christopher Farr Collaborates on Sotheby's Classic Design Week

Ahead of their partnership with Sotheby's, we sat down with Christopher Farr CEO, Matthew Bourne, and Christopher Farr Cloth CEO, Michal Silver, to discuss the origins of their brand and being the guardians of important artistic legacies.
Ahead of their partnership with Sotheby's, we sat down with Christopher Farr CEO, Matthew Bourne, and Christopher Farr Cloth CEO, Michal Silver, to discuss the origins of their brand and being the guardians of important artistic legacies.

Mariko Finch: Let’s start at the beginning. Can you talk a little bit about the origins of Christopher Farr?

Matthew Bourne: Christopher Farr, the company, started as an antique carpet business in 1988. Christopher was then working for a very well-known antique rug dealer called David Black who would have been a customer of Sotheby’s, and that’s how we met. I was restoring rugs. When Christopher set up a shop in Primrose Hill, I joined him. We started by selling antiques, but he always had it in mind to do his own rug designs.

After about three successful years of selling, we were approached by the Royal College of Art to collaborate with them for an exhibition of contemporary rugs in Milan. The whole collection was made in Turkey, and it was very well received. It opened our eyes to the possibilities of taking rugs in a new direction. From then onwards around 1991, we stopped buying antiques. At that time, one of the most interesting fashion designers was Romeo Gigli who introduced us to a whole new world, one that we didn’t even know existed, because we were just antique rug dealers. It was an epiphany.

We started collaborating with various artists that Chris knew, and it grew organically. We’d get approached by people and if it felt right, we’d do it, and if it didn’t, we wouldn’t. We were led by instinct. Perhaps not the most astute business plan, but we’d think: “that sounds like a fun idea, let’s do it” and then we’d work out how we were going to try and sell it, rather than the other way round.

MF: Did that process gives you more freedom to succeed?

Yes. It gave us the freedom to experiment - and learn by trial and error - which is part of the creative process. For us, it’s all about the rugs, and then we try and make a living out of it. Both for rugs and cloth, from the start we have always been aligned closely to artists. Over the years we have built up extensive experience working with artists and artists' estates to translate original artworks and bring them to a new audience. For rugs, aside from the Albers Foundation, these include Louise Bourgeois, Terry Frost, and William Scott. For cloth, these include Raoul Dufy and Javier Mariscal.

Matthew Bourne, Co-Founder of Christopher Farr.

MF: How do you decide which artists to work with? Do you approach them, or is it the other way round?

MB: I believe Michal and I are very much on the same page about this. We ask ourselves, do we like it, does it inspire us, do we believe in it? With thirty years of business behind us, we’re more experienced now. Yet, still, we do ask ourselves the hard questions, such as, yes, that’s a great idea but will it sell?

MF: Do you ever get quite far down the line before you realise that something is not necessarily going to work?

MB: One-off rugs is one thing, but collections don’t really have that mentality. Fabrics can be way more complicated and therefore it’s just a different process and set of intentions.

MF: Rugs and Cloth are the two very different areas of the brand, how you describe the creative collaboration process, and how do you marry the two together?

MB: In essence there is great synergy between us and even though the processes differ, the interest is mutual. There’s a feeling of something special that we both would like to be engaged with. We coexist and complement, but I see the difference in the way we work when it’s an archival collection such as the Anni Albers, the Raoul Dufy, or when we are working with a contemporary artist or designer. When we work with contemporary artists, it’s a conversation, we get to know them in person, we make changes, it’s very collaborative.

Michal Silver. Photographed by Cat Garcia.

When we work with an archival collection, it’s all about bringing back the work but making it relevant, so we’ll do the minimum changes necessary. We will always keep the design, the scale, the repeat, we will only change the colours or texture to bring it up to date.

Michal Silver: We worked on a collection with a Japanese ceramist, Makoto Kagoshima, and I was so convinced that it’s going to take us six months, eight months to create the collection because I thought all the work is actually there, we only need to make a choice of the pattern from one of his one, two, three plates, and then we can create the fabric.

And I was completely wrong, it was a much more considered process, he had an idea of how he wanted to approach this collaboration. He wanted to design a collection that’s specifically suited for fabric with the idea of scale, the idea of repeat in mind. So, you know, it took us two, two and a half years to do it but the end result speaks for itself.

MB: That’s a very good example because the same artist was very happy to talk about a
collaborative approach for collections of fabrics but at the same time when this conversation was happening on the rug side, he just wanted to do nine one-off rugs at a specific size and that was it. An edition of one. The rugs were probably the most expensive things he’d ever done at around £50,000 each, and by contrast his plates were about £3,000 or £4,000. It’s a bit like we’re driving two different models of the same car.

MS: I always say to artists what are you interested in? Show me things you are interested in.
I will find a way to connect it in a cohesive way to the collection. That is the starting point always.

Christopher Farr installation in the Sotheby's Story Café, February 2023. WALLCOVERING: CHILD'S CHECK BY ANNI ALBERS. RUG HUNG ON WALL: 663 BY GUNTA STOLZL.

MF: Let's talk about the Bauhaus takeover of the space at Sotheby’s? What would you
like people to take away with them from looking at the work of these artists?

MS: I would like it to communicate that she (Anni) was a trendsetter, not only breaking away from traditional weaving but was also such a feminist. She lived throughout the 20th century and she’s always one step ahead of almost every woman during this century. In 1949, for example, she has the first solo show…as a woman in the Museum of Modern Art in New York and she’s the first designer to have a solo show in the Museum of Modern Art, so she was recognised for her art. Generations of students emulate what she’s done and how independent she was, and I think that’s very important to remember.

In a world that was so male-oriented, she was recognised, kept to what she was doing and kept evolving throughout. She’s a weaver but if you look from the 1960s, she’s completely taken by printmaking, and it took her into drawing and printing and other ways of expression. This diversity, and how ahead of everything she was as an artist, but also as a woman in that period, for me, is very inspirational.

Anni Albers and Gunta Stölzl with a weaving group at the Bauhaus. © Albers Foundation and Bauhaus Archiv, Berlin.

MB: Many people will be more familiar with the work of Anni who achieved more fame, even though it was actually Gunta - the very first female head of department at the Bauhaus - that taught Anni. Interestingly in the Albers show at Tate Modern, Gunta Stölzl's work appeared in the first room, which shows you how close the two were.

MF: We know a lot about them in the studio and in the gallery space and as teachers in the Bauhaus, but what was their domestic environment like? How did Gunta and Anni live with art in their own homes?

MB: The house Josef and Anni shared outside Connecticut was quite domesticated. They liked to experiment with using things like linoleum which was a new invention at the time, and they would put it on the walls, not just the floor. They were quite experimental, but their space itself was quite simplistic in design. It’s how they used the materials, they liked to mix things up. In terms of art, they would find pieces travelling in South America or exploring in Mexico. They never had their own work on the walls. They would discuss each other’s work, but never actually collaborated and therefore they wouldn’t want to bring work home. Their studios were far more important to them but work was left at work. They had a deep passion for music, it was a big love of theirs as well as literature. So everything there was about creativity, but outside the sphere of their own work. I wouldn’t be surprised if Gunta’s house was the same. All artists I’ve met that are really successful, it’s work for them. Gary Hume, for instance, gets to his studio and works until six, like a job. It’s not something he does in his spare time, it’s his working day.

Anni Albers, With Verticals, 1946. © 2022 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/DACS, London.

MF: When you’re working with artists and their estates or with families, you’re essentially custodians of their legacy. How do you approach that?

MS: There is a weight of responsibility there, absolutely. It’s a very humbling experience, specifically with Josef and Anni’s work. There is a sense of history, and I was very much aware of the magnitude of the work. We were and continue to be supported throughout by the Albers Foundation. They are very engaged and involved in the process, so their input is very visible. When we started a decade ago working with the Foundation, on the fabric collection, being known for print, we approached her later work when she was printing, that was almost our comfort zone, that’s where we felt confident. And it took me years to say, “okay, I’m ready to look at her weaves”. I just felt that every designer and artist during the 20th century has looked at and been inspired by the Bauhaus. The question was “how do we approach it in a meaningful way?”

Plate 111, Gunta Stölzl produced by Christopher Farr.

MB: They’re pretty exacting, the people we work with, both living and dead. If they don’t sign something off, it doesn’t happen. It’s as simple as that, and that’s the way we like it.

MF:  How far do you usher the artist through the process for a project to come to fruition, and how equipped do they come with their own set of ideas and knowledge?

MB: A lot of my and Michal’s job is to really explain what the limitations and boundaries are, what the positives are, what the negatives are, and discuss with the artist / designer what they would like to achieve, or help them arrive there.

Gunta Stölzl Bauhaus certificate.

MS: What I try to do is very quickly assess in what parts of the process the designer, the artist wants to be involved and then I try to facilitate everything else. The key for me is getting to know the person we’re working with, then I know where I can help, where I can support without intimidating, without creating any discord and being really effective. We are acting as a link between the concept and the technical. For example, with Kit Kemp, I always say to her “I’m here to make your dreams come true” and she says, “you do” so that’s how we do it!

MB: Our process is much the same, with the only caveat being there are not that many ways you can hand-make carpets. We begin with the material (wool, silk, hemp…); we work with the highest quality wool from specific rare breeds and have also experimented with wool blends, to give a durable, lustrous result. Hand spinning and specialist hand dyeing further adds interest and movement of colour. Then, there’s knot count, from 20 knots per inch up to 250 knots per inch depending on the detail required. Once we’ve established those parameters, we then go through the same process that Michal just described.


MF: Do you both have a project of which you are most proud?

MB: My most memorable one would be Romeo Gigli because that changed our business – it was the first time we’d encountered working with someone like that. So I would say that one for me, but it has lot to do with emotion and nostalgia! Also, we’ve made art rugs with Ai Weiwei which was obviously incredible. He was very generous with his time and hugely knowledgable about the craft.

MS: For me it was definitely the Anni Albers collaboration and with the fabric because it’s a different process so this is the third time we’re dipping into her archives and producing a collection, and it’s been very personal. Anni is an icon of the Bauhaus and is considered the weaver of the 20th century. Her work is so relevant today and powerful as it was in 1925, so for me this is a one-off. It’s one of those very special moments.

All of the rugs and textiles on display are available to purchase directly from Christopher Farr: info@cfarr.co.uk / +44 (0)20 7349 0888



20th Century Design

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