“Making art is not mythical, it is part of life” Nathalie Du Pasquier

Text by Helena Strängberg Velardi. Photography by Piotr Niepsuj.

In the early 1980s French born Nathalie Du Pasquier was one of the young founding members of the Milan-based Memphis collective. From their groundbreaking debut in 1981 until the dissolvement of the group in 1987, Nathalie worked as a designer, creating textiles, carpets, plastic laminates, furniture and objects. Her pattern designs—a fusion of geometrical and organic shapes in strong colour explosions—played a visible part in defining what Memphis was.

In 1987 Nathalie started painting in acrylic, then oil, and little by little turned away from design to focus on art. Over the course of three decades, she has produced drawings, textiles, sculptural objects and paintings. At the beginning, the drawings were naïve looking. Later, she started making painterly representations of space and surfaces, formally far away from her previous work. The colours changed, from the bright, acid shades of the earlier drawings and patterns, to a softer, more naturalistic palette. She started creating still life paintings, showing carefully placed objects, books, crockery and ceramics. The paintings played with perceptions of surface and depth, a water-filled glass distorting the image. 

Helena Strängberg Velardi sat down with Nathalie in her bright and airy studio space in central Milan, to talk about drawing a line between art and design, of applying the Memphis Technique to collaborations, and the human activity of arranging objects.

 
EARLY YEARS
 
You were born and raised in Bordeaux, but travelled the world as a young woman, spending a lot of time in Gabon and other parts of Africa. What brought you there?
It was really all by chance. My boyfriend at the time and I met some people who asked us to help them sail a boat from France to their home in Gabon. I was seasick for those two months and promised myself I’d never set foot on a sailing boat again, but it was still a great trip. Gabon was a very different country than France, at least in 1976 it was. I found it incredibly interesting. My life is separated into before and after that trip. I went to Gabon instead of going to university. I felt very grown up, but in fact I was really young. 
 
You studied art for a while at Ecole des Beaux Arts in Bordeaux but dropped out after three months. Why?
I decided that the experience of travel would take the place of university for me, as I had no desire to study. I travelled and worked in order to continue travelling. I had very little luggage and no camera. I was always observing, and certain things were really etched in my mind. In the end it was like going to a school with lessons in aesthetics and humanity. France is very academic: people have faith in school and doing things in a certain way, but it just didn’t fit my temperament.
 
You travelled a lot until you settled in Milan. Do you still enjoy going places or do you prefer staying put?
If I have work somewhere, I go, and I really enjoy it. But otherwise I’m happy staying where I am.

"I have the most fun in my studio."

How did you end up in Milan?
I came to Milan in 1979 after a period in Rome, which I was fed up with after having worked there as an au pair. I liked Milan a lot. It seemed very eastern; it looked like my idea of Austria, even though it doesn’t really. Very soon I bumped into Martine Bedin, who I’d known as a very young girl in Bordeaux, and who was already in the design/architecture world. Martine invited me to this party a few days later where I got introduced to her friends, and that’s where I met George Sowden and a lot of other people I’ve been connected with since. The whole group that later would become the Memphis Collective were there, practically everybody in Milan was there. George was the one who suggested that I might think about developing textiles based on my drawings.
 
When you look back at the Memphis years, what did they mean to you?
All of us at Memphis wanted to see pieces of furniture being produced, so there were all sorts of furniture projects that were proposed during the year.

"In my case, Memphis was an opportunity through which I could see my pieces realised. I did not need to refrain from my dreams and could imagine mixing materials and colours, printing special textiles and limited editions of plastic laminates."

From 1981 to 1987, from the first to the last exhibition, I showed some work of mine within the Memphis group shows. It was work that was prepared individually by each of us and chosen collegially by all of us during endless and sometimes crazy meetings and after serious discussions in a trattoria. During those seven years, it was that way of designing that made me consider myself a designer. Later I realised that was not the normal way. There were never any clients in our meetings—they were never involved nor were they mentioned. I have applied the Memphis Technique—which is about not thinking about the client—to most of my collaborations, but not always successfully. 
 
Looking at some of the textiles you designed during the Memphis years, they remind me of what you see when looking through a microscope. Does biology or nature have an impact on your work?
In some of my early patterns one could recognise some biological structures. I cannot say that biology is an influence in my work. At the beginning of the 1980s I was discovering a lot of things through my interest in design. I was looking around, following my own inclinations. I looked at what had happened at the beginning of the twentieth century in Europe, the Wiener Werkstätte, William Morris, Kolo Moser, the invention of modern shapes with the early Bauhaus, craft as technology. 
 
How did you proceed from designing textile patterns to painting?
At the end of the 1970s, I started designing textiles a bit by chance, thanks to the advice and example of George. Soon enough, I started to make a living from them. George used some of my designs on his projects for the first Memphis exhibition. For a year I was doing design in the morning and painting in the afternoon, and then I understood that I had to decide. In 1986 I just decided to start focusing on my paintings.
ART
 
Do you draw a line between art and design?
At the time I did draw a line between the two activities also because I had started to use oil colours. The change of medium meant a change of everything. I wanted to be a painter. Now I am not so sure any more if it is important, but at the time it was fundamental for me to concentrate on this new activity and not to work as a designer any more. 
 
What is your view on the art world today?
What bores me about the art world is the myth that art is so precious, and that it should be so expensive. Art is just what you do. It is not less worthwhile to make a pattern or a carpet than a painting in the end. Making art is not mythical. It is part of life. Things shouldn’t be complicated and expensive.
 
Drawings and paintings are maybe your most well-known works, but I know that you also work with other, more three-dimensional methods. Can you tell me more about some of these projects?
All my still life paintings are painted after a set installed in front of me. Some models are little constructions that I built. Little by little I started considering some of these constructions not only as models I would then recycle or destroy, but also as things I’d like to keep. That is how it all started. Painting for me has always been about representing something. I started installing sets composed of objects. The objects could be abstract, but I represented them through painting. My work was divided in two parts, building the set, and then painting it.
 
In the painting of Jasper Morrison’s Raami collection for Iittala, the glasses, carafe, teacup and bowl are neatly arranged, yet seem full of life. Fresh apricots and giant peppers crown a stack of bowls. Could this setting be something we would see if we peeked into your kitchen cabinet?
Arranging things does not mean depriving them of life. In the painting of the Raami collection, the arrangement is very simple. It could have been in any cupboard, in any home, also mine. Arranging objects is a human activity.
Raami carafe 1 l clear
Raami carafe 1 l clear
Raami serving bowl 3,4 l / 29 cm white
Raami serving bowl 3,4 l / 29 cm white
Raami tumbler 26 cl moss green 2 pcs
Raami tumbler 26 cl moss green 2 pcs
Raami plate 27 cm white
Raami plate 27 cm white

How did you go about painting the pieces of the Raami collection? 
We decided with Jasper that we wanted to put as many objects as possible in a square format, so we needed two levels. I installed a bookshelf I had in the studio and positioned Jasper’s objects on them. The composition seemed a bit colourless so I put some peppers and apricots in, as it was summer. 

In your work, there is a recurring theme of everyday objects, especially tableware. How did glasses, cups, vases and kitchen utensils make their way into your art?
I think the simplest thing is to use what is available in the studio. I am interested in the relationships between things, and the domestic field of objects is vast and with no pretension. 

How much is coincidental and how much is planned when it comes to your still life arrangements?
The first part of the work is the installation of the set. The painting comes from looking at what is in front of me, which is a very traditional way of painting. In that sense you could say that the painting is planned.

Is composition an important part in your work?
I like arranging things, it is part of my personality. The activity is about harmony, and comes with instinct, I do not think about it. The same happens with colours.

 

I recently re-read the brilliant book “Arranging Things” written by Leonard Koren and illustrated by your paintings. To paraphrase Koren, he implies that the objects you depict can seem randomly chosen. Is the individual object you paint important on its own or is it only a small part of a whole? Does the glass have a meaning in itself, or could it simply be replaced by any cylindrical object?
I am interested in objects, in man-made things, in the way the light touches them, in their shadows, in rendering the transparency and the reflection. There would be no point in changing that. When I decide to paint simple shapes that are not domestic, recognisable elements, it is a choice from the beginning. I would represent them as precisely as the other objects.
 
In another section of “Arranging Things,” Koren writes that “(The) arrangement of things is not just an aesthetic expression, it’s a communicational act.” Koren is essentially saying that the arrangement itself transmits meaning. What’s your view on that?
I do not have any message to communicate with my paintings, I am not a philosopher. But one of the ideas of Memphis was that design is communication. We had entered the postmodern era, form no longer needed to follow function.
 
What role does beauty play in your work?
Of course, beauty and harmony are things that I aim at, but these cannot be planned, they happen or they don’t. There are no rules to follow.
 
In many of your paintings there are incredibly strong colours but sometimes the nuances are toned down. What importance does colour have in your work?

"Colour is important but it is an instinct, not an applied science!"