Etienne de Souza designs fine furniture – combining rich and earthy materials with a broad imagination and an eagle eye for style . . . writes Laurie Osborne. photo: Lukas Vrtilek.
ETIENNE, how would you describe your creative process?
It’s always exploration. Natural materials are just like books. You have to cut them to read them, and then you get the right inspiration. If it talks to you, then you become friends. It’s turning something raw into something very sophisticated. This is the point. When you have inspiration, you must sketch it down immediately. It’s like flashes. If you don’t do it, it’s lost. It’s like you’ve received a gift and you say, “no, I’m sorry, I’m sleeping”. You can’t close your doors.
What are you working on at the moment?
I am preparing an exhibition for Jakarta at the end of October. I don’t say I’m at work. I say, “I’m at my dreams.” It’s the same thing when you go to a restaurant and have a meal. The chef dreams things, and the creation is what the chef has been dreaming of. You cannot put dreams on the side, and work on the side, and life on the side. They are connected.
What first brought you to Bali?
Eighteen years ago, I was having dinner with a friend of mine called Edward Tuttle. Ed’s an architect who has designed a number of Aman hotels. I was doing some jewellery work in Bangkok, and I told him that I was having some trouble. In Paris, I could not find the right ebony and some precious woods. He said, “Come on, Etienne, just take a flight and go to Bali.” Well, after two months here, I flew back to Paris and closed down my business.
Just like that?
Yes, because the appeal of the raw natural material cannot stop you, especially for addicts like me. You open these materials, and it’s like magic. Discovering these materials made me think, why not leave Paris behind? My friends didn’t understand, and thought it was a crazy idea. You have success and a social life, they said, why go to a small island where there is nothing? I tell you, I made the right choice.
So, what are the raw materials that drew you here?
First of all, there’s mother of pearl. Then there’s buffalo horn, and an abundant variety of sea-shells. We don’t touch the ones that are endangered and we do a lot of recycling. I wanted to have a workshop because I don’t like to stick to a specific drawing. You have more and more ideas when you work with a team. Every day we try to go a step forward. When we started, it took three years to train them to a standard of international luxury. I love them … they are very patient. Without them, there’s nothing.
How long does it take you and your team to produce a piece?
The minimum is three months. Clients sometimes ask for a shorter timeframe, and I tell them that I’m sorry, I cannot do it. There is a process. You cannot break the rules of art. Otherwise, you might as well go and buy what is already available in the street.
Speaking of which, do you have many imitators?
At the beginning yes. My first collection was with Linda Garland. She said, “come on, make some money and put your pieces in some hotels”. A year later, there were imitations on the streets of Seminyak so I took all of my work back from the hotels, and upgraded the technique.
Where in the world do your finished pieces end up today?
Everything is for export, and pieces go everywhere: New York, Miami, San Francisco, China, Hong Kong. One client wanted a very extravagant table for a yacht. For the last eight years, we’ve been doing furniture with Peter Marino, who is a big star architect in New York. He trusts me and gave me work for Louis Vuitton and Chanel.
Your home is incredible, by the way. How long have you been here?
Since 1999. It was left abandoned. It had become a jungle and nobody wanted it; they didn’t have the energy to refurbish it. I love the garden, it’s so inspiring. The elements of nature are so important because we cannot live outside of them.
You sound like you might be a surfer too?
I’m not, but my children like to surf. In life, any positive action without expectation comes back to you hundreds and thousands of times over. I adopted my two children when they were seven and three years old. Now, they are becoming incredible human beings. They will spread the positive action. This is what I love.