BLOCKS in Unité d'Habitation

year : 2022
Photo: Adéla Bačová
Story: Lenka Sršňová

Laura Serra and Maxime Forest: We breathe modernism nearly 24 hours a day

The Housing Unit,   built by Le Corbusier in 1952, is situated in Marseille. This majestic building has a specific atmosphere that welcomes you as soon as you enter the main door. A gentle gloom spreads throughout the building except for the three floors designed for the public use. In one of them are two galleries, owned by Laura and Maxime, admirers of design and modernist architecture. We talked to them about their life that takes place in one of the most famous modernist buildings and also about their new exhibition of the Blocks collection designed by Adéla Bačová.

You both studied political science. Where did the idea of ​​establishing a gallery first arise?

Maxime: Yes, we met at our studies of political science. Afterwards, we moved to Paris: I kept studying political science till my PhD, specialising in Central and Eastern Europe. Laura did another M.A. titul at Institute Français de la Mode et du design – she was studying Fashion and Design management. Somehow, the combination of skills we would use later for the gallery was already there. 

Laura: The moment when we started to work in the design industry came about 10 years ago. That time I left a fashion retail brand that I had helped develop in Central Europe. At that point, we were living in Czechia and we explored it in detail confirming how   this country is rich from an architectural and design point of view. 

What was the process of integration into this field?

Laura: The idea of opening a gallery was with us for many years even before. My stay in Central Europe changed my perspective even more, as in the region many design studios were being created, new fairs /events organized  I have been increasingly interested in local classic and contemporary design. Firstly, I started to introduce the French audience to modernist design from this region with our online gallery and through curating different projects. Thanks to the strong connection of Central European design scenes to architecture, I also cultivated my interest in modern architecture. Hence, the idea of opening a gallery in Unité d´habitation from Le Corbusier was very meaningful for us. 

Maxime: Working in social sciences and design at once has become nowadays my profession; I try to cross both fields as much as I can. Living and working in a Unesco listed modernist building also changed my academic course. I am now also teaching about Avant gardes in Eastern Europe and coordinating some other projects with this topic at my university, Sciences Po Paris. 

Is there a gallery or other place that inspired you in the beginning?

Laura: We developed a very specific focus over the past years, so there was no other place that would affect the direction of our gallery. The first gallery and shop opened in 2016, it allowed us to put foot inside the Housing Unit, at that point we also curated events in public spaces and in Designblok for example.  

Maxime: We still had the feeling that we needed to open a bigger space to organize more regularly events and exhibitions. So we have decided in 2020 to open our second gallery at the same building. We opened it for the Biennale of contemporary art, Manifesta. Nowadays, we are showing the artworks and illsutrations from  gOlimpia Zagnoli. 

You lived in Prague for several years, what does this place and the people who come from the Czechia evoke in you?

Laura: Prague and Czech Republic were our gates to the Central Europe design scene. I developed contacts with local designers and brands, while Maxime deepened his knowledge of the country. We were exploring every corner from an architectural point of view, often with the latest issue of Dolce Vita in our hands. To us, Prague is the essence of European urbanity, where all styles coexist harmoniously, and Czechoslovakia is a brand that survived the country. It evokes technological avant-gardes, forward looking people and brands. Beyond design, this is the place where a majority of our friends live and work. 

Why do you exhibit products from creators and designers from the Central European region? 

Laura: Because of our interest in it, but also, notably in France, due to this region remaining out of the design map. This started to change thanks to strengths of local scenes and producers, like Brokis or Bomma in Czech Republic. In Poland are on the other hand powerful institutions, one of them is Adam Mickiewicz institute, which injected millions of euros in supporting Polish designers. More modestly, it is also due to the work of interpreters and curators like us. People who happen to be the ones that are able to tell the right stories about the designers and their products.

Are the products and themes of these creators different from those who grow up, work and live in Western countries?

Maxime: Obviously, there are many differences across scenes of the region, also for historical and economic reasons. The Czech Republic has a lot in common with Northern Italy, in terms of connection of design to industry. Poland is very inner-centred, due to being a large market with many industrious cities, they often meddle typography with design. Lithuania is a place where concepts and ideas play a unique role, more versed into visual arts and conceptual architecture than design, while Ukraine,used to be a country of ambitious projects and high politicisation before the war. All countries have different approaches to design 

How does the selection of designers and artists for a private gallery, which is not influenced by other institutions, actually work?

Laura: Choices are driven by the relation of exhibited artists or studios to architectural forms or modernist aesthetics. We host and co-curate exhibitions devoted to modern architecture and cities with international museums and institutions. When events are to take place inside the Housing Unit, we always attempt to create a relation between the context and the content. It is a lot about a trialogue between the artists or designers, us and the place. 

From 22nd of August until the end of September there is an exhibition in your shop and gallery of the Czech designer Adéla Bačová. How did you discover her work?

Laura: I discovered her at Designblok and then I saw her work in different magazines. Her strong connection to architecture, shapes and colours interested me. 

The Blocks collection, which is nowadays exhibited at the gallery, has been inspired by modern architecture. Your gallery is located in the Unité d'habitation building, which was designed by the functionalist architect Le Corbusier, completed in 1952. Does this environment influence the choice of artists you exhibit in the gallery?

Maxime: Our selection of presented products is connected to architecture thanks to that we are situated in this building; we create bridges and collaborations with designers and artists. For example, Le Corbusier was using ceramics in his work. Provence is at the same time very well known for this traditional craft. If you see some details in the building you immediately connect them to Adéla´s work, and her Blocks collection..

The exhibition just started and some of the vases from the collection are already sold. Does this mean that Adela's work is successful in your gallery or in France in general?

Laura: I think that her work would be appreciated in general; there is a huge interest in handmade artworks and ceramics. But of course, being exhibited in such an iconic building, the architectural spirit of the vases is underlined. Many visitors are architects and they easily catch the spirit of the collection. 

Maxime: Moreover, one of the buyers was the owner of a flat situated in the building. He immediately knew where the vase was going to be placed. Usually, everyone in the building wants to respect  the very clean walls and lines, so if they put some objects into the flat it is very carefully  selected.

And which design we will find in your shop connected to one of the galleries?

Laura: The shop is quite eclectic. Our selection features well-known brands as Nemo (Charlotte Perriand and Le Corbusier lamps) and objects such as Libuse Niklova´s toys for Fatra, - Krystal vases from Malwina Konopacka, 3D printed vases from UAU Bauhaus toys from Modernista  or the Resort armchair  from Palma de alma . What binds everything together is a visual language inspired from the different streams of modern architecture, from constructivism to post-modernism. We usually do not  focus on  the origin of each piece, but about its relation to these aesthetics. 

You also have your own apartment in the same building. Do you perceive the history associated with Le Corbusier in this building, or has this architecture become a natural part of your life?

Maxime: We breathe modernism nearly 24 hours a day. This might be at times overwhelming, especially as we are living in what is after all a vertical village. But we are happy we managed to build this bridge between this landmark piece of modernist architecture, suspended above the Mediterranean, and our own visual and intellectual journey through the continent. For instance, currently, we try to offer a safe temporary harbour for our friends coming from Ukraine. 

What pieces from Central European creators can we find in your apartment?

Laura: In Our flat you can find Brussel style from Czechoslovakia, t few photographs from Mária Švarbová, textiles from Sára Matyšová, ceramics from Superior Objects  and rationalist design from Baltics well resonates with the place designed by Le Corbusier and Charlotte Perriand. We already know which piece we want to  choose from Adéla as well. 

You spend a lot of time in the complex; we assume you must really love it…

Laura: It is very interesting to get to know the community from inside, to know individuals and their stories often connected to this place. However, we are lucky enough to sometimes have other activities outside the building. Like curating residencies, conferences, exhibitions abroad and in winter, there is a great chance to find us eastwards!

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