Alabaster and Bone: A Q&A with Rick Owens

Renowned Paris-based fashion designer Rick Owens is the man responsible for the distressed, skin-tight leather ensembles that have become the standard for moody, dark, grungy luxury wear. His much-coveted pieces, especially his leather jackets — often embellished with fur or shearling, and seen on fans like Madonna and Courtney Love — embody a sensibility that embraces contradictions, finding a place where medieval meets modern. They are thin and supple, with fluid lines; however, when worn, they exude a rugged and tough aesthetic.

Owens channels this design philosophy into his new collection of furniture, on view at New York gallery Salon 94 from May 8 to June 25. For his first furniture show in the United States, titled “Pavane for a Dead Princess,” the California-born designer has transformed the gallery space into a contemporary, hyper-minimal rendering of a bedroom interior, based on his own Parisian home. He has a penchant for luxurious material, using translucent Spanish alabaster to carve a striking headboard, positioned near a wood, bronze, and alabaster day bed in a room draped with mink curtains. ARTINFO spoke to Owens about his design process.

What prompted you to start designing furniture?

When I moved into my house in Paris, I would have ideally stuffed it with Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann, Jean Dunand, and Eileen Grey. But, besides its prohibitive cost, all that Art Deco stuff is just too small for me. Instead, I decided to make fake, oversize versions with the same improvisational, Scotch–taped approach I applied to my first clothing collection.

Fashion and furniture both have to be, on some level, functional and practical. Is there an overlap in how you approach those different areas of design?

Just as I executed my interpretation of designer Madame Grès' styles in washed leather and old T-shirts, I sketched Jean Michel-Frank in black plywood. Once I saw how it came out, I thought it would be amusing to present it in my menswear showroom. It was intended as a one-time thing, but it developed a life of its own.

How do you choose your materials? They seem to be an important aspect in your designs. Can you talk about using Spanish alabaster, for example?

I probably think of lines first, before going to my fairly limited roster of materials: plywood, concrete, marble, leather, fur, and antlers. I’m using alabaster for the first time. I’m not trying to do anything particularly witty or startling. I’m just trying to make something I can live with that summarizes some of the experiences and touchstones that mean something to me and to our generation. It’s the same approach I bring to making clothes — I’m looking for rational, modest grace.

Do you have a favorite furniture piece, both to admire and to design?

I’d really like a couple of those huge Jean Dunand urns like the ones in the Porte Dorée Museum in Paris. I’m also keeping my eyes open for a perfect Egyptian sarcophagus similar to one of the pieces that appeared in the 2009 Yves Saint Laurent auction.

Can you talk about the sources you reference for this collection? It seems to range from Le Corbusier to Donald Judd. Was there an underlying theme that you drew from all of them?

I'm most attracted to a rational graceful line from point A to point B — an almost brutal, elegant simplicity.

What’s the story behind the show’s title, “Pavane for a Dead Princess”?

My parents always had Debussy, Wagner, and Ravel playing in the house, and I remember hearing the Ravel solo piano piece with that name as a child. The beauty of the music and the mystery of its title haunted me. I still like it, and I like the idea of having liked it for 40 years. It makes me think of time and timelessness, the way an alabaster slab makes me think of time and timelessness.