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Reinventing the Old & Revolutionising the New

By February 11, 2010One Comment

Durban based furniture designer and artist Xavier Clarrise is unmistakably French. French ,you could say, in the way film maker Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Amelie) makes cinema and Marcel Duchamp once conceived sculpture.
He is a tempest of energy, ideas and creativity, speaking with a musical accent and at a rapid pace (his eeees elongated for emphasis.). He is unbridled in his levels of invention and flamboyant in his enthusiasms. Get him on a subject he loves (his interests are many and varied) and he will unleash a torrent of philosophical musings and observations. Get him on a subject he loathes (mention the word ”˜Unique’) and he will pace the room, gesticulating like a conductor coaxing his orchestra towards a Wagnerian crescendo.

Clarisse was born in Lyon, France and claims that as long as he can remember he has been obsessed with making things.  He studied mechanical theory and technical drawing before attending the prestigious “L’ecole nationale des beaux art” of Saint Etienn. After specialising in sculpture and product design, he began to travel the world working as a freelance designer. It was in London that he met and married his wife Suzanne, relocating back to her hometown of Durban three years ago.
In recent years, Clarisse has applied himself in many areas and arena’s, working in furniture design, sculpture and installation. He has collaborated on various international and sight specific art projects in between launching a furniture range (vanities and the like) alongside Durban manufacturer Marco Bertacco for ITALTILE outlets.
His more idiosyncratic commissions can currently be found gracing many a trendy Durban household, eatery and more recently,  soccer stadium presidential suite.
A classic example of Clarisse’s trademark ingenuity can be found in Disturbance Design’s studio’s reception-counter, which he was commissioned to conceive and build by the agencies co- founder Richard Hart.

“Originally Richard had around four thousand pencils he wanted me to include in the design” Clarisse laughs, “but I had a different idea that I had wanted to explore for some time. I have always been fascinated by those old mechanical advertising billboards that work in three shifting panels that advertise a new product every time they rotate and join and I wanted to see if I could build a similar system into the desk.”
Hart was naturally taken with the idea, agreeing to paint the three different art works which would reference 1930’s advertising typography. The result is an entrance hall centre piece that perfectly complements the studio’s celebrated aesthetic while resembling a piano that Frank Lloyd Wright might have designed.

The receptionist, via a gear situated at the top of the table, is able to manually change the art-work on the desk front and top. Thus clients arriving at Disturbance Design are first greeted by a sign reading ”˜Sawabona’ ( Zulu for Hello) and the later, on their departure, one that reads ”˜Hambe Khale’ (goodbye).
“As a creative” says Clarisse fidgeting with an assortment of metal cogs littering his desk, “I get bored very easily. My moods and feelings change quickly so I like the idea of being able to vary images or art-works when I feel like it. This idea of a manually changeable art work– without resorting to ugly modern technology like plasma screens– was the perfect solution. Of course the gears and mechanism to make it all happen were extremely complicated to get right.”
Clarisse, you might have guessed, is obsessed with the sort of technology that drove Industrial revolution machinery. A sort of “steam-punk” passion for cogs and clockwork which he shares with visionary French Sci-fi author Jules Verne.He is a design showman of sorts, getting a visible kick out of watching audiences gasp as a seemingly sturdy piece of furniture or art-work (via the pull of a lever) is magically set into motion.

To satisfy his button fetish, Clarisse has installed a mother-board of 1940’s French light switches in one of the passageways of his house, each one wired to the lights of each room.
While Clarisse enjoys the challenge of designing furniture from scratch, he has no qualms with adapting and readjusting existing designs to suit more contemporary purposes. Incorporating existing objects like door handles into his new designs imbues them with a sense of timelessness and personality.
truly original having no memory.“People are obsessed with unique pieces” he says pacing back and forth, “You hear that all the time in Durban and I find it irritating.”“Ideas” he reiterates, “always tend to reference something that has been seen or experienced in the past. I have no shame in referring or referencing things in my own work, everybody does, so let’s not talk all this bullshit about unique!”
Ironically the word ”˜Unique’ is one that could be aptly applied to Clarisse’s latest foray into the art world:  a sculptural installation entitled The King Protea which currently occupies a wall in the presidential suite at the Moses Mabhida Stadium in Durban.
Responding to an open call for submissions, Clarisse was attracted by a brief which called for a sculptural art work that would  prove ”˜tactile’, ”˜game-like’ and ”˜possess a playful air’ : three requirements which

Stepping into the Presidential suite one is confronted by Clarisse’s elegant petalled structure of rose-wood and brass occupying a large portion of an adjacent wall. Encouraged by my guide, I step forward and pull a brass lever, watching as his Protea literally blossoms in front of me. Like the sweep of an opera curtain, the Rose wood petals (via cog and pulley) glide effortlessly apart to reveal the flowers pièce de résistance: a dizzying spiral of one hundred and forty four detailed Zinc Sculptures all linked arm in arm.

This is the result, Clarisse informs me, of four and a half months of extensive experimentation and it is in a word ”˜majestic’ to behold.While covering all the figurative bases, it also cross references Clarisse’s fascination with outdated technology. Here the manual device of opening and closing petals suggests the aperture of an early camera lens or iris of the human eye. What could easily be interpreted as the widening (or narrowing) scrutiny from the world media on this significant sporting site in 2010.


Part of Clarisse’s charm is that he does not dress-up his creations in overly elaborate metaphor or florid explanation, believing quite trenchantly that art must be accessible and, in its truest essence, inseparable from design.
“There is nothing overly conceptual and intellectual about my work “he says unapologetically. “I don’t do intellectual art in that sense. In art there is a lot of bullshit that comes across and the viewer doesn’t really ever know what they are dealing with. For me an object is an object, it becomes design when it’s functional and it becomes art when it’s not functional. Personally I am the most happy (hapeeee) when both are able to meet and mix in the middle.”
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All pictures of King Protea taken by Andrew Griffin


© Neil Coppen

One Comment

  • Bruce Robertson says:

    Thanks for this Neil. I’ve been trying to find info on this guy for ages. He made the reception desk for a lawyer client of mine and it’s just off the charts so I’ve been trying to find out more about him.

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