Late morning, at the Louis Vuitton store in Miami's ritzy Design District, and some of the world's most esteemed designers have gathered to present their work for Objets Nomades. They're in town for the annual Design Miami, a fiesta that attracts the famous and the monied; this is the pinnacle of their week.
Objets Nomades is a collaborative furniture project Louis Vuitton launched in 2012, which now encompasses everything from a complex foldable mirror to a £34,000 hand-twisted leather hammock, each link joined by a gilded rivet.
Below the mezzanine where I'm standing, a spotlight shines directly down on to a vibrant green seat. It's the new Petal chair, by Dutch design studio Marcel Wanders, and the lighting creates diamond-shaped shadows on the white plinth. How clever, I comment to its creator, Gabriele Chiave, to have engineered the chair to throw LV monogram-shaped shadows. (There is of course a diamond among that famous grid of symbols, invented in 1896 by Georges Vuitton.)
Chiave laughs and peers over the edge of the balcony to check the effect. 'I'm seeing it now for the first time! I never realised it, but seeing it now in this light - it's very interesting. Sometimes you get these things for free as a designer.'
Serendipity is a surprising ingredient in the project, which might otherwise appear extremely serious. For the past 10 years, the French maison has worked with a roll call of important designers: the Campana brothers, Patricia Urquiola, Atelier Biagetti, India Mahdavi, Atelier Oï, Raw-Edges and dozens more.
This year it draws the Beijing-based designer Frank Chou into its orbit with a first item of outdoor furniture, the Signature, which is constructed from elegant curls. Available either as a chair or elongated into a couch, it is fit to grace any billionaire's terrace.
Naturally all the pieces are handmade in France, Italy or Spain, often in leather, and produced in limited, numbered editions; prices run easily into five figures. It is a collection that LV CEO Michael Burke holds dear, and he has said it draws in some of the house's wealthiest clientele. And yet all the designers who collaborate with the brand insist that, despite the potential power imbalance, they maintain an unusual degree of freedom.
'It feels like a family. We go for dinner. It's a good atmosphere - I need it to work in this way, otherwise I get blocked,' says Humberto Campana, one half of the Campana brothers, whose £65,000 Cocoon swing chair has been the collection's best seller for several years. Other pieces he has made for Objets Nomades include the Aguacate screen (pictured right), the pattern of which resembles a vivid avocado.
'It's a joke,' he says, smiling, and yet at the same time, 'working with a company like Louis Vuitton, detail is very important. It's been like doing an MBA.' Exuberant Spanish designer Patricia Urquiola, who has worked with Vuitton since 2007, agrees. 'There are not too many occasions where they say no,' she says. 'Luxury for me is time to think, and they give me freedom to explore, to do a high level of research.'
Mentoring the designers is Nathalie Frémon, head of Louis Vuitton's architecture department, who has led Objets Nomades since the start. 'It began as a research and development concept,' recalls Frémon over green juice at her South Beach hotel before the launch. Ten years ago, the maison didn't sell any furniture, and the plan was to interpret its history as a travel brand through the creation of movable designs echoing the 19th-century trunks that made its fortune. Hence the nomadic name. But rather than turn to in-house creatives, 'We thought it would be interesting to look at the brand through an external designer's eyes.'
Frémon mentions the Trunk-bed, an inventive piece of luggage that folded out into a bed, which was developed in 1874 for colonial explorer Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza. The first pieces of Objets Nomades stuck to a literal brief: transportable furniture. An early work was Marcel Wanders's chaise longue, which converts into a backpack. 'That first brief was a bit difficult to understand,' admits Chiave. 'To make furniture pieces to move around, to relate to travel, it was a bit strange.'
Over the years the project has become less literal; travel and nomadism are now a state of mind for the Objets customer. Certain pieces, such as Urquiola's elegant Palaver folding chair (£10,500), may evoke holidays, but at the Miami presentation there are as many Murano glass vases or statement sofas (the cloud-like £51,500 Bomboca sofa is a real head-turner) that aren't in any realistic sense designed for the road.
Louis Vuitton has not taken a predictable route into design. 'We don't have a beautiful line of furniture covered in leather,' Frémon points out. 'Instead we have a collection of very innovative, surprising products.' Released only when they are ready for market, rather than to a seasonal deadline, some of the pieces take up to four years to develop. 'Unlike fashion, sales start slow, and then increase over the years,' she says.
Adding to the complexity, when necessary, Louis Vuitton sources the most expert freelance artisan possible to manufacture each item. For the Cocoon swing chair, which was technically challenging due to its convex and concave padded surfaces, the house went to a French leatherworker who did not make handbags, because, Frémon explains, 'making a handbag and making a piece of furniture are completely different.'
This slow-design approach has gone down well with clients, who are seemingly happy to wait for updates to the collection and, in the meantime, send in photographs of their Objets Nomades in situ at home. 'Each one of the pieces creates a "wow" effect,' says Frémon. 'When people purchase them, they might have this large living room, with big long sofas and couches, and then they have a Cocoon chair, or a Bomboca.' Others, she confides, do buy 'the entire collection', and it was in response to client requests that the company developed the outdoor furniture with Frank Chou.
Due to the pandemic, Chou never met with the LV team in person, 'but we've learnt to work by Zoom quite well,' says Frémon. For Chou's first pieces for Objets Nomades, the cantilevered Signature chair and sofa, upholstered in waterproof fabrics by Italian textile designer Paola Lenti, he took inspiration from topography, notably the terraced fields of Yunnan, and Antelope Valley in Arizona. 'They're somehow connected to our subconscious,' he says. 'They capture nature's beauty, the forces that shaped and sculpted them.'
Very much of the moment - as outdoor furniture they reflect how our lives moved into the open air as the pandemic progressed - and yet classical, it's almost fitting that Chou was, at the last minute, unable to travel to Miami to see his debut in person. Travel for these collaborators is in the imagination, not a literal expedition but a metaphor for leaving one's comfort zone and - however long it takes - exploring design to its limits.