Mattia Bonetti’s studio in northeastern Paris is exactly the opposite of what you’d expect. The Swiss-born furniture designer is known for his bold one-of-a-kind pieces, often in Popsicle colors or shiny metals. His style ranges from neo-Baroque to 1960s “Star Trek” kitsch and his pieces always howl: “Look at me!”
Given this, “you’d expect to walk into some sort of hive of wonder, like Willy Wonka’s factory,” says the fashion designer Reed Krakoff, who is a friend of Bonetti’s as well as a collector of his work. “But it isn’t like that at all. It’s a simple one room, a white, clean space. Mattia’s work is all in his head, which makes it that much more mysterious.”
What sets Bonetti apart from his confreres is this heady approach to design: He doesn’t do collections, only pieces “as they come to me,” he says. He doesn’t have a signature look or reference any particular period. He can make towering ebony and rock-crystal floor lamps that look like Manhattan skyscrapers at night. Or he can produce masterpieces like his famous Abyss dining table, a phantasmagorical work made of bronze, with a pink tree-stump leg on one end and a green and orange coral-like leg on the other end. Or there are his famous Smarties tables: colorful, half-sphere fiberglass tables named for the M&Ms-like candies. The only link between the pieces is a glamorous whimsy and a respectful nod to nature. His inspiration, he says, “always comes from nature — because it’s always present and it is the most beautiful and the most important. Vegetation, animal or human: That’s what the world’s made of. Nothing else.”
Though Bonetti has been working for more than three decades, his sui generis style is enjoying a moment of late: His recent show at the Biennale des Antiquaires in Paris was a near sellout; an epic two-volume set of books on his career is about to be published by Editions Louvre Victoire; and he will exhibit new work at the Paul Kasmin gallery this month. Because his designs are one-offs, “most of my clients are great contemporary art collectors,” he says over a cup of tea in the studio, where he spends hours sketching colorful drawings from his imagination. He pulls out a catalog to show examples of clients’ homes where his witty pieces are mixed in among Koonses and Harings. And they look just right. “Mattia has very much his own language,” says Kasmin. “His work is unmistakably his, and it always has been.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Bonetti never had dreams of being a furniture designer; like his creations, it sort of just happened. Born and raised in a village near Lake Lugano, he studied textile design. In 1972, at the age of 20, he moved to Paris, where he initially worked in textiles. Eventually, he segued into photography, shooting black and white tableaux of rooms he constructed in miniature — with dollhouse-scale furnishings — and found he liked making things with his hands. In the late 1970s, he met the designer Elizabeth Garouste through her brother and the pair formed a partnership. One of their first jobs was to create a collection of furniture and décor for Paris’s legendary nightclub Le Palace and its restaurant Le Privilège with a neo-Baroque scheme of prehistoric and primitive art touches — like Bonetti’s handmade terra-cotta masks. This was quickly dubbed “barbarian” design.
Soon, Garouste and Bonetti were selling their pieces in galleries as well as executing commissions, including designing the interiors for the couture house of Christian Lacroix, whom they met through a mutual friend in the spring of 1987. “He showed us what he loved — he spoke of Provence, where he grew up, of Baroque design, of bullfighting, oriental culture, Spain,” Bonetti says in his quiet, demure fashion.
The result was shockingly imaginative and like no other couture house before it. The curtains and carpets were done in the burnt ochers of Roussillon framed with rococo swishes of black. There were modern riffs on French 18th-century chairs upholstered in raspberry, lilac, orange and electric blue; hot-red consoles with branches for legs; tree-stump stools; wrought-iron arabesque handles, hooks and rods; and towering wood cafe tables perched on thick toothpicks.
Around the same time, Garouste and Bonetti began redecorating Picasso’s Chateau de Boisgeloup, outside of Paris, which his grandson Bernard had inherited and wanted to spruce up. The design was “lightly inspired by Picasso,” Bonetti says, invoking the master’s signature blue harlequin patterns and Cubist lines. Gloria von Thurn und Taxis hired Garouste and Bonetti to redo her private apartment in the family’s sprawling Palace of St. Emmeram in Regensburg, Germany. “I asked her, ‘What flowers do you like?’ ” Bonetti recalls. “And she said, ‘I love sunflowers.’ ” This inspired a salon with a violet sofa awash in bright yellow sunflowers embroidered by Lesage. “The lamps they designed looked like giant pink condoms and all of my friends made fun of me!” von Thurn und Taxis recalled in the book “Mattia Bonetti,” from 2010. But she was enthralled. “I always wanted contemporary design to live alongside contemporary art.”
In the 14 years since he split with Garouste, Bonetti’s voice and style have become resolutely his own. Still, the root of Bonetti’s work is his partnership with those who execute his designs. He produces all of his pieces with gifted craftsmen around the world, yet he also adores collaborating with hi-tech factories using 3D printers. “Right now I’m working with an artisan who uses robots to make acrylics,” he says, his eyes lighting up with the potential to do so much. Then he closes them, and his mind goes to work.