‘It’s a nice place to be when you’re creating stuff.’
Relaxing at work with Frank Gehry.
By Jo-Ann Furniss
Photographs by Robert Polidori
‘A handbag?!’ Lady Bracknell’s immortal utterance might perhaps be echoed in architecture’s ivory towers when some of the field’s leading proponents find out what Frank Gehry has been up to of late. He is arguably the greatest architect at work today – Vanity Fair has called him ‘the most important architect of our age’ – and yet, in the flesh, he is free of any sort of pretentions and pomposity. He is a delight to be around. Frank Gehry gleefully embraces a seriously playful attitude and ethos in his life and work – in the vast Gehry Partners studio, cluttered with large scale models that can be tinkered with and moulded by hand like three-dimensional sketches, you imagine this is the terrain of a mad hobbyist. Yet this is the terrain of the great Frank Gehry who, nonetheless, still voiced himself on The Simpsons. It is in this state of mind, of serious playfulness, that the architect has been concocting something in tandem with his Parisian magnum opus in the Bois de Boulogne – that’s the Fondation Louis Vuitton in case you didn’t know – another project also for LV and in celebration of the famous monogram. It is something entirely opposite in scale and stature to the former project, doll-like in its proportions, yet strangely ‘fuck you’ in its lack of machismo and might. It is also top secret at the time this conversation takes place, in early May 2014 in Los Angeles. It is indeed a handbag. And it is one that could not have been designed by anybody other than Frank Gehry.
‘Tip the world on its side and everything loose will land in Los Angeles,’ said that other famous Frank of architecture, Frank Lloyd Wright. And this is where Frank Gehry himself landed. From the Canadian kid who was taught to play and make things from scraps by his grandmother, via the detour of truck driver, to being the pre-eminent architect of our age: in many ways Los Angeles is the place where it all came together. Gehry established his architectural practice in Los Angeles in 1962, but it is with his startling renovations to his residence in Santa Monica, purchased and revived in 1977, that all those loose bits really started to redefine the architectural landscape. Frank Gehry is far from being a ‘purist’, and Los Angeles is the perfect, non-pure, place for him. It is the place where he met many like-minded individuals in different fields and with their inspiration, started to redefine the boundaries of his own discipline, something that he continues to do today.
In turn, our talk of the handbag has shaken loose its own debris. Curiously opening up a plethora of Frank Gehry’s memories, experiences and insights that are both perceptive and funny – this is not exactly an interview for architectural purists, or fashion purists come to that – they range from observations on the Royal Family, including how he annoyed Princess Anne and how his mother thought she was The Queen Mother, to how the rich want to punish themselves through Minimalism. It is a conversation that is ably added to by Gehry’s brilliant and engaging right hand, Meaghan Lloyd.
To neatly sum up Frank Gehry’s attitude, and to quote his favourite writer, Anthony Trollope, in response to those Lady Bracknell-type naysayers: ‘I ain’t a bit ashamed of anything.’
Have you worked in fashion before?
Yes, I have. With Rudi Gernreich. He was here and he was a friend – and it was years ago. I decided to make a dress out of… What’s it called again – it was plastic, very light – Mylar!
The big Vogue model at the time was Jean Shrimpton. I wanted her to fly to New York – where there was a snowstorm, so blizzard cold – where she would put on this Mylar coat that you could see through. It would keep her body heat in but be completely see-through.
Would she have been naked underneath?
That would be one possibility – it would be her choice. It never happened, but we talked about it a lot.
It was at the time when many of the great LA artists were emerging… And you were friends with them…
There is a picture on the steps at the LA County of Art, and all the artists are there. Gernreich is there with – what’s her name – Peggy Moffit.
She is in charge of the Gernreich estate. You know they are trying to revive it?
I’d be willing to help them. I don’t know what I could do, but still… I loved him. I just thought he was great. I did a conference with Rudi and that was where I showed cardboard furniture. Richard Solomon, who was the backer of Yves Saint Laurent and Vidal Sassoon at the time, showed an interest in it and got it to Bloomingdale’s. So that sort of all happened at the same time. Solomon was a high-fashion guy: I was kind of peripheral.
Doing a handbag, what will people say?
You tell me.
A lot of creative fields don’t have that willingness to explore… Why did you want to do the project?
Because I love Delphine [Arnault]. It just happened seamlessly. She came to visit. She was in LA and wanted to come to the studio… Then I was asked about the store windows. And what goes in the windows… a handbag. I think I said, ‘OK, I’ll try it.’ That is always my kind of attitude. So I did, and they loved it. I thought ‘What the fuck’s going on?’
Are you always surprised when people actually love what you do?
Especially that! In my work I am usually pushed back if it’s new – that’s when I know I am doing OK when I get the push back. I feel my own push back – what is this thing? But with the bag it was my son’s fiancé Joycey [Joyce Shin], who is a designer with me, and we started playing with these shapes, one of which was this. I thought, well, we’ll just put it in as a process thing and see where it goes – but they loved it. Then I didn’t want it to just be ‘a thing’, so I spent time with Louis Vuitton to talk about the refinement of details, the clasp… the whole thing. I have had fun with them, we’ve been changing and refining the bag up until the last minute.
Then when I saw what all the other designers were doing, I thought, well we’re not as important as those guys because we didn’t do the bigger things! But then, when I saw them all aligned, I thought ours was kind of our thing, one thing where it wouldn’t have worked being bigger – you wouldn’t make a suitcase that is lopsided?! With a handbag you can get away with it, if it just sat on a table.
And it also feels sort of rebellious for you to do something that isn’t monumental… That is small instead of big.
I think it is a one-off type thing, where you wouldn’t do it again. Where you wouldn’t do bigger ones or littler ones. It works as one thing and that’s it. I like that quality about it.
So you’re not tempted to start a handbag range?
When is the Foundation Louis Vuitton opening?
It’s opening October 27th.
Is that a secret too?
I don’t have secrets from anybody…
Apart from the handbag!
The Foundation is far less secret. I’ve never had that secrecy before, they are doing a whole campaign with the bag and that terrifies me…
What scares you about that?
It is territory I have never been in… Handbag publicity!
‘I turned down Avedon. I love his photos, I just didn’t want to be in them. The other guy photographed me – what’s his name? – Irving Penn.’
But I was told you wanted to do something with Michelle Williams. And I thought, why Michelle Williams?
I don’t even know who Michelle Williams is. All I know is she is the little girl with the red bag in the current advertising campaign. I thought that was so Louis Vuitton – I really responded to her and the bag in the picture. I thought it was one of the best photographic ads I have ever seen. So when they talked about this I asked could they get her to pose with the bag? I have no clue about what I’m thinking or saying or why! Whether she is totally wrong for this sort of wacky bag…
Well, she lives in LA I think…
Well let’s get her over here! I’ll have the first picture with her and the bag.
Your fear seems to be subsiding about the whole campaign…
You have to realise I once turned down Avedon. I love his photographs – but I just didn’t want to be in one of them. Although I did have a photo with the other guy – what’s his name again? – Irving Penn.
Anyway, we designed an icon for the building, the LV logo for the building. It is really beautiful. It sort of mimics what we have for the bag, in the embossed interior.
Why the blue leather interior?
I have never really been inside a handbag, so I was trying to think what I would like if I were inside, maybe blue… I just liked that colour in contrast with the brown monogram really. It just all happened intuitively, it was not contrived. I was asked how would I like the interior? So I just started to think about different colours. The thing about a handbag is that there is all kinds of different junk inside it, so if I had made the interior reflective, there would just be more junk! Those were the kind of things I thought about, to have a reflective interior but you’d just be looking at more stuff. I thought it called attention to the interior – and I wanted to leave that on the outside. The interior is more private, so it could be red or a natural leather colour, but I thought the blue was great with the brown. A darker blue just felt more orderly somehow, for the stuff in the bag, that it would just give it more clarity… I suppose I just have a fantasy of what it would be like to be inside the bag! Ha!
Meaghan Lloyd: Everybody just literally created the bag they wanted for themselves. Whereas Frank created a sculpture he’d like to see on a table.
Would you ever carry the bag?
‘I tell you who I would like to see carry the bag, Queen Elizabeth. My idea is that we make a white one and I go to present it to her.’
Would you give the bag to someone? For them to carry…
Oh, yes. I’d give one to Carrie Fisher because she’s a good friend. But if you put that in then I’ll have to!
I’ll tell you who I would really like to see carry the bag, Queen Elizabeth. Because her mother carried a little white bag and my mother thought she was her when she got older and carried a little white bag too. She was Canadian, and we had relatives in England who would talk about going to The Queen’s garden party, making her think that this was a special invitation that her relatives alone had received, very exclusive. She got into the fantasy that she was part of this pseudo-British-royalty-bullshit and she carried the white purse. We called her ‘The Queen Mother’. And then, as she aged, I bought her a little house near mine. It had a tiny little garden, a beautiful little garden. And she said to me one day, ‘Are we planning the garden party?’ I said, ‘Which garden party?’ She said, ‘The one we have every year.’ I said ‘OK, who would you invite?’ She said, ‘Oh, the usual people.’ I said, ‘OK mom, we’ll carry on with the party.’ Two weeks before the party, my mother’s gardener called and told me she was asking for trees to be torn down because there was not enough lawn for the event – she was asking for neighbours’ trees to be torn down as well. She was really going for the royal garden party. So it went ahead, she wore a beautiful bonnet and sat at the table. A load of friends of mine came that she didn’t know – it was like hiring extras, they went along with it but they would not have normally come to my mother’s birthday party. So, really, this is my only experience with handbags – it has notoriety, it is a handbag that people all over the world would recognise. So I was thinking about that, could we make it white for her? Yes, we might. LV have done white for Murakami – so my idea is that we make a white one, and I go to Queen Elizabeth and present it to her.
That’s who you should have in the campaign!
If Queen Elizabeth heard this story about my mother, and if she knew I was standing on the street in Toronto as she and her sister, as little girls, were going up University Avenue with their mother and father – I was maybe five years old, and she was about three years older and cute – so if she knew that, that I was there. And she knew about my mother’s relatives who would go to the garden party, and if she knew my mother carried a white purse and was called ‘The Queen Mother’ by the family, and if she knew my mother really tried to have a garden party, I think she’d be happy to receive it.
They might turn around and say unfortunately, she can only carry British goods…
And there I was giving you your whole story!
I met Diana; I have a picture with Diana…
That is not going to endear you to The Queen…
She kept calling me ‘Famous Architect’ — just ‘Famous Architect’.
I have met Princess Anne. I was at the Palace in Barcelona for the Olympics. I was talking to Pasqual Maragall, who was a friend I had done some work with, he was the Mayor of Barcelona at the time. He was talking to a young lady and just as I got there he was called away. So I was left standing with the young lady who was Princess Anne, but I didn’t know! Her nametag was on a chain but it was down at crotch level, so I couldn’t really look. So for 30 minutes she talked to me about Prince Charles and his architectural tastes. She asked me what I thought and I was quite candid about it. I was very polite with her for about 20 or 30 minutes, then her friend came over to discuss something with her. I looked down and saw it was Princess Anne. Then I became this little boy in Canada with the Your Highness bullshit, that little kid. She knew I had read it and the jig was up, so she split. But before she left, she said about Prince Charles, ‘If you’ve got anything to say to him, tell him yourself!’
I can’t be knighted because I am Canadian…
‘I can’t be knighted because I’m Canadian. I have the Order of Canada and the Légion d’honneur, but we’re still working on the knighthood!’
But don’t they make exceptions?
Then put it in the article!
Wait a minute; aren’t we dealing with France here?
I have the Order of Canada, the highest one – the Companion. And the Légion d’honneur…
I used to hang out with Maggie Keswick. I used to go to London and hang out with her and her mother, Claire Keswick. We’d have a few drinks and then they’d get to talking about how I should have a knighthood – this went on for a few years. We’re still working on it, but we’ll get there!
Being very British about it: By being Canadian you have an advantage, you are seen as being part of the colonies!
You go to New York, and they have never gotten over being part of the colonies. A British accent in New York gives you more traction than anything else. Have you tried it? Any British accent gets jobs or anything – they really go gaga for it in New York. You should ride the wave; it’s a good one. Demand first-class travel, demand fancy restaurants – allude to your relative Lord such and such, but you don’t want to go into it right now.
My favourite writer is an English guy, Trollope. I love Trollope. I have read everything he’s written. Lady Glencora… you’ve got to read him. Now, this particular handbag I’ve designed is from that era.
The Trollope era!
Meaghan Lloyd: You see how our handbag meetings go? This is the tenor.
You open the handbag, and it is all Trollope!
I wanted to talk to you about your grandmother, how she inspired you to play with materials and make models…
Yeah, it’s probably my grandmother’s fault, the handbag! I’ll go with anything, you know! It is all part of it.
But I’ve read your grandmother did inspire you… How to create and make things, how to envision something…
What she did do was open the door to play as an adult. She was willing to sit on the floor and play as an adult and that stuck in my head.
‘If you go on organising everything for a logical development of the world, the world doesn’t like that. It doesn’t give a fuck about working like that.’
Did you think at first, ‘I will be a serious architect’, and it took you a while to become playful…
Yes. I think playful is good. If you take it the way some people do, then it becomes a negative when applied to serious architecture. But if you take it as a way to tap your creative spirits, then it is important. The opposite of playful is seriousness, that way you end up with a philosophy and language that seriousness engenders and then you have rules. As soon as you get into the rules, then you are in dangerous territory. The playfulness keeps you out of the rules. If you are intuitive, experimental and like exploring… In fact it is curiosity that is nice. It is a nice place to be when you are creating stuff.
So if you set out to design a handbag that fits in Louis Vuitton’s world, which works with their customers, I think it would be contrived. This bag is playful, the experience of making it was playful, but in a serious way.
It has to be intuitive – that’s how fashion works. It is an intuitive way that you work in architecture; do people resist you working like that?
There is resistance to working in that way because people want to understand it and contextualise it with the world around them. That’s a problem; it keeps you going on the same track. Which actually leads to chaos. If you go on organising everything for a very logical development of the world, the world doesn’t like that. The world doesn’t give a fuck about working like that. And then if you invent a whole language of architecture – which a lot of people have – it is out of touch with reality. But they become academics and academia creates a hierarchy that is counterproductive to exploration and invention.
Did LA give you a freedom?
Yes it did. I saw what happened to colleagues of mine who stayed in New York – they got clobbered! Because they did get these rules. There were the Whites in New York, there were the Silvers out here, and there were the Greys, which was Venturi. The Whites was Richard Meier, the Silvers was Pelli. You had to choose who you were, or else you were put in the box. I was put in the box of deconstruction – I was put in that deconstruction show in MoMa. My house in Santa Monica was put into that category because you looked at it and you thought of the word deconstruction; it was kind of like visual onomatopoeia – that’s how they got away with it. I looked at it and said, ‘I don’t know what you are talking about.’ I had the opportunity to meet with [Jacques] Derrida and I asked him what were his intentions using deconstructivism in the literary sense and were there any resonances with what I was doing. He said, ‘No, none at all.’ I got the pass out! I am out – the boss said, ‘I’m OK and I’m out!’
But I did feel awkward being in that show. But I didn’t protest it. Philip [Johnson], and all my buddies were in that show and I thought, ‘Jeez, there is a nice part to this, I am with my friends.’ But I should have protested it; I should have taken myself out if I was serious about things like that. It is just I tend not to be.
Minimalism is a dead end. The guy that was sort of the poster boy for Minimalism was Malevich. He cleansed everything to a black square in a corner – then what do you do? He then started making clothes because he didn’t know what to do. Then everyone felt sorry for him, thinking he blew it. He didn’t! He just reached a conclusion. I look at the young architects here, comfortable with this Minimalist stuff. But in the end they will hit a wall, I think I have already started to see it happen. I started to see people do outrageous things because they have nowhere else to go.
There is another aspect to Minimalism that is interesting. If you are very rich, and you feel guilty about being very rich, one way of cleansing your soul is to live in a Minimalist house. So if you look at who hires Minimalist architects, it is the very wealthy. If you look at Mies [van der Rohe] and the Farnsworth House, the Farnsworths were stupendously wealthy. And they built this house where you had to sit in the right place or else you didn’t fit. I had these friends who were developers who lived in Baltimore, they used Mies a lot. I used to go to their house for dinner. And they had the fireplace, the double settee, the two chairs and the coffee table by Mies, but it was set out in a very awkward way. I said to them, ‘You know, you could make this comfortable,’ so I turned the settee to the fireplace and put a chair at either side and it worked.It was very nice. So guess what, three months later I went back to dinner and they had laid all the furniture out the other way. I said ‘Why’d you do that?’ They told me, ‘Out of respect for Mies.’ They actually said that!
‘I imagine there would be a lot of “establishment” architects that would be snooty about me designing a handbag… That’s the best part.’
People like rules…
But really, the richer the people are, they want to cleanse their souls.
Crazily, the handbag does get me thinking about things and talking about things in a different way.
I imagine there would be a lot of ‘establishment’ architects that would be snooty about me designing a handbag… That’s the best part!
You are just not a snob…
[Laughs] It is trivial either way. The point is to do something and to see where it goes. It is better than doing nothing! And they are nice people, they try things.
The Foundation has been collaboration – and I like it that way. I want the building to be theirs when I am done. It is my version of theirs, and I am open to that. I fly on that, otherwise I’d make a building that would look like something I’ve done before. This way I am helped to stay more flexible and in flux. We’ll certainly have a handbag show.
Meaghan Lloyd: There will be spaces for exhibitions… The Foundation is separate from the company.
We have not had any of that bureaucratic stuff, not with the building…
[We originally attempted a Proust Questionnaire in addition to this interview… Frank becomes diverted by it.]
I have filled out a Proust Questionnaire before – it would be interesting to compare them… But don’t show me the last one until I have done this…
‘What is your current state of mind?’ It is total idiocy.
Did the bag reflect the structure of a building you already worked on?
See that building there, the silver one, it is in Hanover, Germany. The bag has a similar structure to that if you lay it on its side… I didn’t realise this until afterwards. I started with the twist way back in the models. If you lay the building horizontal, it has the first structure of the bag – but I realised this after the fact. We got to the bag in a different way, but we got to the same place. I didn’t say, ‘Joycey, let’s make a bag like this.’ We didn’t realise.
You like Bernini, the Bernini books…
Yes, you know there is the fountain in Piazza Navona? See the slices in the stone; they were Bernini’s thumbprints in the clay. If you look at the thing, there is a mass of clay with thumbprints. It’s intuitive, it’s expressive, it’s stupid, it’s funny, but it turns into one of the best parts of his sculpture.
What would you say is your signature?
My big nose.
Meaghan Lloyd: He’s teaching his class at Yale – I was one of his students in his master class – and he teaches everyone about the importance of individuality. He wants everyone to have his or her own signature. So signature for you is to be who you are and how to express that. He said to us the best part of being an architect is that you get to live your life out loud in your work, and if you don’t, people will not care. If you don’t care about yourself, people will feel that, and if you don’t put yourself into the work, people will feel that. So be yourself, whoever that is.
I love seeing people in what they do, the more extreme the better, so you feel this person might be quite mad. I think it is important to support it, to buy what they do.
I feel the same.
If you don’t have a sense of idiocy in fashion, it isn’t chic.
You make me want to throw the bag away and start again!
No, it’s great – it’s doll-like and not monolithic. It isn’t macho. It is the least macho of all of them. But still strong. What is it like to deal with an icon of luxury after you have become known for the opposite?
I am not judgemental about luxury; I am not judgemental one way or the other.
The Santa Monica House could be seen as made up of the detritus of the industrial world… It linked to what you played with as a child.
I just didn’t have any money was the fact! And I don’t really like fancy…
Meaghan Lloyd: But you love playing with craftsman… To get that shape and the edge, the crispness of the leather…
I was told there would not be that many and if luxury means craftsmanship, I thought it would be fun to play with the craftsmen, to push them. They take craftsmanship very seriously at Louis Vuitton, and that’s what I like.
Meaghan Lloyd: You don’t have judgement about anybody – you put everybody on the same playing field… I don’t want to speak for you.
She really does!
Again, no rules, no penance.
We do boats, too. We do everything you know. That’s why I am going to Maine.
Meaghan Lloyd: It’s going to appear like a slice of wood going through the water… Latticework windows.
You put up with my crazy.
[As I attempt to dispose of a sandwich wrapper…]
Don’t litter my office, I am very precise.
[Frank Gehry’s office is far from precise.]
There will always be an England. I go there often, I like it.