The Decorator's Home: An Interview Of Marco Castillo On Cuba's Incomplete Aesthetic Revolution

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Interview by Oliver Kupper
Portrait by Summer Bowie
Install images courtesy of UTA Artist Space

Marco A. Castillo’s The Decorator’s Home – his first solo exhibition in the United States after 26 years in Los Carpinteros collective – is a microcosm of the dichotomies and failures of modernism’s utopian ideals. Amid a raging Cold War that extended far beyond the US and the USSR, modernism infused a tinge of fascism disguised as national pride in the name of aesthetics, whether it be the folksy arts and crafts dreams of Frank Loyd Wright, or the concrete and rosewood pavilions of Oscar Niemeyer’s Brasilia. Cuban Modernism offered the same sense of freedom and hope in an embargoed state of isolationism and Marxist fervor. Needless to say, the movement didn’t last long – it sputtered out in the tropical miasma of communism’s last island holdouts. In A Decorator’s Home, Castillo captures this fervor: the dreams of space travel, the dreams of high-minded aesthetics, razor sharp lines, rich wood, and rare materials. All of this is imbued with the paranoia of a global race to the cosmos, and the coded languages of spies trading secrets while their Cuba Libre’s sweat into hotel coasters. In the back of the exhibition, a solemn and heartbreaking film, called Generation, is a symbolic six-minute epitaph for Cuban Modernism’s ambitions, it’s lonely siren songs of paradise, and youth crashed on the shores of their aspirations. In the end, Cuban Modernism’s shipwreck wasn’t due to lack of demand or desire. It was the sense of control that the architect’s of The Revolution – namely Fidel Castro and Che Guevara – needed in order to legitimize their violence and delusions of grandeur. As the movement died, many of the buildings were converted to hospitals, schools, and public works facilities. We got a chance to speak to Castillo about his exhibition, curated by Neville Wakefield, and about his own take on Cuban Modernism’s successes and failures.

OLIVER KUPPER: Where did the name for the show, The Decorator’s Home, come from? 

MARCO CASTILLO: I had been doing research on Cuban Modernity, and there was this generation of designers at the beginning of the revolution that got involved in creating a new static for these people that were going to be the future of this country and the future of the world, because Cuba thought that they would convince the rest of the world to become communist. This needed to have an aesthetic. 

KUPPER: It’s funny how revolutions need an aesthetic.

CASTILLO: This generation designed most of the objects we were supposed to use, like furniture, and also interior design for the spaces, for the workers, for the buses, for the hotels, and for the farmers. But at a certain point, the government stopped being interested in that.

KUPPER: Was it too ambitious?

CASTILLO: I think it was the mood of Fidel Castro. He got radicalized, he got very into Soviet politics, and he militarized the country. And so the static artists became an enemy because they were the creative people. 

KUPPER: Yeah, a little utopian.

CASTILLO: Yes, too liberal. In the seventies, there was censorship for writers. The government destroyed the movement, the design, and the taste. 

KUPPER: How many years was that?

CASTILLO: Twenty years, I would say. In Cuba you have Art Deco, Art Nouveau, but I’m fonder of this utopic moment. People were importing resources from the human past. For the colonial time, they were based on identity and they mixed it with the high-quality design from the northern country.

KUPPER: The northern influence is in your pieces, too.

CASTILLO: Yes, what I’m doing here is basically because this movement was interrupted. This stirred a frustration in all of us; we couldn’t have a complete aesthetic revolution. I behaved like an interior designer at the time, creating my own objects. They are not furniture, and they are not art. They are something in between. 

KUPPER: Object-art.

CASTILLO: Yes, this creates a lot of influence in them. They look like decoration.  

KUPPER: At times it reminds me of Brasília. 

CASTILLO: Yes, except the Brazilians use rosewood, and we use mahogany. Cuba has the most beautiful mahogany. It’s darker than the rest. Also, we have a little bit of the Soviet influence over furniture—more practical. The Brazilians were more like peacocks, more exaggerated at times. 

(walking over to another piece)

KUPPER: What’s that?

CASTILLO: This is the type of wood people use to make cabinets. It smells so good. 

KUPPER: When did you start using caning?

CASTILLO: It was after the Cuban movement. I realized they were using this old material to do things that were very modern. Also, they were doing a lot of screens. There was a very tropical feeling in every piece of furniture—very delicate—you couldn’t really read it immediately. For example, they use a combination of mahogany and white surfaces. It would remind you of a coconut. I did the same here (walks towards screen). I designed the outside of it. I made it white, so it looks a little bit like pieces of coconut. A screen in a very important place called Salon de Protocolo El Laguito, the Protocol Room of El Laguito, inspired this. There is a huge screen that reminds me of this one, but it doesn’t have the alphabet. I added an alphabet because it was sort of an addiction of the Cold War.

KUPPER: Coding…

CASTILLO: Yeah, people really wanted to know these codes; there was lots of paranoia. (laughs) What are they saying? It became almost like art.

KUPPER: Would you consider there to be a Brutalist element to any of these pieces as well?

CASTILLO: You know when you’re dealing with this socialist element, Brutalism is always there. This (pointing to a caning piece with stars) reminds me of our monuments. This is pure Brutalism. 

KUPPER: This is very symbolic.  

CASTILLO: It represents a little bit of the revolution. I come from a country that had a lot of fun—a beautiful, turbulent country. Cuba was very rich in the beginning, but not after the revolution. I represent that as a circle. Simple, beautiful, perfect. It turns into a star, which is a very complex, geometric figure. At the same time, it reminds me of the back or the bottom of a chair. 

KUPPER: What about the rifles?

CASTILLO: The whole exhibition evolves from more abstract work to the more committed, symbolic, and engaged with the later alternative reality. It’s easy for me to imagine that an artist or a designer could have made a poster creating optical art with rifles as a monument, as a creative item. It never happened, and I never saw it, so I made it. 

KUPPER: Was it a military aesthetic?

CASTILLO: There was a moment of militarization. I had to start learning shooting when I was thirteen, and I got these preparations every year until I was eighteen. 

KUPPER: You weren’t going to join the army?

CASTILLO: No, it was not for me. (laughs) I don’t even like weapons. It just fascinated me—the shape of the rifle when you buy it creates a completely different object; it turns into something else. This is an American gun. I think it’s the Springfield. 

KUPPER: It’s a pretty common rifle.

CASTILLO: My grandfather had it. It’s the rifle I always saw when I was a child. He was a hunter. You know what we hunt in Cuba? Guinea chicken. 

KUPPER: What’s a Guinea chicken?

CASTILLO: It’s a beautiful animal.

KUPPER: Not like a Guinea pig?

CASTILLO: No (laughs), it’s a chicken, but it’s so beautiful. It’s a very strange animal. It looks like it’s from a patisserie.

KUPPER: Interesting.

KUPPER: (gesturing towards the sculptures across the room) These definitely remind me of the Cold War shapes—space-age shapes. 

CASTILLO: Totally, because all these amazing designs started in that era. 

KUPPER: It was the beginning of these explorations with satellites and this idea of our future in space.

CASTILLO: The future would be space, the future would be socialist, the future would be capitalist, which there was a big doubt about—there was a fight about it.

The Decorator’s Home is on view through July 13 at UTA Artist Space 403 Foothill Rd. Beverly Hills, CA 90210

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Brutal Beauty: An Interview of Artist and Muse Michele Lamy On Organizing Rick Owens' First Furniture Exhibition

On a cold, rainy night, the day before the private opening, we huddled in the cab of a moving truck to chat about furniture, music and fashion. It may have been a symbolic coincidence that Michele Lamy was in the driver's seat, clutching on to the huge steering wheel, but maybe it wasn't. It's true – although the furniture line is a true collaboration, Lamy does most of the general contracting and she is organizing the exhibition all on her own. But it’s obvious that she is used to it and loves the process, and Rick is happy to take a back seat. 

Despite her diminutive frame, Lamy’s primal and mystical energy seems enough to muster ample kinetic energy to move hundreds of tons of concrete, alabaster and marble. The way she talks (with a thick, rough French accent), gesticulates, moves her eyes - the way her jewelry and stacked rings move with an orchestral clattering - is hypnotic. It is no wonder that the creative class has flocked to her – like an oasis in an indefinable desert of sameness – for the last couple of decades. It's no wonder why she and Rick have become a centrifugal force in the world of fashion and art.

Lamy is anything but ordinary. In some circles, you may know Lamy because of her relationship to fashion and furniture designer Rick Owens. Indeed, there are many clichés to describe her relationship to her partner: muse, alter ego, better half, right hand woman and so on. But more than anything, Lamy is a vital counterpart - a long lost spiritual and creative twin. That Owens and Lamy found each other in this modern artistic wilderness is kismet in the form of nuclear fusion, but it is not terribly surprising. Before the two were globally recognized, Michele owned a famous restaurant in Los Angeles called Les Deux Café and Owens was honing his craft in a studio across the street. While both Michele and Owens are mercilessly creative - Lamy really took the reigns with the furniture side of their output. Lamy almost exclusively heads all production, which takes her on material buying trips around the world looking for rare skins and fur, wood, bone and marble.

Open now at MOCA's Pacific Design Center outpost, you can experience an immersive exhibition of new furniture pieces designed by Owens, but spearheaded and organized by Lamy. A large alabaster wall, marble benches, camel skin ottomans and an ox bone settee - you can move your fingers across and through all the pieces. The furniture is a perfect, brutalist, and antiestablishment vision for a bombed out future where we must carve out our palaces from the ruins of factories and government headquarters. Complimenting the furniture are works by the late sculptural painter Steven Parrino, whose works capture the same anarchy and vision as the furniture. 

In the following interview, we chat with Michele Lamy about the exhibition, her past as the iconic ringleader at Les Deux Café and what she misses most about the Los Angeles she left behind before leaving for Paris with Rick Owens.

BJ PANDA BEAR: How have you been? I’ve been seeing you pop around and I know you’re working on this upcoming exhibition. How is everything coming along with it?

MICHELE LAMY: So, we are almost done. Just finishing up. I like the process so there is a thing that we’ve built and it’s just outside of Paris. We have this big atelier and then we did a warehouse in Los Angeles. For example, we do a lot of pieces in concrete, which is difficult to move, paying for the weight of the concrete for sending on a plane because we are always late. And then we found this great warehouse that’s on Highland and Romaine. Now we move in to MOCA and there is a little bit of adjustment because it’s still an institution, but it’s cool. We can break stuff, we can repair stuff up there, but for example you cannot drink a cup of tea. I don’t know why - it’s just the rules. When you’ve finished building something, you cannot have tea. I’m sure you can come in with a gun, but you cannot have tea.

BJ PANDA BEAR: That's insane! Where did the origin of the furniture come from? 

LAMY: When we move somewhere, we always do the furniture. We moved so many times. A gallery said it looked like a collection so I took it from there to produce it. It turned into two collections. It turned into gallery showings, we have dealers. We just keep doing it.

BJ PANDA BEAR: You’re always so hands on when we see all the documentation of your work. Have you always been so hands on with every single detail and the luxury.

LAMY: Which luxury?

BJ PANDA BEAR: Like all the images of you picking out slabs of marble and everything.

LAMY: Yeah you know I completely fell in love with doing this. The material, and there is something about the story behind making the pieces. We have a collection where everything is coming from Pakistan. In another collection, we are finding camel fur in the Empty Quarters desert in Abu Dhabi. But everything is produced just outside of Paris. That’s just where we find the right people.

BJ PANDA BEAR: What type of music is inspiring for you? What have you been listening to lately?

LAMY: I’m very into techno, house. I love radio stations, but now they are so lacking. There were so many and they’ve disappeared. I listen here on the internet from France like continuous house music, but I like LSD from A$AP [Rocky], I like his music.

BJ PANDA BEAR: You and A$AP are close, right?

LAMY: Yep. We just did a performance together at Art Basel Miami. It was fantastic. I was so happy. It was in the Design District on a roof. Silencio, a club from Paris, opened it. It was this space and it was a performance with Caecilia Tripp. Where you never see her, but she is there. We were there. It was a nice courtyard in the design district, so the location was good. It was not a hotel, it was more its own space.

BJ PANDA BEAR: When you were laying out and organizing the exhibition, was there a central focus or drive for this particular project?

LAMY: Yeah, There was a special focus. The one thing is the prong. It is represented everywhere even if you don’t see it, because it’s the way that we attach a bench of six meters – by two prongs, there is flow. It is floating. It looks like you need to hammer something, but it is about floating. The paintings are hung on the side. The space was sort of difficult, because it is very high and there’s not so much space on the first floor. Then we made this huge wall in alabaster that is a weeping wall. That piece - you know, I did feel good because coming to LA, I was sort of seeking a home, found the right warehouse, and then we were able to make this space our space. And changing the dynamic of the space, that’s usually what I’ve seen is always a challenge.

BJ PANDA BEAR: You’re used to transforming spaces, right? Your place in Paris doesn’t have a specific living room, or even a specific kitchen.

LAMY: Right right.



BJ PANDA BEAR: It is often said that you are the muse behind the show, but also that you’re kind of spearheading all of it. What are your personal muses and inspirations for design? Do you have a muse yourself?

LAMY: I don’t know what a muse is in that way. When you are with someone and you are doing things together and people say that because it is too difficult to say what exactly it is. I’m sure there is something I am inspired by. I’m old enough that all of these pieces of inspiration are melting into something more personal for me. People I admire is more because they have the guts to do what they’re meant to do and especially now with what just happened in the election, I think people have to be strong and do something they believe in.

BJ PANDA BEAR: Since this is like a comeback to LA for you, have there been any restaurants or places new here that you really love?

LAMY: I came a couple of times to do this exhibition. So I’ve had time to visit many places here. This time around, I live at the Chateau. When I was with Rick, we lived for two years at the Chateau, because we got attacked at the house we lived in. I have some friends and I gave them a tour of Traction Avenue and where there used to be factories are now galleries. I am really, really happy to see that little part of downtown – it is still the same, sort of, like SCI-Arc is still there. It was always good, except Al’s Bar is closed, but American Hotel is still there. They always say there was no one there before. They were there. We weren't so underground, but the prices were different. I always liked Little Tokyo and Koreatown – and Korean baths! My favorite thing, I think they are better here than in Korea. Of course the beach, it is beautiful. I was at the beach for Thanksgiving. There were not many people there – just people skateboarding on Venice Beach.

BJ PANDA BEAR: Can we chat a little about Les Deux Cafe or is that something you’d rather not? Cause I’ve heard so many stories.

LAMY: You know it was fantastic. It has been like twelve years of doing this. It was great, it was a time. Me and Rick were living across the street. Now it’s set to be demolished in a few months. Everything there is going to be demolished because it is going to be a mall. Another mall.

BJ PANDA BEAR: That’s so nuts…

LAMY: You know there has been a story in Another Magazine written by Chris Wallace who was a maître d' at Les Deux Cafe. Then we had this great artist, Konstantin Kakanias, who did these drawings, because at the time people did not have cell phones so it was preferential to taking a picture. And because it was a private place, the drawing was so much better to help tell the stories.

BJ PANDA BEAR: I love hearing the stories.

LAMY: It made it even better. There was no Instagram. Can you believe? It was so long ago. It worked though, we had so many great stories.

BJ PANDA BEAR: They’re so epic. I don’t even know if some of them are real.

LAMY: That was a very great time.

BJ PANDA BEAR: Are you going to be spending more time in Los Angeles? What took you guys so long to come back? Does Rick ever come here?

LAMY: You know before this MOCA story, we never came back. Rick you know, he is not coming for the exhibition. We don’t want to be analyzing all of this, but at the same time it’s a lot of things that are happening so he decided not to come here and let me do all the work alone. I know that next year, we are going to be in Europe a lot. Lots of time in Venice for the Biennale, so it seems like these things are happening and then Rick is going to our show in Milano. But I feel very at home in New York.

BJ PANDA BEAR: In New York, really? I’ve heard stories about Rick not liking New York. Does he ever go there?

LAMY: Yeah he doesn’t come there.

BJ PANDA BEAR: I was going to ask about the crystal and foam you’re planning on working with. How did you guys get involved with that kind of material?

LAMY: One thing to the next. Right now in this show, there is foam. The main thing in this show that changed the old perspective is a big wall of carved alabaster - the weeping wall. That is so heavy. There’s a lot of totems. It’s difficult to explain without seeing it.

BJ PANDA BEAR: Can you talk a little bit about Steven Parrino’s work in the show?

LAMY: It started because we are doing a show at the Museum of Modern Art in Paris. It was a Carol Rama show and they asked us to be guests with our furniture. It was this combination because there is something on the wall, and then something on the floor. So then when Phillipe Vergne asked us to do a show, we thought it would be nice to work with somebody, and who is better than Steven Parrino? I know that we always liked him and his work is very related to our work. Lot’s of canvases that you think are collapsed, but are actually very controlled.

BJ PANDA BEAR: Did you get to meet him when he was around?

LAMY: Not at all, because all the years he was in Europe, I was here. I did know about him. I could have met him in Paris, but I didn’t. He was more known in Europe than in the States and he had a lot of collectors in Geneva. Did you like his work?

BJ PANDA BEAR: I like his work and his minimalist sort of nihilistic work. It reminds me a bit of Alan Vega’s work from Suicide and I like that deconstructed sort of connection between music and fashion.

LAMY: Steven Parrino’s work is very connected to those worlds. It speaks very well to this show at MOCA.


Rick Owens: Furniture will be on view until April 2, 2017 at MOCA Pacific Design Center in Los Angeles. Interview by BJ Panda Bear. Intro text and photographs by Oliver Maxwell Kupper. Follow Autre on Instagram: @AUTREMAGAZINE