Name: Benoît Astier de Villatte
Name: Ivan Pericoli
Benoît and Ivan, as the founders of artisanal brand Astier de Villatte, how much are you thinking about the concept of luxury?
It’s actually quite a strange situation because we're not really interested in the luxury market. We are interested in doing things well. We like to find the right product and the right method, and that can often take years. If you choose that kind of quality, it can sometimes be expensive — not always, but sometimes.
So you’re more interested in quality and craftsmanship?
Exactly, and that is apparent in the way our products are made. Take, for example, our ceramics, which are handcrafted by Tibetan artisans in our Parisian workshops. The idea is that everyone crafts their product from start to finish, so there's no one person who does the cup and another one who put the handles. You make your cup with your hands. If you make a cup, you make the whole thing, and then you put your your signature on; each piece is signed by the person who made it. So there's a certain pride in the process, the pieces are like their babies. We have molds, of course, but everything is handmade and hand-stamped.
“If we don’t believe in the product and we don’t have a genuine enthusiasm, it’s not going to work.”
How did you start the process of working with this group of artisans? Is there a big tradition of ceramics in Tibet?
Not really, it’s not verry common. But for years when Ivan was younger, he was studying oriental language, including in Tibet, so we were always interested. One day, a friend of ours introduced us to some Tibetan guys who were looking for a job, he said, “You have to hire them.” At that time, Benoit's sister was in charge of the studio, and she was quite a tough person to impress. But we decided to send them to her and see what happens — we were surprised when she said they were very good because it’s usually hard to live up to her standards. We hired them, and eventually they asked for a job for their cousin. And he was even better than them! So slowly, they all had a cousin or a wife or someone else who wanted to work with us, so it grew very naturally. Now we don't even have to try to find new hires!
And do they learn the craft from you?
Some of them may have some prior knowledge of the craft, especially because many of them come from monasteries and nunneries where they have experience making religious statues and icons. And that can be useful. But mostly, we prefer hiring people who know nothing about ceramics because the technique, it's our technique. If you arrive with no technique or skills in this field, we can show you what we do, and you can do it easily. But if you have another technique, you have to change how you work and that can be tricky.
It’s difficult to unlearn what you already know.
Right, for example, we have a Frenchman at the company, and every day he says things like, “Normally, you don't do it like that...” Because the technique is not his technique. We’re always telling him, “Don’t worry, that’s just how we work…” (Laughs)
Is it ever difficult to ensure the quality of your products when there are so many different hands and minds involved in the process?
I think the most important thing to remember for us is that you have to keep your mind fresh and have pleasure making it. Otherwise, what you communicate through your product is the unpleasure of doing it. Everyone can see it, they can feel when something is off. So if we don't believe in the product and we don't have a genuine enthusiasm, it’s not going to work. That’s also the same philosophy we keep in regards to how our products are developed and what we choose to produce: it's a universe which works on its own. If you visit either of our homes, it wouldn't look like a one hundred percent representation of our universe, but you will find aspects of it. And we meet create this universe together.
Has that always been your business model, even from the start?
We’ve always just done what we want. We’ve always had a strong kind of identity, that was clear from day one, we just knew the kinds of things we liked. But we did struggle to figure out what we would do; that part was foggy. At first we wanted to sell candles. 20 years ago, we even approached Diptyque to ask if we could sell their products in our shop! They didn’t agree.
So you decided to do it all yourself?
Yes, we started doing furniture, a few pieces of ceramics, candles came in later on… But we really wanted to do anything. This is why we keep doing anything and everything; because the project was like that from the very beginning. We like the challenge of making things. At one point, we wanted to make this specific blanket; it was a big challenge to find the wool, to find the right people to knit it, to put together the squares… And in the end, it took 10 years and we only produced 10! So we’ve always wanted to do many, many things, even if those things take time.
These days you’re making everything from incense, to vases, textiles, stationary, and you just launched a second set of perfume. How does this most recent product come into play?
We worked with the great perfumer Dominique Ropion on three perfumes based on historical recipes from ancient Rome, Egypt, and 19th Century France. They are each super different, and usually with a smell, you don't need to have an explanation, but we thought for these special recipes, we need to retrace their epic stories so we published a book that goes along with them. So, you see, as long as it’s consistent to our universe, we could sell anything! Chocolates, flowers, anything. I think it was Picasso who said something like, "When I like it, I paint it.”