Interview by Joshua Comaroff
Launched by former co-creative director—and Hermès family member—Pascale Mussard in 2010, petit h began with a mission to find new life for small quantities of material rejected in the production of clothes, leather, and household objects. While “imperfect” for their intended purpose, Mussard noted, these were nonetheless valuable and beautiful scraps that could be re-imagined in other guises. Mussard joked that her colleagues at Hermès thought she was a mad hoarder, keeping everything from old newspapers to shards of wood and small fragments of leather and cloth in great piles at her home and office.
The “little h” was intended as a kind of cheeky younger sibling to the “Big H”—a house with a long history and a robust culture of practice. The new initiative could create the sort of quirky, small-batch items that would not work in a conventional commercial setting, even one as whimsical and experimental as Hermès. Mussard’s storehouse of homeless materials could be re-imagined by a select group of designers as new objects, playing upon their material qualities for witty transformations. A shard of ceramic might become an earring, a leather panel a paperweight in the form of a mushroom. While petit h maintained a permanent “home” in the Rue de Sevres, Paris, it functioned primarily as a traveling event, visiting a new city each year and being designed by a local scenographer.
In 2018, Godefroy de Virieu (previously a designer with petit h) took over the creative directorship of the brand, working with artists and artisans on a new generation of objects. De Virieu brings his own energies to Mussard’s envisioned balance of sustainability and imagination, curating what are many of the line’s most remarkable objects to date. He speaks of petit h’s unique process—the re-use of wildly divergent materials in small quantities—as “creativity in reverse.” This is not the purpose-built, traditional model of design that would specify inputs and quantities according to commercial projections, but a revaluation that happens from the basis of the substances themselves. This suggests, perhaps, a novel model of design thinking more akin to adaptive reuse, “upcycling,” or other more contemporary approaches that attempt to balance novelty with a rejection of over-consumption.
We last spoke prior to the pandemic, when petit h launched its second Singapore edition with designer Olivia Lee. I moderated a public discussion with you and Olivia, where you introduced the idea of “design in reverse”—a powerful and evocative way to describe the petit h method of re-purposing fragments and imperfect things. Can you please describe “design in reverse”?
Petit h has been a creation in reverse since the starting point: there is no preconceived idea in the making-process. Nevertheless, skillful hands and clever minds manage to use our unused Hermès materials and improvise, combining them in a thousand and one different ways with always the aim of making useful and surprising objects.
I totally agree with this notion of fragments that you mention. This evokes the meaning of petit h's approach and our state of mind very well: Fragments are pieces of material, parts of something that are charged with a story. I prefer the notion of fragments to the notion of leftovers. Write a new story while keeping the DNA of the original material. All our products must be used for one purpose, which has been at the core of Hermès’s values from the beginning: functionality. All the petit h objects are useful and can be used for a long time. We get all the materials from the various Hermès métiers, such as leather, silk, porcelain, and crystal which are not used, either because they are discontinued or because they come from pieces that have a defect.
All the materials at Hermès are exceptional. The richness of the project lies in this diversity of the materials and our ability to assemble them to create new objects.All materials have something to say if we know how to look at them. And this diversity is exciting, and we also like to build bridges with the different know-how of other countries; we want to explore new materials and cross them with our techniques and materials. It’s also part of the process of the creation at petit h.
It seems that this method involves giving new life to things that would otherwise be added to the vast reserve of discarded materials from the industry. And it seems—despite the playful nature of petit h—that this is something that Hermès, and you, take very seriously. You mentioned it was “not public relations” but integral to the company’s culture and philosophy. Where do you think this impulse comes from? Is it from the family, the firm’s designers and creative directors, or somewhere else?
Petit h is, above all, respect for the material and know-how. This is a common-sense response to the issue of sustainable development and the preservation of exceptional materials. All materials are valuable, even those that are not used.
We approach sustainability in a joyful and creative way. The house’s response to problems has always been creative. At the very start, when we were transitioning from the horse to the car, Hermès could have stopped, but instead, they continued, reinventing Hermès in a contemporary way. Today, looking at what’s happening in the world, [such as] environmental problems and sustainability challenges, we must approach these issues with creativity.
Upcycling, for Hermès, is not merely some new marketing angle—it really does stem from the house's roots, always to be creative, always respecting the very precious materials that we work with and the craftsmanship—the highly skilled craftsmanship—that goes into making these objects. This is very strong in the house’s spirit.
"Upcycling, for Hermès, is not merely some new marketing angle—it really does stem from the house's roots, always to be creative, always respecting the very precious materials that we work with and the craftsmanship—the highly skilled craftsmanship—that goes into making these objects. This is very strong in the house’s spirit."
All of our materials at Hermès are of fine quality; even if it is a tiny piece of leather or a piece of porcelain, it has its place in creativity.
The tiniest little fragment of material has something to say if we know how to look at it and how to dream. It's a natural, common-sense approach at petit h, it is obvious.
Making products that can be repaired is in the roots of this house. It comes from the way they thought about equestrian equipment. A harness or saddle for horses, if something happens, you must be able to repair it. We always keep that in mind. That's why I think sustainability is in the roots of Hermès—since the very beginning, Hermès set out to build products that could be repaired, and that could be used from generation to generation. That's such a powerful thing in each object from Hermès. This is the main product specification that Hermès departments have: it needs to be [able to be] repaired. There is a beauty in this that I would like people to see. The real problem we have in the world today is in making so many things that are only used once and then thrown away.
The intelligence and imagination of those who do “design in reverse” at petit h remind me very much of craftspeople I’ve seen in South Africa (although there are others in other countries also). Here, artisans reuse material fragments in whimsical ways by making more from less. Here, poverty creates a very strict economy where there is not the luxury of waste. Do you think that “design in reverse” is a skill of designers only? Or is it a kind of creativity that you see elsewhere in the world, also?
I really like what these artists, these artisans can achieve. There is a funny, playful, and ingenious aspect to them which is very interesting. At petit h, I prefer to talk about creation in reverse rather than design in reverse because our workshop is open to all of those who have a sensitivity to the material, to the freedom of creation and not only to designers.
I like to collaborate with people of various backgrounds and sensibilities, such as working with illustrators, because they can express feelings in a straightforward and minimalist way. We work with artists who have their ideas, and our artisans can make them come true—even the craziest ideas.
Where do you see “design in reverse” at work in other areas of fashion, or products, or architecture? Whose work inspires you?
I very much admire, for example, the work of a collective of craftsmen and architects who will soon recreate their working environment with materials from the demolition of the existing building. The rubble and materials will be reused. I also admire the ideas generated by the principles of a circular and responsible economy, such as straws made in real straw to replace plastic straws (1 billion plastic straws are used in the world every day).
Could you share with us some of your favourite petit h objects? Are there some in production that we can hear about?
We are currently presenting in Paris magnificent objects made from saddle trees recovered from Hermès creations’ conservatory.The saddle tree, the saddle's skeleton, the link between the rider and the horse, could not be a more symbolic object for Hermès.
Artists have appropriated them, and thanks to the magnificent know-how of our craftsmen, and beautiful collaborations, we are proud to present reinterpreted objects, such as a sledge, a guitar, a magnificent basket, a vase. We are inventing a new art of living thanks to these creations.
Have there been any disappointments—objects that could not be made in spite of the best efforts? What are the “ones that got away”?
I am lucky never to be disappointed but always amazed!
At petit h, we take the time to bring our projects to life; there are no time constraints; we let the projects mature. The craftsmen who are involved always find solutions. They challenge each other; one of them once said to me: "at petit h, time is not made to go fast."A project never disappoints me. On the contrary, it is a source of discovery.
Are you optimistic about the role of designers in steering us away from wasteful and anti-ecological practices in future? Can “design” be sustained or justified?
More and more designers, especially the younger generation, are aware of their responsibility. The notion of transmission is fundamental, and it is fully in line with today's issues, with respect for our planet and our resources.Beyond the object itself, petit h conveys a way of being. It is these optimistic values of respect and awareness that we share and transmit. For example, I was pleased to work this year with the Dutch Design Academy in Eindhoven. We built a partnership this year with the students of this design school, and it was a student from Singapore who won our jury prize for her work on silk.
It seems that, in response to the global rise of “flash fashion”—and its extreme wastefulness—that there is a longing to connect more emotively with fewer objects, for a longer period of time. People are repairing old things, embracing antique products and old media like vinyl and videotape. Petit h seems to create objects that are somehow affective, either amusing or emotional, in a way that is not typical. How does the emotional life of the object figure into your discussions with the petit h designers? How do you decide when something is worth making?
The notion of use is essential, and the object must have a function. As Pascale Mussard says, “there is no object without a goal”. All of our products must be used for some purposes, which is the core of our brand from the beginning—functionality. The petit h objects are useful and can be used for a long time.
Petit h is like a dream for every designer. It is so memorable. I pay close attention to the practicality and functionality of the design of everyday objects, and I care about the connection between user and product. Our customers feel through our creations all the passion of the artists and craftsmen who made them. We want our creations to surprise and bring emotion to our customers. Each object has its own story, a misguided story linked to Hermès’s values. Our objects perpetuate the history of their materials and their past. These new creations amplify this element of emotion.
Whatever the project, there are no wrong leads, we always set out on discoveries, and we enrich each other. Let yourself be surprised and amazed. That's what makes petit h so rich!