Like a Kid in a Candy Store

Originally published in 

For Parisian gallery director Didier Krzentowski, the art of collecting has become a career by design.


Krzentowski Residence

Those of us who are afflicted with the collecting bug know that it’s hard to kick. So hard, in fact, that we see no reason to kick it at all. Instead, it intensifies proportionately with disposable income and available storage space. For us, a collection is more than stuff—we hoard the artifacts that we hope tell our story. Gradually we fill our shelves, rooms, and houses to be reminded of where we’ve been and where we’re going. It may well be that more than the collection itself we value the feeling that there’s always something more to acquire—a rarer, more exquisite, mint-condition horizon.

Upon entering the Paris flat of Didier Krzentowski, it is almost as though I, a wishful Charlie Bucket, have cashed in my golden ticket and am taking a first glimpse at the magical inner workings of Willy Wonka’s factory—just replace the chocolate waterfalls and Oompa Loompas with a collection of contemporary art and furniture.

From the exterior of the stately Second Empire/Art Nouveau hybrid apartment building, you would never suspect the madness at work on the sixth floor. After a claustrophobic ride in a wrought-iron caged elevator wrapped in a spiraling staircase, I find myself deposited at an altogether unassuming door in a nondescript hallway. After a few knocks the door is slowly opened by Krzentowski’s 12-year-old daughter, Victoire. She speaks perfect teenage-American English (after a few weeks spent abroad, it’s as jaw-dropping to me as an Everlasting Gobstopper) and offers me a seat. It’s at that point the shock sets in: Where do you sit when you get to choose from among dozens of pieces by Pierre Paulin, Ron Arad, Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec, and Marc Newson?

The madness doesn’t end with seating. There are storage units by Maarten van Severen, Raymond Loewy, and Jean Prouvé. The room teems with lighting—on the ceiling, on shelves, on the wall, on the floor. It’s questionable whether the whole 16th Arrondissement has enough electrical sockets available for the multitudes of Verner Panton, Pierre Paulin, and Gino Sarfatti fixtures. In a colorful installation by Mathieu Mercier, a series of haphazardly set Technicolor columns complements the rainbow assortment of furnishings and divides the main living space into three distinct areas. Surfaces that aren’t occupied by objects are covered by Krzentowski’s extensive photography collection, which includes work by Bernd and Hilla Becher, Nan Goldin, Paul McCarthy, Diane Arbus, Erwin Wurm, and Cindy Sherman, among others.

After I have inspected the postcard view of the neighboring Eiffel Tower and chosen a seat on the bright purple Pierre Paulin 261 sofa, a bespectacled Krzentowski makes his appearance. He speaks excitedly into his mobile phone in French-accented English, while gesturing “hello.” “That was Marc,” he says, retiring the phone. It’s assumed that “Marc” is Marc Newson, whose work is currently overtaking Paris both at the Fondation Cartier Pour L’Art Contemporain (with the debut of his Kelvin 40 aircraft) and Krzentowski’s Galerie Kreo (a show of tables and new lighting). That Krzentowski is the director of one of the world’s foremost design galleries and produces limited-edition works by the world’s foremost designers both explains the almost-surreal decor and completes
the Willy Wonka impression. For the past six years, Krzen­towski’s Galerie Kreo (Esperanto for creativity) has commissioned, produced, and sold design fantasies as whimsical as Wonka’s rainbow drops, exploding candy, three-course gum, and fizzy lifting drinks.

However, unless you’re Charlie Bucket, you don’t inherit the factory overnight. The path that led Krzentowski to his current status of design impresario has been a lifelong journey—which, not surprisingly, began with collecting. In his early days, Krzentowski amused himself with a collection of key chains and watches (which he insists is somewhere in a closet). While on a family ski vacation, a teenage Krzentowski made the sort of auspicious find that could convince an atheist of predetermination—he rescued a local hotel’s modernist furniture “from a woodpile.” The pieces turned out to be by Charlotte Perriand, one of France’s most lauded 20th-century designers, and a bed from the score is still proudly employed in one of his daughters’ rooms. In his 20s, Krzentowski, now 50, teamed up with Jean-Claude Killy, France’s 1968 three-time Olympic gold medalist in Alpine skiing, to form a ski clothing business—a successful enterprise that would support his developing interest in modern photography and design. For the next 20-odd years, Krzentowski regularly visited galleries, keeping an eye out for fresh talent (he bought everything in Nan Goldin’s first exhibition for $200 apiece), and scoured Paris’s weekend flea markets for remarkable mid-century pieces.

These days Krzentowski’s habits have changed. “I no longer collect photography,” he says, “and I stopped being able to find furniture at flea markets about three years ago. Now I collect the designers I work with.” After retreating from the apparel industry and working with his wife, Clémence, to found Kreo Agency (which represents industrial designers to clients such as Perrier, Moët & Chandon, and Hermès, and is still run by Clémence), Krzentowski harnessed his passion for collectable contemporary art and modern design into a dream job with the opening of Galerie Kreo in 1999. Initially, he sold classic furniture pieces he had in duplicate; then it occurred to Krzentowski to engage the talent already represented by Kreo Agency in designing limited-edition works unbounded by corporate limitations. Essentially: design as art, and art as design.

Krzentowski, who harbors dreams of being an artist or designer (but who says he “cannot draw”), relishes his present role as facilitator. “When you work with a designer, you think you are a part of the design. So I’m very proud of these pieces.” It’s easy to see that it is this pride, and the joy of adding to his collection, that drives Krzentowski. “I’m not interested in making a piece to sell it,” he says. “I’m no good at buying and selling.” Contrary to his sentiment, moments later the mobile phone rings with news of the sale of a Bouroullec Cabane—a sort of widely gridded reinforced-felt soccer goal introduced at Galerie Kreo in 2001—to a museum in Belgium. “It’s easy to sell when you have such nice pieces,” he rationalizes.

Krzentowski’s ingrained collector instincts set him apart from many dealers, who will ruthlessly buy and sell at the market’s whims. He would rather put a piece in storage than see it go—the exception being a Maurizio Cattelan sculpture of an ostrich burying its head, once the prized centerpiece of his living room. The sale of the ostrich paid for the neighboring apartment, effectively doubling the family’s living space.

“You know,” Krzentowski says with a sidelong smile, “a lot of people ask me to help them with their places, but as you can see, I’m not an interior decorator.” The ostrich was eventually replaced by Mathieu Mercier’s column installation, and the new rooms, which include the dining room, his daughters’ rooms, and a sort of guest bedroom cum TV lounge, were outfitted with the same colorful, overwhelming assortment of disparate objects that fill the living room.

This is of course due in part to the major fringe benefit of running your own design gallery—what the dealer sardonically refers to as “free pieces.” He usually keeps one of each of the editions produced for an exhibition, and they all compete for space in the cluttered sixth-floor landscape. As we tour the flat, it’s clear that Krzentowski values both quality and quantity. As he says, “I need to live with a lot of my pieces. It’s my portrait, my puzzle.”

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