MAD, Home of Creators co-produced together with accessory designer Sarah Levy its new MAD Windows, ‘Creatures of Habit’, presenting a collection of leather artifacts materialising contemporary habits in the form of accessories. The project resulted from a constant dialogue with sociologist Mathieu Berger. In a later stage Benoît Béthume joined the collaboration, adding his artistic direction and creative mindset to reinforce Sarah’s portfolio and practice. We had a talk with these three complementary creatives about their role and involvement in ‘Creatures of Habit’, other projects and their main inspirations.
What is your work about? How would you describe it?
Creatures of Habit is a collection of leather artifacts materialising contemporary habits in the form of accessories. These accessories are voluntary hybrid “solutions” making the body oscillate between increased capacity and incapacity, between freedom and congestion.
Where did that desire come from, to work in design?
I originally started off as an architect. A comfortable choice but even back then, it felt like a temporary one. During my PHD on urban planning, I was invited to study at Parsons School of Design in New York. There, I came across two jewellers who invited me into the accessory world and the craftsmanship behind it. I subscribed in the jewellery course at Arts et Métiers in Brussels while at the same time finishing my PHD. Not long after, the accessories section of La Cambre opened and I didn’t hesitate to jump in. I would say that designing accessories is my way of expression.
Can you talk to us about your approach in general? How could we imagine your usual work process?
I have a different approach when it comes to working on my own collection or working/creating for other fashion brands. For my own collection, I start working on a narrative before I even think about the objects. During this part of the process I communicate a lot with Mathieu Berger on the meaning of words, forms, objects, ... This creative exchange leads very naturally towards a concept and defined objects.
I look at accessories in a broad sense. They can be either leather goods, gloves or jewellery. Each accessory needs craftsmen whose know-how allows me to carry out their realization. In a later stage a new dialogue starts with Benoît Béthume. He translates the story behind the pieces in pictures or in installations like the one we will present in the MAD Windows.When collaborating with other fashion brands, there are often constraints to work with. This could be a technique, a material or a subject. I find those constraints actually very beneficial and liberating in the design process. It makes you see and create differently.
What keeps you creatively moving forward?
I like the idea to present a specific look on situations: An analytical, airy and amusing one.
Tell us about developing new products. Are you designing for today or for future use?
The idea behind Creatures of Habit was to translate, through accessories, our contemporary habits. I reflected on those everyday objects that have become our new fetishes: the smartphone, the electronic cigarette…Objects that have created new gestures. The expression Creatures of Habit refers to the addictive nature of these habits. My goal is not to criticise these addictions but to accompany them with nearly orthopaedic devices.
Finally, what projects are you currently working on?
I will continue working with Mathieu and Benoît on Creatures of Habit. Some of the pieces will be developed shortly.
I also have the pleasure to collaborate on the accessories collection of two fashion designers I admire, Marine Serre and Ester Manas.
The expression Creatures of Habit refers to the addictive nature of these habits. My goal is not to criticise these addictions but to accompany them with nearly orthopaedic devices.
Could you describe yourself, your background and what you do today?
I am a sociology professor at UCLouvain, affiliated to EHESS Paris, doing research on urban studies, sociology of communication and social semiotics. I am also the coordinator of a laboratory for applied urban research based in Brussels : Metrolab. In the framework of Metrolab, I developed an interest in experimenting with media, beyond the textual medium : diagrams, maps, photography, and now scenography and objects.
How has Brussels shaped your professional activities/projects?
Brussels is an intricate city, a place that requires and stimulates interdisciplinary collaborations and invites to explore other professional microcosms, other forms of intelligence. I’ve had the chance to work with all kinds of people : architects, urban-planners, economists, photographers, designers... These collaborations transformed my whole activity as a sociologist, by encouraging me to leave my comfort zone to start communicating and working with people having radically different backgrounds, perspectives, skills and vocabularies.
Could you tell us about your involvement in the project “Creatures of Habit”? How does the creative exchange work between you and Sarah?
Sarah and I have a "habit" of communicating a lot about our respective projects. My involvement in her work depends on the project. For "Creatures of Habit", she asked me to bring conceptual insights, elements of language, but also critical inputs on the design itself. Sarah is a researcher above all ; her projects have to be meaningful. Our creative exchange takes shape through a constant dialogue on the meaning of words, acts, forms, objects...
Throughout this project I met Benoît Béthume whose photographs and aesthetic imagination impressed me. He instantly imagined a scenography that worked perfectly. Attuned to his visual ideas, I wrote a narrative that completes the installation.
Did you collaborate on other design projects from your perspective as a sociologist?
I participated as a sociologist in various projects of urban design in Brussels. Recently with Metrolab, we created an operational concept («inclusive enclaves») that is now used at the regional level for the design of public interiors and social infrastructures. I’m also part of a group called ARCH (Action Research Collective for Hospitality), engaged in the design of hospitable places for migrant people in Brussels. On a cultural level, I participated as a sociologist in the curation of the Belgian Pavillon («Interiors») for the Venice Architecture Biennale 2014 and of the exhibition «Operational Aesthetics» at CIVA (2019). I’m not sure about fashion per se, but I would be interested to collaborate on projects with an aesthetic dimension, more generally. I hope that Creatures of Habit shows something that has as much to do with art and social critique than with fashion accessories.
Can you tell us a little on what projects you are currently working on?
This year, I am mainly working on a book based on years of ethnographic fieldwork in Los Angeles. I am trying to describe the madness of this city and the ways an inhumane and hermetic environment shapes people’s minds and lives. One could see commonalities between this project and Creatures of Habit : social pathologies, disconnection among people, insanity...
Brussels is a rather complex city, it’s a place that requires and stimulates interdisciplinary collaborations and invites to explore other professional microcosms, other forms of intelligence.
First of all, could you introduce yourself?
I’m an art director and consultant for several brands and focus mainly on DNA and global image building.
How are you involved in the project ‘Creatures of Habit’?
Sarah and I met at La Cambre during my workshop on ‘how to build a strong brand image’. She showed me her sketches and explained the concept behind it. We immediately felt a creative common interest. Intrigued by Creatures of Habit I suggested to take pictures for her portfolio. Once this was set, we worked together on the casting and styling process in building/ the positioning of the “creatures”.
Can you tell us a little about any stand-out projects?
Working as a consultant for Marine Serre has been a fascinating adventure throughout the evolution of the brand. Nowadays she’s reflecting on how fashion can find its place in today’s world and what it should stand for. Besides that, the next issue of Mémoire Universelle, the bookazine I launched a few years ago, is on its way. This month we will organize a conference and screening in the Gucci museum in Firenze where we tackle subjects such as the future of publication and printing. Lastly, I'm also working on a new magazine about erotism - stay tuned!
How could we imagine your usual work process?
As a consultant I’m usually involved in the creative process of the respective brand/designer. We have a constant dialogue about the strengths and values of the brand. It is key to maintain a strongly rooted storytelling throughout the different seasons. I jump in when it comes to spreading strong messages and creating content for new catalogues or showrooms. My usual creative process starts off with a thorough image and fashion sourcing, followed by styling sessions and image building.
Which Belgian artists do you follow, look at for inspiration?
Michaël Borremans definitely inspires me. Just look how he’s constantly challenging the traditional view of realism and translates this into contemporary work. The most striking aspect of the Belgian art scene is its great artistic diversity. Belgian artists share a unique spirit, they create conceptual work with a touch of humour.
Finally, what’s your latest artistic discovery?
I recently visited Tate Modern and fell in love with these old series of photos about Elizabeth Taylor’s empty mansion, shot by Catherine Opie. The pictures were so touching and subtle, a poignant view on how to describe someone by its absence.