29.06.2021 #art

Alexandre Benjamin Navet

Color tasting

I want to use colors as they are found in nature

French artist Alexandre Benjamin Navet, known for his colorful pencil strokes, has turned his recent collaboration with Ruinart into a true ode to taste. The result of a dialogue with Cellar Master Frédéric Panaiotis, this new artistic project aims to turn Champagne tasting into a true chromatic experience. Alexandre Benjamin Navet, winner of the 2017 Design Parade Architecture Grand Prize, is the first artist invited by the House of Ruinart to apply his colors to the second skin case of four of their emblematic vintages. The eco-designed case made of 100% recyclable cellulose fiber recalls the paper the artist loves to work with. It also highlights Ruinart’s ever-growing commitment to sustainable development. A few days before leaving for the South of France he loves so much, Alexandre Benjamin Navet spoke with Say Who about his desire to use all the colors in the crayon box…

You just presented a collaboration with the House of Ruinart for La Grande Épicerie de Paris. You are the first artist given carte blanche to customize the second skin cases protecting the bottles of four emblematic vintages. This is a new canvas for you!

For me, the second skin case is exactly like a blank canvas. What I loved about this project was the feeling of exploring a new territory of drawing, and to have this new 3D canvas. The second skin cases are the result of a technology that required years of research and development by Ruinart. Working directly on the bottle required a lot of precision. What is beautiful are the parallels between my drawing work on paper and this eco-designed cellulose case, and that it all comes down to color. I’m also very honored to have been given carte blanche. 

How did you come to meet with Ruinart and Frédéric Panaiotis, and how did this project come about?

We had already collaborated on a series of drawings and paintings. In the end, the project was quite related to the second skin case, the idea of eco-design and the House’s desire to reinforce its commitment to sustainability. It appeared to us that our dialogue could continue on a new territory: the second skin case, and the bottle’s label itself. I was given total freedom, but what I enjoyed the most was the constant dialogue. It’s all the more exciting to be the first artist invited to customize the case. This whole collection is obviously characterized by handwork but also by the search for colors and combinations with the Cellarmaster Frederic Panaiotis. The project is based on our synergy.

You imagined new labels which colors embody the different grape varieties, but you also completed the motif by applying your pastel strokes directly onto the case. So each piece is unique!

Absolutely. The choice of colors was born from a dialogue with the Cellarmaster. The colors evoke lychee, pineapple, nature, moss… We talked a lot about various tastes, or very specific things related to tasting, but we also went beyond the obvious by opening the discussion to sensations and feelings: Walking in the forest, the smell of vine in the morning… Translating taste through color was the core of our dialogue, and it was always spontaneous.

So the project is all about embodying taste through color, but your experience of the ‘crayères’ in Reims surely must have been a new source of inspiration for you. Did they also fuel this project ?

It was great to be able to start our exchanges on color and sensations, and of course tasting, but having already had the chance to visit the ‘crayères’, I was of course very inspired by this magical place. They served as a direct inspiration for the windows of La Grande Épicerie Rive Gauche – a tribute to the Ruinart House in Reims. It was a fantastic experience to go there, to open those doors, to go down the stairs and to find myself immersed in another world. With my art, I like to take the viewer into a dreamland. Imagination and reverie are at the center of my work.

In the context of 2020, how did this collaboration between you and Ruinart come about?

It’s a result of a close relationship that was created between Frédéric Panaiotis and me. We are currently living an important moment: we can finally share experiences again and come back together. I’m very happy to be able to say that, and that’s what the shop windows embody for me.

Were you already a Champagne-tasting connoisseur? 

I had already tasted Champagne, obviously, but I had never had the privilege to exchange in such a private way with the Cellarmaster. I discovered a way of appreciating the tasting at different times and stages. It also gave me an outlook at the color of each component. You can notice it properly between the Blanc de Blancs and the Brut: there are similarities but when you look closer, you can see a particular green underlining the acidity of the Blanc de Blancs, and it really comes out when you look at it in the light. There is this play between taste, light, color, and the observation of the Champagne. That’s something I learned: to look before you drink!

What is your first memory of color?

My first relationship with color goes back to my childhood, the day I was given a box of crayons. I always mention this memory because it relates to my family and it touches me. I remember I colored the entire hallway in our apartment…which could have been catastrophic for me! In the end, that’s what I continue to do today. 

And then a few years later you won Design Parade as a duo with Paul Brissonnet. Was it a defining moment in your career?

It was a true moment of freedom for me, once again a carte blanche to express myself on a particular project. I was already working for private projects or with galleries. Design Parade was a moment of sharing, especially with the general public and of course the media. Since then, I’ve developed a strong family relationship with  the Villa Noailles.

We talked earlier about sustainable development and eco-design. To what extent is the sustainability part of your artistic process?

It’s very important to me. The materials I use are all natural materials. The colors I use are vegetal and mineral pigments. The oil pastel is a noble material in the sense that it is totally natural, as well as the watercolors I bring back from Japan. Thus nature is always present.

Nature is also part of the themes you deal with in your drawings.

The theme of nature is infusing my personal practice, my research, or the books I bought recently. All the projects I’m working on are based on codes (of a house) or references. I am building up a whole shelf dedicated to nature in my library, and I intend to use it in my personal work.

In this case, the nature you represent is very luminous. You seem to have a special connection with the South of France, for example.

I was born in Paris, but I go back and forth to the South a lot for different projects, especially with the Villa Noailles. My color palette has evolved through these trips, and that’s what I like about this project for Ruinart. I have developed a new color palette that evokes the territory around Reims. I’m thinking particularly of the greens I call “mosses” and “earths”, which are featured in almost every case. 

What’s interesting about your use of colors is that you never mix them. Each one has its role.

That’s true, and I think it ties in with our whole discussion about nature, pigment and respect of all these materials. I collect pure pigments, it’s something I’m passionate about. I don’t mix them because I want to use them as they are found in nature. That’s also why I don’t juxtapose colors – they live with each other. I’m always constructing a drawing by layers of color: I use a yellow for what it evokes in me, then a blue, then an orange… and it all fits together. It was also the case for the Ruinart labels. In a way, they also embody the work of the Cellarmaster and the different levels of tasting.

I read somewhere that you consider yourself a director and that each color embodies a character. Your vases, for example, are your actors, and it’s even more true with the windows you made for La Grande Épicerie Rive Gauche, in which you really staged the bottles.

Exactly! The windows obviously represent my work as an artist, and I had a lot of freedom in their design. The white decor brings a lightness inspired by the ‘crayères’, and it evokes the history of the Ruinart as well as my own experience of the place, from descending the stairs to exploring the different levels. They are like theatrical sets that are intertwined. The ‘actors’ are placed there as if they were on a stage. I realize now that there are three windows, like the three acts of a play… 

Interview: Maxime Der Nahabédian
Photos: Jean Picon

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