John-Paul Philippé finds his way through his art as nature finds genius in place and form. Born and raised in Oklahoma, John-Paul lived as a painter in London for over two decades, later moving to his current home in New York City. An almost comedic first encounter with Barneys creative director Simon Doonan led him not only to steady work for this artful retailer but also to his ever-widening exploration of other art forms. Inspired by motifs ranging from modernism to soap suds to the beauty that surrounds his rural cabin, John-Paul is forging a connection to his roots and his way forward.
Painting by John-Paul Philippé
The common thread I see among your various works are the organic shapes that at times seem to reference an aesthetic of the late 1940s and 1950s and at times seem to have a tribal look to them. How would you describe your overall aesthetic, and in what ways to you branch off of that?
Very much like what you say. When I was a child, being around modernism I think affected me. And the tribal thing — it’s interesting that you pick that up. I don’t think I was conscious in the beginning of the tribal look, but I am now. As a child I wasn’t like a lot of my peers, being an artist and caring about the way my room looked or whatever. And I explained it all to myself by telling myself I was actually — I called it an Eskimo at the time, not an Inuit — but I thought I might be one! So I wanted to find out about my heritage — my pretend heritage. And so I invented a whole world about an igloo and designed it all. And then through doing research as a little kid, I found out about totem poles and looked at all that a lot. And I just think it seeped into the work, and I’m conscious of it now.
But also things will inspire me like looking at the dirty dishwater. You know how the suds make these kind of swirly patterns and designs? I get motifs off of things like that. And I get motifs off of looking at incense smoke — all of that.
I’m much more in nature than I’ve ever been in my life being up here in my cabin so much, and that’s beginning to creep into the work too. I’m just welcoming it, you know? And I don’t quite know where that’s going to go yet, but I’m doing a new series of paintings for a show, and I think it’s going to come out.
Painting by John-Paul Philippé
Painting by John-Paul Philippé
Backlit panels for Barneys by John-Paul Philippé
I understand your were an artistic child growing up in Oklahoma, and later lived in Santa Fe and London before moving to New York City. What were some of your early memories of the visual world, and how has your creative sense and confidence evolved over time?
My early memories had a lot to do with decorative things at my grandmother’s house — she must have been an artist, but an unstated one. She used to do a lot of embroidery for the Catholic church and did all the vestments, and she would take tissue paper out of shoeboxes and have me draw designs she would transfer to tea towels, church altercloths and vestments, and so forth.
And my mom always had this story where I used to sort out colors as a little boy, like M&Ms and such. And my father and grandfather had a glass business, and they made and put in window glass and car windshields, but in the back of the shop there was a man who was a sign painter. He had all that equipment around him — the paints, the paint cans. And I used to get the cardboard from the boxes the windscreens came in, and he would give me scraps of paint. And I remember making abstracts — not thinking of them as abstracts — but I just loved the colors and manipulating the paint. And he would actually let me work on paintings on billboards with him. And also craft projects, like sometimes he would glue paillettes to make a logo sparkle or something. I remember doing that.
And I just mentioned the suds on top of water, and I’m sure I looked at that when I was a kid too. I remember saying something to my mother when I was tiny about the raindrops on top of hydrangea bushes outside my window. We were going to go to my grandmother’s house, and I ran around to pick one of those — I called it a snowball bush at the time. And I picked it, but then when I got into the car, I told my mom I could hardly pick it because it was so pretty. When we got there, I heard her tell my grandmother what I’d said, as if it was a strange thing. I think I was encouraged to be an artist, but then there were certain times when it had to be held back. And that was mainly because they didn’t think of it as a vocation. Once I got on my feet — and, you know, I went through difficult years — but once I got on my feet, it was fine. And now they’re so proud.
Are you working in gouache for all your paintings?
I work in gouache, which is just an opaque watercolor. When I was a kid, I worked mostly in watercolor, but then I started working in more of an opaque medium. And I know a lot of people don’t work on canvas with gouache, but the canvases are on wooden supports, and then I emulsify the gouaches. I learned from a mentor in London by the name of Peggy Angus that she would extend her paint with baking flour. And sometimes I do that to give it body and to rough it up a bit.
Painting by John-Paul Philippé
Painting by John-Paul Philippé
Painting by John-Paul Philippé
How long were you in London?
I was in London for twenty-three years. I got a job there right away just when I was traveling as a tourist. It was at a time when Charleston, the country retreat of the Bloomsbury set, was being restored. And I worked on that restoration, which also opened up all kinds of ideas about what could be done with my work. I freely admit my work has a design sense and a decorative sense, and all the applications I encountered in Charleston I never would have probably thought of if I hadn’t been working there, like wallpaper and so forth.
Mural by John-Paul Philippé
Textile (left) and mandala (right) designs by John-Paul Philippé
Were your paintings the launching pad for your other work in sculpture, murals, textiles and other creative pursuits?
Yes, I was always a painter and never really approached any of the other disciplines. Those things came about through working with Barneys. I was asked to do sculptural projects. What I did in the initial sculptural projects was I just removed the background of the paintings and kind of created the forms in 3D. So they existed in space that way.
Detail of metal sculpture for Barneys by John-Paul Philippé
Metal sculpture for Barneys by John-Paul Philippé
Since we’re on that train of thought, let’s talk about all the work you’ve done for Barneys throughout the world. How did they approach you, and how did your vision for this work come together?
I approached them! I was visiting New York and staying with some friends. It was before my career really took off, and I needed work. My friend Paul knew somebody who worked at Barneys, someone who shared an office with creative director Simon Doonan. And I didn’t know what Barneys was, but I called them up — just cold — and said I wanted to come in and talk with them about getting some work. And they said ‘Well, bring your portfolio in.’ And I said ‘OK.’ Then I hung up and realized I didn’t have a portfolio! So I borrowed an old-school Polaroid camera and just took pictures of objects. I thought it was all about display, and I thought what I would be doing is just arranging objects, which I do obsessively anyway. So I took objects that were in the apartment where I was staying and just arranged them on a tabletop and shot off a roll of film. I put them in an envelope and took them into the interview and put them out on the table. And Simon walked over and kind of looked at them and then went back to his desk. And then I got a call. We talked and they found out I was a painter, so they called me back and said, ‘We’d like you to do a little mural.’ It was out in Manhasset, and it was in the basement outside the women’s toilet! So that’s where I started!
It’s so funny how a little encounter, which seems inconsequential at the time, can lead to other stuff. And it’s through that I got a mentor in Simon. It opened up so many doors.
I was still living in London, and I didn’t want to pass up work. But I kept getting offers from Barneys to return and do things, and then from that it just got formalized into now where I have a contract with them. And the way my career seems to be going is that, you know, the trajectory is that I let it take over. It was a lot of work, and it’s enabled me to realize a dream of going to Japan that I’ve had since I was a child. Barneys has big stores in Japan, and I get to go exist there in, for me, an ideal situation where I’m working with local craftpeople and artists and living there for stretches of time and forming friendships. And then coming back here and just feeding off the experience, it enriches my life.
Exterior sculpture for Barneys Chicago
3D mural for Barneys Japan by John-Paul Philippé
Mural for Barneys shoe department by John-Paul Philippé
Mural for Barneys Japan by John-Paul Philippé
Backlit mural for Barneys by John-Paul Philippé
So this growing amount of work for Barneys, is that what led you to move to New York from London?
Yes, once I was contracted to work with Barneys, I moved to New York. I was still going to try to commute, and I got an apartment in the West Village. I was just going to break the lease and go back to London once this big body of work was finished. And once I got the key and moved in, I said, ‘I’m not going to decorate, I’m not going to decorate. I’m going back to London.’ But then I just couldn’t help myself, and I started decorating — and it became a home. And I stayed.
And my plan was never to get a little log cabin in the hills, but that was just something that evolved out of being in New York. Because a lot of my friends had places, and I realized it’s nice to have somewhere to go to escape the city. And I can’t say for sure at this point, but if I could figure out a way to make, you know, hay up here or something that would allow me to be up here more, I would. And so the need to pay the mortgage will mean that I’ll have to probably come up with some product with some local craftpeople I found working down by the river in a forge. And we’ve been making prototypes and furniture, and I’ve drawn them into the Barneys web where now they’re making sculptures for Barneys that I design. And that’s given me an excuse to be up here. So the glimmerings are there of how I might be able to make a transition with the economy being the way it is. Barneys has told me there won’t be any new flagship stores in the near future. In Japan it’s a different company, so they’re still opening up flagship stores there.
There’s a layering that’s interesting with your work — for example, sculptures that wrap around a corner, looking through your room dividers and sculptures to the space beyond, looking through retail merchandise to your murals, and so forth. When you first conceive of a piece, do you have a full sense of this layered relationship from the start or is this coming to fruition as you go?
Oh, yeah, we’re very conscious of doing that. When I first started working with Barneys, I was like a sponge absorbing whatever Simon was saying, because I loved his advice. You know, Barneys is pretty forward as far as visual merchandising goes and what kind of art they allow in the store, but it’s there to entertain an audience, really. And one of the ways we’ve made the work appropriate for a store is, as he said, ‘Once you do an eye, people have to look back at it.’ And it may not be a literal eye — it might be an opening, it might be an aperture, it’s a target. And people will focus on that, and you can direct their line of sight. So it’s something that’s very hidden in the work, but it’s definitely something that we plot out. First we look at the plans that the architects drew up and think about where we can intervene with art. And then once it gets to a state where we can actually go in and walk around — there may not even be walls yet — but we go through a whole series of looking at where we can put work. And how the traffic flow is going to go, and what they’ll see when they come around the corner, and all that. And so these sculptures have these holes in them so that you’re not blocking off views or you’re directing their gaze to look through it into another department. It comes instinctually now, but in the beginning it was much more plotted, much more pre-determined.
Interior steel sculpture for Barneys Japan by John-Paul Philippé
Backlit mural for Barneys Las Vegas by John-Paul Philippé
Sculpture for Kumho Asiana headquarters in Seoul, by John-Paul Philippé
3-story steel sculpture for Barneys Dallas by John-Paul Philippé
Partition for Barneys, design by John-Paul Philippé
Tell me about Cafe JP. This is your own restaurant?
That was someone who came into Barneys and saw the sculpture in the Ginza store, and they were opening a coffee shop/restaurant. And they just contacted me and said, ‘We’d like you to design a restaurant.’ And then it became, ‘Can we use your name?’ And then it became, ‘Do you want to do the menus? Do you want to do the music?’ And it became all about me. That totally just evolved. ‘JP’ happens to be two of the letters in Japan, so I thought, ‘Well, why not?’ I’m from the South, and they kind of wanted to play that up a bit, so we came up with a menu that reflects that. So there are things like Tempura Okra and all that. And so outside of my own home, that was someplace where I had complete control, and I also had to do everything, so that was very interesting. It’s in the Azabu Juban district of Tokyo. They made a little stamp for me with my initials that was copied off of how I sign a painting — it’s on the china, it’s on the website.
Interior of Cafe JP, by John-Paul Philippé
Interior of Cafe JP by John-Paul Philippé
Dishes at Cafe JP
I have to ask you about the private chapel you designed in the Dominican Republic. How did this come about?
That came about because Simon Doonan was at a dinner party with Edwina von Gal, who is a landscape designer. She was hosting a dinner party, and she was talking about a project that she was working on down in the Dominican Republic and lamenting the fact that she didn’t have time to attend to it all. It was a big project, and the client wanted a cliffside chapel. And she said, ‘I don’t know if I’m going to be able to get to that!’ And Simon Doonan piped up and said, ‘I know somebody who could do you a chapel!’ And, literally, within three days of him saying that, I was on a little plane with Edwina flying down to the Dominican Republic, having her tell me kind of what it was about and showing me photos on her laptop of the site. And I was doing the design for it in my lap, initial designs to show to the client. I came across that sketchbook really recently, and those designs were very close to what we ended up doing.
We had a small army of laborers down there, carrying things down the cliff. The design was affected because there was a natural blowhole with the marine caves beneath the site. So there is a point in the chapel where you look through a little window in the wall into a courtyard where this water spout comes up. And I spent probably a total of four months down there, maybe longer, working on that project. And my every need was catered to — it was a magical experience. It was a dream. And it’s not really that typical of my work, but it is in a way. The way I approached it was I’m making a little clubhouse. This was just like when I dug into the creek banks when I was a kid, except it’s gotta be permanent and withstand hurricanes. And it has withstood a couple of hurricanes, one of which devastated the property and blew everything else away. But it’s still there, and the family uses it a lot.
I’d live in it, if I could!
I wanted to! I didn’t have a home then, and I felt very kind of uprooted. I was just kind of staying with friends at that point, kind of between England and New York. And I just kind of fooled myself into thinking it was my own, so I just kind of created it as if I was going to be there. And obviously I wasn’t going to be there forever, and I never have been back since it was finished. But it was an interesting project, because I could revisit all that like building things as a child.
Private chapel in the Dominican Republic, design by John-Paul Philippé
Entrance to chapel in Dominican Republic, design by John-Paul Philippé
Where do you see your work going from here? Do you see yourself doing other architectural projects?
It depends. The last architectural project that I did was the Lehmann Maupin Gallery, and, again, that came through Edwina von Gal. I got a call from one of the gallery directors to say, ‘Edwina thinks you might be able to do the gallery for us.’ You know, my heart leapt up into my throat because now I know what these projects entail, and I knew I needed help. And so I asked Fernando Santangelo to help me, and we did it. And it was a dream project — the clients could not have been more accommodating — but I know what it entails now. It’s just waking up in the middle of the night and busting about in your head about a hinge. And I told myself, ‘I’ll never do this again!’ But it’s like childbirth — you forget about the pain! And you’d do it again in a moment’s notice if the right thing came along. I’ll accept other projects if they’re the right thing, if I’m feel like I’m able to do a proper job.
Lehmann Maupin Gallery interior, by John-Paul Philippé and Fernando Santangelo
Lehmann Maupin gallery space, design by John-Paul Philippé and Fernando Santangelo
You know, I’m not a trained architect, but all you need to do is listen to the space and have your antennas out and take on board the requirements that the space itself needs. Like that little ledge on the cliff — you can’t just put anything there. You have to watch the ocean, you have to see what the waves are doing, you have to imagine what a hurricane must be like there. I’m more of a hands-on, walk-around-the-place kind of guy, not drawing up abstract plans too much. Just listen to the space and try and get in touch with the genius loci — that’s the only way it works for me.
It’s like with the painting. Paintings tell you what to do. Putting a form down tells you what to do with the next form.
In terms of where I see my work going, I think it’s all about me being up here in the cabin. And I will be working with other people, like the people down here at the forge. I know there are artisans all around me, and I’m still new to this whole way of life up here. I want to find weavers, I want to find people who can make partition walls to hang from ceilings, all that kind of thing. I want to make rainchains. I had a gourd patch this year, and I got 300 and something gourds — like those swan-necky ones — and they’re drying in the barn. They fill up an entire wall, and they’re going to be something. I have a commission to do a partition wall in Japan in a bridal department, and I’m starting to mull over, ‘well, how could I make them attractive in a bridal department hanging from a ceiling in Japan?’
John-Paul’s cabin in rural Connecticut
Barn on John-Paul’s rural property
What do you love about your work and your life, and do you have favorite things that inspire you?
Oh, I just feel blessed, and sometimes I pinch myself. You know, in quiet times, I think it’s such a strange thing to be an artist. Maybe it’s because sometimes I felt different from my peers, and it felt like it was coming from the outside. And I’m just a cipher for what is coming from the outside, and so I try to still be aware of that and open to that. And I’m one of these people who doesn’t have an awful lot of plans as to what’s down the road, say, a year from now. Although having a mortgage, you have to. Or you should! And that’s why it all connects back to trying to find what I want to do next. And with the economy, I’m fine, but you have to, on some level, try and bring home the bacon. And I’m very confident things are going to be fine, and they are fine, but it’s an adventure to get to the next stage. And I didn’t expect to be here in the countryside, but I’m loving it. And if you weigh the city against here, this is where my heart is — going back to my roots, a little kid in the Ozarks.
All of my good friends, the people who are closest to me, they’re not artists. They’re people who work on the land, like my friend Edwina. And I’m on the land a lot. I’m a gardener, and I invite nature right up to my front door! I don’t mow the lawn. The tangle, the vines — it’s going to be in my work. And every day there’s a new phenomenon that I’ve never seen before. It could be the quality of the light, it could be a heron flying up out of the mist, it could be a shooting star lighting up the mountain — I mean, it’s extraordinary.
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