Suzy Menkes: How did all this happen? At what point did you say to yourself, “We need to do something to protect things of quality, things that have been touched by human hands”? Do you remember a moment or an experience?
Johann Rupert: I would meet with artisans – because I always love chatting with them – and would ask, “Where’s your son, your daughter? Aren’t they joining you?” Some of them were too proud to admit that there was not enough work or incentive for their children to learn the skills, or, if their children weren’t interested, to train young artisans.
I thought about it a lot and realised that in the past, artisans had patrons – people with culture and money, who kept them alive, basically. Now, money is made so quickly that I’m not sure that people have time to acquire culture en route. I saw all of these crafts not being passed on. And I said to Franco [Cologni, co-founder of The Michelangelo Foundation], “My dream is to build a database of these master artisans.” But Hanneli is right to say that we need a “taste guide” to artisans, because so many of them tell me they are disgusted by the things they have to make.
When I was younger I had no money, but if I saw something I loved, I’d buy it. I walked around all of lower Manhattan and went to Frank Stella. Then, when you actually make money and can afford it, you don’t have the time, which of course is stupid on your part. The real Milanese, the real Romans, the people who live in Tuscany, they all have their places for buying special things.
SM: So true craftspeople are all hidden from us?
JR: They are hidden from us. We don’t know who they are. For instance, I had my luggage made by a place called Columbus, just off Monte Napoleone. Then the old gentleman passed away and his sons weren’t in the business.
The moment I said, “That’s it, we have to do something,” was when my favourite place, Lorenzi – the only store I ever visited on Monte Napoleone – had become a bloody watch shop! I tracked them down in the Navelli and went to visit them there. I will never forget that. I said, “I found them! They’re in existence. Let’s celebrate!” But extinction should never happen. We should collect people from all over the world so that they can survive and thrive. And you know what? It’s fun.
SM: The first exhibition hall of Homo Faber is for different European companies, and we know of course that Italians are exceptionally strong in making things by hand. But was it easy to collect people from all over the world? Is the whole of Europe still making a lot of handmade things, or is it mainly Southern Europe?
JR: It’s fascinating – there’s a resurgence from countries in the former Eastern bloc, and so many cultural organisations are now connecting. We find tiny little artisans in tiny little places in Saxony, for example. Why Saxony? Why now? Because of its tin. Why Meissen? Because of its clay. Why did the Swiss watch industry start up in the mountains outside Geneva? Because they found a type of mineral – apatite – at elevation. At lower elevation, Catholics were allowed to own land and farm. The Protestants, after the Edict of Nantes, had to live up in the mountains, where you can’t really farm. But they discovered iron ore there and, being artisans, started working with it. That’s how the watch industry started there.
Hanneli Rupert: In Como they make scarves because the water ecology is so soft.
JR: Exactly. And Irish linen? The Protestants in Normandy were the best at linen production because they needed soft water for the flecks. They went to England, found the water wasn’t good enough, then went to Ireland and discovered beautiful water, and that’s where the linen industry flourished. Guess what happened? Today there’s one proper Irish linen mill. One. Because customers cannot differentiate between quality linen and Chinese linen, which is 30% cheaper.
SM: How do you think you can change this?
JR: Well, we get orders for those craftspeople. When Azzedine Alaïa was alive we were very close friends, but he could be very difficult. He would fight all the time with this brilliant lady just outside Venice who supplied him with all the cloth. I went on a mission to visit her to say, “Listen, we both love Azzedine. Please don’t let him get to you. Just relax.” When I got there, I was astonished by the skills, the craftsmanship, the passion.
In the past, we were reliant upon topography; how many rich people live in a certain area. I think things started to change with paid TV, when you could choose which channel to watch, you weren’t force-fed. Now, if you look at one of my favourite places, Lorenzi, there are Lorenzi lovers in San Francisco, in New York, all over the world, but Lorenzi doesn’t have the infrastructure to open in those places. I want to create a portal for all of these people. Somebody is going to have to curate it, not in terms of taste necessarily, but in terms of delivery, to make sure customers are happy.
HR: For example, we all know how to use cutlery, but if people haven’t been brought up in Florence, how could they know that a mosaic can fit in their apartment? Especially in America, people may need a designer to say, “There is incredible tapestry work we could use here.” Tapestry makers are artists in their own right. It’s the same as going to an art fair. If you elevate the artist and there’s real craftsmanship then people get to know about it and have the confidence to tell their designer what they want.
JR: It’s very difficult, and that’s why interior decorators survive!
SM: I think there are a lot of wealthy people who want an experience rather than just paying money for something.
JR: Thank you! All luxury goods companies that have survived produce several versions of the same object, because that’s how you pay for unique products. If you only make unique products then you won’t survive, because there are not enough people with money and taste to keep you going. You need to have more accessible products.
SM: I’m really blown away by everything that you have achieved here.
JR: I want to give back. Frankly, I am getting to the end of my career. I have been very lucky, very lucky that I chose luxury goods. And I have made more money than I ever thought I would – in fact, much more than I often think that I deserve. The spirit of giving back is not only for tax breaks, like in America! I’m having fun, I want to meet these artisans – the creative people are much more fun than the accountants that I have to deal with.
SM: It should be fun, but you want to feel that you are starting something today that you have been working on for a long time and that in another two years will exist in another version. Do you imagine it building into a kind of network?
JR: Yes! We have now been contacted from people in Kyoto; the Santo Domingo family have formed a foundation in Colombia with the most spectacular handworks… Like-minded people are getting together. Sometimes I think you really need democracy for artisans and for art.
JR: Because they need to be able to express their feelings without being repressed.
SM: But even without the hopes of making the world more equal and a better place, in terms of how you actually expand… Do you think it’s going to be digitally-based in terms of getting hold of people? Because if I wanted to find somebody in the south of Italy, say, I wouldn’t know how to start.
JR: When I started this, I got an email from somebody who was a very big investor in New York in the Seventies. He said, “This is the best thing ever! I bought an old house and needed people to work on it and it took me six months to find somebody. So I got him to come down just to work on cornices. But it’s a big place and I was worried because he was getting on in age. I told him I could afford to bring in more people to help him, and while they were fixing it, friends of mine saw their work and said, ‘We need them too!’” So this business guru helped 23 people in a craft that was dying out. Just through word-of-mouth.
I’ve been renovating a country home in the UK, and the architect found a stonemason who is of all kinds of decent in Wales and the best in the UK. I was so naïve – I didn’t know why this was so important until I found out what his costs entail in terms of a percentage of the house. I was thinking a stonemason might be 5%, because there are so few of them left. I told him, “Come work on the house but I want you to train somebody with you. You can pick them, but if I’m paying you that much money, you can afford to train another person.” He laughed his head off, and then he said, “Done.” That’s one way everyone can support future generations of craftsmen.
SM: Are you hoping to use these 21st-century resources to connect people?
HR: I imagine there would be committees and panels with one organisation at the top. You can’t only have people from fashion – there are so many layers.
JR: I think every country already has a kind of a craftsmen system that has lasted but we need to have a way of defining master craftsmen. And for another reason – to honour them. When I was growing up, if you told your father that you wanted to become a chef, or a pastry chef, or a plumber, or a landscape architect, you were considered a failure. You had to become a minister of the church or a doctor, preferably.
SM: That was a time when machines seemed to be miracles. That’s over now.
JR: I fully agree. Ironically the people who are going to keep their jobs, their addresses, and their gods, are the pastry chefs, and the actuaries, and the radiologist… But yes, we need some kind of Légion d’honneur for master craftsmen, where they reach a certain stage and are acknowledged.