We first discovered Thomas Erber’s Cabinet of Curiosities at Siwilai in Bangkok.
Not only were the objects unique, exotic, and interesting, but the exhibition was
also so incredible and rich. He’s a true connoisseur of the one-off objet d’art;
he’s as unique an individual as the things he curates.
Interview & Text by Sasha Ferkul-Jenkins
Photography by Adrianna Glaviano
The word progress has almost endless associations, often calling to mind images of light bulbs, space exploration, computers, and Cubism. Those who consistently charge forward must stride down the path toward higher things—for themselves and for others, and although the road is never without bumps, their ideals, as if in a state of inertia, continuously propel them. The positive impact of this propulsion is apparent in technology, art, politics, music, etc.; everything that’s worthwhile must keep moving. Moving toward question, toward innovation and toward inspiration. If individuals didn’t challenge the status quo, there would be a standstill, a lack of exploration, a backwards pull that would more often than not result in dire consequences. In other words, the world, and our future, would really suck.
Thomas Erber unquestionably fits the mold of someone not content to watch passively, while the establishment (in this case, popular culture) rules. In 2008, feeling that he’d exhausted a rather illustrious career in journalism, he took his intense dislike of the mainstream and channeled it into the pursuit of originality. Dedicating more than a decade of his life to championing the unique, and those who aspire to satisfy their own creativity without concern for the validation of others. Thus in 2010, Erber put his money exactly where his mouth is—and the Cabinet de Curiosités de Thomas Erber (CDC-TE) came to fruition.
A traveling exhibition for artists, artisans, musicians, designers, craftsman, and chefs who work with integrity at what they love, the CDC-TE could be classed as a very cool pop-up shop. However, that would be wrong, and altogether too easy, slighting the insane amount of effort that Erber applies to choosing a long and ever-growing curated list of contributors. All of them uncontested in their genius; ranging from Carpenters Gallery to Alexandre de Betak to Noor Fares to HCC. Each commission is a one-off, or very limited-edition piece, an endeavor that is then coupled with the logistical trials of choosing a new city and venue each year, speaks to Erber’s undying fervor for the newest, the rarest, the most special of objects. The progression of the project (going into its seventh incarnation in Venice and then St. Moritz) is heavily reliant on the people involved. The relationships that allow the Cabinet to thrive are the direct result of the many years Erber himself, spent satisfying his own curiosities.
You’ve transitioned from a respected journalist to a curator of originality. What were your most unexpected difficulties along the way?
I was a journalist for about fifteen years, which gave me the time and opportunity to dedicate myself to a certain number of consequential projects. Throughout the years, I participated in the launch and development of the magazines Jalouse and L’Optimum, collaborated with Vogue Homme International as a major reporter, launched a television program on the newest trends for France 2, created the magazine L’Officiel Voyage, and was the chief editor for the lifestyle department of the newspaper Le Monde. My main fields of interest were music, travel, design, fashion, atypical personalities that thrived in specific cultural environments, and everything that piqued my curiosity. But by 2008, I’d had enough; I was ready for a change. I decided to work as a consultant for different brands and companies in the areas that I explored as a journalist. The activity picked up at a sustainable pace and paved a promising future, but I decided that in order to be able to focus and improve the projects of others, I also needed to develop one of my own, to which I applied my own set of boundaries. Thus, the idea of creating a contemporary “cabinet of curiosities,” dedicated to the fields of interest I had invested my time in over the last fifteen years, emerged spontaneously, and Le Cabinet de Curiosités de Thomas Erber was born. The idea was to unite a community of artists, creators, designers, and brands that all have a notable sense of technique and savoir-faire, whose work I admired, and ask them to create a unique, never-before-shown, or very limited-edition piece. The next step was finding a host with whom I could associate myself in order to exhibit the pieces, illustrate a book around the event, and organize an opening, while also adding gastronomy to the mix—a domain to which I am particularly drawn. All of this allowed me to explore various contemporary cultural fields while underlining the constant evolutionary trends present in our everyday lives. For example, 30 years ago design in general was of interest to very few people or, as another example, men’s fashion, which up until quite recently was very scarce. The difficulties are constant and are subject to change as the years go by, even more so considering the event was supposed to be a one shot that I was organizing with Colette in Paris. That was in 2010. I immediately knew I wanted to continue by bringing the show to a different city every year, which was unexpectedly the most difficult aspect of this entire project. To adapt abroad is quite laborious in itself, especially when you don’t have a big group of people to assist you. But I ask myself this: “What ambitious project isn’t confronted with difficulties to face and resolve?”
The CDC-TE has been in existence since 2010, and you’ve mentioned that you would like to accomplish a full decade of the project. So what continues to inspire you?
After having completed the first edition in 2010, as well as the ones that followed over the last few years, I found the idea of covering the entire decade — 2010-2020 — quite interesting. We are currently in the year 2016, and as of now I’m doing quite well. Although the project is quite a specific and complex one, considering how ambitious it is in nature, what’s most difficult about it is constantly pushing it to a state of ongoing progression, primarily because of the vital necessity of a financial partner. Nowadays it’s easier to find sponsors for an event with David Guetta than it is to defend an entire community of artists and designers of immeasurable talent, but we shall see what goes down in history. I hope to be able to carry it out to the year 2020. After having traveled the world for the past 10 years, the last edition of the cabinet will return to Paris, where it first began. It’ll be a sort of “best of” where I’ll unite 100 of the best designers and brands in the world. I’ll associate myself with an architectural firm of some sort in order to build an ephemeral context in the center of Paris that will showcase all of these objects as symbols of international artistic insight, and proudly introduce them to the new millennium. And if by chance, I find the right financial partners, ideally I’d like to allow this “house of curiosities” to travel the world in 2021 to the four emblematic capitals of our time, and then that’s it. It’ll mark its end. I’ll publish a book that will summarize the colossal amount of work that it has cost me over the course of ten years of my life, and I’ll move on to something else.
The project seems to be growing in scale with each incarnation. What do you believe fuels this?
My endless desire to discover beautiful objects and marvellous people. Given that I am more of a sentimental than a pragmatic person, what stimulates my projects the most are the relationships that tie me to people. I need to be able to believe in someone rather than in something, and I have yet to be disappointed. What also really motivates me is the pitiful consensus of the mainstream that I strongly loathe and that I’ve always been against, even as a journalist. I strive to put forth people that are original, particular, with various sensibilities, who very rarely get mentioned in the media due to their “fault” of not being agreeable enough, or for being too far from the common trend. But I personally am entirely partial to what is typically referred to as “different” in terms of taste. Quite honestly, who wants to listen to EDM, or get dressed and watch television? In fact, I don’t have a television.
How important is an independent spirit in creating new things?
Independence is a major statement of the cabinet. It’s why 95% of the guests are independent, just like myself. I believe autonomy is the key to creation. If you’re part of a company, your work consists of increasing their profits, which can only be done by inexorably making more copies. I believe this applies to most things. Look at what Apple is becoming today. They’re “Samsung-izing” themselves, as their goal now is to reach the largest number of consumers. This wasn’t the case when they first started; their original public was the elite. And when I say elite, I don’t necessarily mean the rich, I mean those that were on a quest for something different.
Why do you believe that these gifted individuals choose to have their work displayed in this manner, and by you?
Because they want to retain their freedom. Because they want to be able to feel and express themselves as opposed to working anonymously for a company in which they’re interchangeable, dependant on business criteria and the goodwill of their shareholders. Because they have things they’d like to say and they value the idea of having a voice that is their own. Take a designer like Christian Haas. He could easily work anonymously for a furniture factory, or in something to do with porcelain, but that’s not what he chose. He chose to follow his own path. I’m sure that somewhere along the way he’ll wind up in the history book of design, and that’s where he’ll stay. But independence is a laborious path full of painful traps, so I can also understand why some prefer the comfort of a company structure. Speaking of which, Dave Eggers’ last book, The Circle, is a must-read.
How much does price have to do with luxury or originality?
The price of something has nothing to do with luxury, nor does it have anything to do with authenticity or originality. Although the three can easily be linked, and there are clear examples of unique pieces of art that are original, luxurious, and expensive, a very complex watch for instance. However, they can as easily be disconnected, as there are things that are expensive but aren’t at all original or luxurious. Numerous houses in upscale neighbourhoods that are just copies of pre-existing ones are a clear example of bad taste. Yet contrary this, a knife that is hand-made by Roland Lannier is not only luminous and original, but also very affordable. But basically this is very atypical and made possible due to a sense of magic that appears when something slightly irrational comes into play, colliding with the rest and building character. I’d say that true luxury is the result of intentionality, originality, and emotion. The price is only an equation.
Are originality and luxury, particularly in the world of CDC-TE, synonymous?
In a certain sense, yes. Within the Cabinet de curiosités there are pieces that range from 50 euros to 120,000 euros, but whatever their value may be, they’re all original (since they’ve been created for the exhibition), and luxurious (as each is the fruit of a personal intention).
Is it possible to put a price on originality or creativity?
I don’t think so, not in a rational way at least. I don’t believe it is our role to do so either. It isn’t up to us to define the value of their originality or creativity just because designers need to live, and in order to do so they have to sell their work, which subsequently gives it a monetary value. There are certain factors that can rationally influence the price of a piece beyond aesthetic considerations, ones that are naturally objective, such as what’s put into the piece. A piece created from a noble metal will evidently cost more than if the piece were to be created out of an industrial material that is easy to acquire. Then come the techniques and the savoir-faire, the reputation of the artist, the difficulty of the piece itself, if it’s a unique piece of art, a limited series, or if it’s produced in very large quantities, and so on.
Is there a certain quality that attracts you to your collaborators? Or one that repels you?
I am particularly drawn to those that have a clear passion and an emotional approach to creation and to those that are honest. Once their expertise exceeds my knowledge, they immediately spark my admiration. I’m less attracted to those that are preconceived or opportunistic, and I hate imposters and posers. I like usurpers even less and God knows there are plenty of them. However, with a good eye, it’s relatively easy to expose them.
Is having a cabinet de curiosités an attainable goal for anyone?
Of course, everyone can have his own curiosity cabinet; it merely depends on your interests and passions. The size will depend on the amount invested in each item and the time that one is willing to dedicate to it. However, the Cabinet de Curiosités de Thomas Erber is unique in its genre, and I highly doubt that anyone would be able to emulate it in its current form.
How significant is the space when showcasing the CDC-TE?
It’s crucial as the space itself is actually imagined as one of the curiosities, perhaps the biggest of them all as it serves as a vessel holding all of the guests and visitors. It’s also among one of the biggest difficulties that I face each year. What country, what city, and what place? For example, this year I’m working on a dual opening in Venice 2016 and a closing in St. Moritz in January 2017. The idea is to host those from the coast and later, those from the mountains. I really like this idea, but it’s extremely difficult to put into place.
How involved are you in the process of merchandising each venue?
Ideally, I try to work with scenographers and set designers as I did with Eric Chevalier, les Diplomates, or Isabelle Stanislas. I’m really attracted to the idea of associating myself with such people as I believe the scenography of the cabinet is one of the most fundamental elements of the exhibition. What I like about this cabinet is that, beyond offering new international visibility to designers and talented creators, it combines a tremendous mixture of various kinds of savoir-faire that are all in conversation with one another: the creation of the book, the scenography, the event, music, craftsmanship, gastronomy, design, fashion…which is an entirely unique approach. In addition, the idea of maintaining the human dimension so that it remains a platform for people to meet and interact, for incredible networking to take place among designers, influencers, and journalists that come from the entire world in order to participate and benefit from the evening that we’ve provided. Le Cabinet de Curiosités de Thomas Erber is the opposite of a megalomaniacal project: it is a collective piece of art that is able to prosper only in partnership with its community.
What is your curatorial style?
Difficult question! I think that my style is to remain myself no matter what happens. I select the people in a consistent way, according to three or four criteria that never change, like how I meet designers. Often times it’s an artist that knows of me and says, “Oh, hey! You should meet this designer; you’ll love his work,” or I see something that I like in a window display and then I get in touch with the designer. Then I have to admire three major things: their field of expertise, the techniques and methods of fabrication, and the person that he or she seems to be. If those three things don’t add up, I don’t see things through with them. I obviously keep this to myself, and hence we simply part ways.
Do you foresee a sequel to the CDC-TE?
Maybe open a hotel that assembles all of the techniques, savoir-faire, designers, and artists that I surrounded myself with over the course of all these years. A hotel that would be a bit secret, isolated somewhere, in the far end of the world, somewhere that wouldn’t even have a presence on the internet and only insiders would know way to access it.
A consequence of spending fifteen years as a writer is to constantly look back, always wanting to improve on one’s work. Taken from the context of Erber’s career as a journalist and applied to the Cabinet de Curiosités, the annually amassed collections of exceptional objects, gastronomy, music, and design make perfect sense. The evolution of the CDC-TE can be likened to performance art: ever changing, always interesting, and not desirable to everyone—the point exactly in such original and far-reaching ideas. For the founder and creator, the most significant aspects of the project are the ones he might use to define progress: the purity of the intention behind the work, the “sense of magic,” the real talent, how honestly the artists come by their unique sensibilities, and the originality of the pieces included. These are among the most difficult elements to discover, yet are the ones he most successfully brings together and shares with a perceptive audience. In the end, if the Cabinet de Curiosités de Thomas Erber was accepted, adored, and lauded by all, he’d just have to start over.
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