Article and images excerpted from artinfo.com

Karl Lagerfeld is famously a man of many parts: a Hamburg-born fashion icon whose vision of modernity is still revitalizing the legendary French house of Chanel after 25 years, an art photographer whose recent pictures of the Château de Versailles’s park in winter evoke almost human emotions from the stone statuary and an instinctive connoisseur who has outfitted a plethora of homes in such spots as Hamburg, Monte Carlo, Biarritz, Rome and Paris with the finest examples of “things I like,” including 18th-century French furniture, Old Master paintings and Art Deco and Memphis design items. Lagerfeld’s deftness with decor has made him an avant-garde trendsetter with a wide following. His influence is reflected in the prices his collections command when sold at auction, often fetching two or three times the estimates.

One of Lagerfeld’s latest projects is the Chanel Mobile Art Pavilion, a traveling contemporary-art show that he conceived as a 50th-anniversary tribute to the Chanel handbag and whose exhibition space he commissioned the Pritzker Prize–winning architect Zaha Hadid to design. For the pavilion’s first stops, in Hong Kong and Tokyo, French curator Fabrice Bousteau chose original installations inspired by the emblematic purse and created by 20 contemporary artists, including Nobuyoshi Araki, from Japan; Blue Noses, from Russia; Daniel Buren and Sophie Calle, from France; Subodh Gupta, from India; and David Levinthal, from the United States. On October 20, the show swoops into New York’s Central Park, where it will remain until November 9. Next year it will travel to London and Moscow, finishing up in Paris in 2010.

Jean Bond Rafferty caught up with Lagerfeld in the Chanel studio on Paris’s Rue Cambon. He was putting the final touches on the 2008–09 couture collection but took the time to reveal the raison d’être of the Lagerfeld lifestyle.

You are working at a Jean Prouvé desk. We are sitting on Prouvé chairs.  When did you discover his designs?

You know, I bought Prouvé 20 years ago, when nobody wanted him. These were made for a school. I also have a set of 40 chairs and 10 tables from his first known public work, for the Crédit Lyonnais bank. I bought them for nearly nothing from a very good dealer, Anne Sophie Duval, who unfortunately just died. Now people ask me for a chair, and I give them as gifts.

Are you always way ahead of the curve?

The biggest, most beautiful classic paintings—by Impressionists, by Surrealists (whom I hate), by Expressionists (whom I have) and even modern art, like Pollock—were not expensive when they were made. Now you buy them for a fortune, and you have only a few excuses, or no excuse [for waiting]: You didn’t have the money to buy even cheaply 30 years ago, or you are an idiot and you are blind.  Or you like the idea of putting something on the wall and everybody knows how much you paid for it. It’s up to you to adjust to the period. You can fight for the past, or like me, you can be a healthy opportunist and go to the next step.

You move on quickly.

I hope so. I’m a fashion person. I change clothes, furniture, houses, collections. Life is about change. There is a moment when things cannot become any better; then you change. There is no feeling of home in my house. I don’t have those feelings. I am utterly free, European, free-minded, and I have no sense of possession. But to have no sense of possession is easier if you have owned a lot.

You keep nothing when you sell these things?

I keep things like a joke, the furniture of my childhood home.

That’s your Rosebud, à la Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane?

In a way. I’ve kept the pieces, but I don’t use them. They are too tiny for me. It’s a very beautiful set of Biedermeier furniture—the desk where I learned how to write and how to sketch, even the paintings my mother put there that weren’t good enough for her, the leftovers, the German Romantic paintings.

How do you live with your art?

I had beautiful Old Master paintings; I sold them all. But now I have a collection—it’s not on the wall—that I really love, of German posters from 1905 to 1915. They are the beginning of modern advertising, like huge Pop-art paintings, with unbelievable colors and modernity. They show the strangest products: AEG electrical equipment, coal, chocolate, sometimes fairs, or exhibitions. But they are divine, and they are impossible to find. 

Where do you find them?

I get all the catalogues, and I have people who buy for me. The other day, one of them said, “You cannot pay $50,000 for a poster.” I bought it for nearly $80,000, and a week after, at a sale in New York, a poster by the same artist—not as good—went for $120,000.

But you don’t hang them on the wall.

I want to put them in my place in New York. They don’t work in France; it’s not a French style at all.  I will do the New York apartment in the style of the [Deutscher] Werkbund, the architectural movement that had designers like Bruno Paul, Hermann Muthesius and Peter Behrens, who taught Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier. They did modern things differently, in 1910, before the Bauhaus. I have a collection of furniture bought 20 years ago that is stunning, very colorful, in bright red, yellow, green and gold. Suddenly people are discovering Werkbund. Everyone knows Vienna Secession, but there is not much left. Werkbund is Germany for me, a Germany that I can identify with.

Why did you choose these things for New York?

My apartment is in Gramercy Park. I like it because it’s very German and very New York at the same time—the New York of E. B. White.

Your current enthusiasm is contemporary design, the work of people like Marc Newson and Zaha Hadid.

I have known them for years. I bought the first piece of furniture Zaha ever made, for Sawaya & Moroni—a sofa 5.5 meters long—20 years ago in Milan. If you ask me what genius is, I would say Zaha Hadid.

You started collecting Marc Newson at the Galerie Kreo, in Paris.

Most of the furniture in my Quai Voltaire apartment is from the well-made limited editions of the artists of Kreo: Marc, the Bouroullec brothers (Erwan and Ronan) and Martin Szekely. Everything Martin does is great. The last thing I got from him is a real piece of art, a mirror made of a silicium-carbide-based ceramic that is more expensive than gold. For Quai Voltaire, he made two three-meter-long tables—one for writing, one for sketching—in white Corian with metal stripes. They face each other in the over-20-meter-long space that I made from three rooms.

What else is in this vast room?

There is also a huge sofa by Amanda Levete and two of the most beautiful coffee tables I’ve seen in years, from Established & Sons, the British-based design company that Stella McCartney’s clever husband, Alasdhair Willis, heads. He does expensive limited editions like Kreo but also cheaper versions.  One version of Amanda’s sofa costs £80,000, the other £10,000, and they are both beautiful. And I have chairs by the English designer Tom Dixon, two sofas by the French designer Jean-Marie Massaud and my favorite statue, Serenity, by Elie Nadelman.

What is the appeal of all these pieces?

We live in a period of revivals—post Bauhaus, post ’70s, post ’60s, post whatever. What I like about the things I’ve bought from Kreo is that they have a voice only from now. The art that I think is genius is Conceptual art, Land art. My favorite artist is James Turrell, and that’s not for the living room.

So you enjoy contemporary art, too?

I love it, but not at home. At home I want only books.  Not even photography.

You’re not going to put any of your Versailles photos on your walls here in Paris?

There are no walls, just glass walls, glass windows, glass doors. It’s a glass box. You push one button and 50 doors—25 on each side—open at the same time and you have the library. On one side there are reading books, on the other side art books. It is like a flawless spaceship flying over Paris, because at the end you have these big windows with a view of the Seine, the boats and the Louvre.  It’s a very strange feeling, like life is short and the day is nothing because it is so enchanting. You get dressed and undressed and the day is over.

You are famous for your love of books.

Art is something you feel. You don’t have to own it. But I’m a slave to my books. I’m not a bibliophile. It’s the inside that is interesting to me.

Where do you keep them all?

At my apartment and elsewhere. I have a huge photography studio next door [on the Rue de Lille] with a bookshop in the front part [stocked with beautiful books on art, fashion, design, decoration, photography and gardens plus a selection of international art magazines] that is doing very well. In fact, I have three houses—I mean, I have three houses right there [around the Quai Voltaire] and other houses elsewhere. I turned a nine-room apartment into a huge suite only for me, with a kitchen to warm up things that people can bring when I call. I have no servants in there when I’m home. Nobody. I want to be alone, like Garbo. My studio next door is a huge place, and there is an apartment over there for guests. My library there has almost 60,000 books. When I leave my apartment where I stay for the night, I have a town house for lunch and guests and books next door. All these places are three minutes from one another.

A town house for lunch—I like that.

I’m a guest in my own house. I hate the smell of cooking. And in this little town house, you know what I am doing with the decor? It’s called the French house because I am mixing 18th-century furniture with French Art Deco by Louis Süe and André Mare.

You would never give up the 18th century completely, would you? 

No, it lives in me, but I don’t have to live in it.

In New York, you are living in the 21st-century design of John Pawson, who did the interiors of the Gramercy Park building. Architecture is also very important to you.

Today, modern art and architecture—what is the difference? Architecture is conceptual art, in a way. The drama of contemporary art is that it errs on the side of too much pretentious thinking, too much talking, not enough action.  People like Turrell don’t explain. You just get the message.

You had a collaborative hand in the architecture of the Chanel Mobile Art Pavilion, Zaha Hadid’s glamorous space-age gallery, whose gentle sweep of gleaming white arched panels is an abstract evocation of the iconic Chanel handbag.

Zaha did more than I did. And yes, it is the best object of the show, like a walk-in Brancusi. Zaha has destroyed the dryness of the post-Bauhaus aura that covered the world, all those ugly buildings and airports that came after the genius of the original movement.

What have you liked about the artists in the show so far?

The Japanese artist Tabaimo, who made a huge well [rimmed in black quilted leather and inhabited by video images of fantastical swamp life], is my favorite. I like Yoko Ono’s Wish Tree [covered in red blossoms to which visitors are invited to attach white strips on which they’ve written their own wishes]. It’s like decoration, with an unpretentious lightness. But I thought there were too many objects for the space. It will be different in New York. Another spring, another love—even if it’s fall. Life is about change, and art is about change, too.

"Living Lagerfeld" originally appeared in the September 2008 issue of Art+Auction. For a complete list of articles from this issue available on ARTINFO, see Art+Auction’s September 2008 Table of Contents.

All images courtesy of artinfo.com