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Culture

The designer interview: Anissa Kermiche

The unlikely words ‘butt vase’ will probably put in mind the year’s most covetable, luxuriously rounded interiors object, but how much do you know of its creator? OSMAN AHMED talks to the jewelry-turned-homeware designer ANISSA KERMICHE about survival, ceramics and the accidental success of 2020’s ultimate posterior piece

Photography Eva K. SalviStyling Charlotte Blazeby
Lifestyle

Anissa Kermiche bursts out laughing when I ask how she decorated her elegant new bachelorette pad in London’s Marylebone. She can’t keep a straight face – not because it’s particularly funny, but because, well, I was there for it. Full disclosure: the jewelry-turned-homeware designer is a very close friend. In fact, we spent most of lockdown shacked up together, spending almost two months anxiously panting our way through virtual barre classes, subsequently ordering burgers, binge-watching murder-mystery documentaries and raving à deux in her sitting room. When she moved in July (her new space is far more serene, all plush cream furnishings and classic white marble; her former was a vast, primary-colored party penthouse), I loaded up her giant ‘Love Handles’ vase in the back of my car – it was almost too bootylicious for my trunk – and together we spent the next few days pondering whether the Ren Hang was level or if the pink Luke Edward Hall headboard should sit against this wall or that. We sorted through boxes of her eclectic clothes (they veer from Sporty Spice to Posh Spice to, er, Sexy Spice) and precariously straddled a ladder while she made me re-piece the jigsaw-like Ronan & Erwan Bouroullec cloud sculpture that hangs above her fireplace. The place is practically my second home. And yet, here we are, sitting on her terrycloth Fred Rigby sofa, and it’s the first time I’ve had the opportunity to interview a woman who I consider both family and a design tour de force. Both of us are struggling to keep a straight face.

When we first met a handful of years ago, Anissa Kermiche was a brilliant Paris-born, London-based jewelry designer who was making a name for herself with pearl-laden anklets, ruby-dotted pendants and sculptural jewels that captured the zeitgeist for selfie-friendly, demi-fine statement pieces; the kind of jewelry that is both wearable yet precious. She found immediate success with them – and her jewelry continues to be a bestseller – but it wasn’t until 2018, when she launched ceramics, that her name entered the lexicon of design history. “Everything changed from that point; it completely transformed and restructured my business – and my approach to design.”

Two words: “butt vases”. If there were ever an accessory to sum up the delirious domesticity of 2020, it is one of Kermiche’s curvaceous ceramics. In a year that has seen us grounded at home, with no parties to be well-heeled for or dinners to debut new-season dresses at, homeware has become the ultimate status-worthy adornment. ‘Shelfies’ (artfully curated coffee-table books, candles and ceramics) have replaced selfies. And though they had long been spotted in the sitting rooms, and therefore Instagram timelines, of celebrities, influencers and tastemakers, this was the year that Kermiche’s body-positive vases went viral. “My work is a celebration of femininity through design,” she explains. “It feels relevant for a conversation that we’re having right now about women, feminism and our bodies. I never thought I would have my own jewelry brand, let alone be creating objects that I had always been sketching.”

Why does something functional have to be boring? I want to bring artistic shapes into daily life

That’s because they were a total accident; what began as a personal mission to make a jug for herself eventually transpired into a full-blown design phenomenon. “It took years to find a producer who would do just one,” she explains of the ‘Jugs Jug’ that she had made for her apartment. “Almost everyone who came over, including buyers, saw it and wanted it. It all happened organically.” Two years later, she now produces thousands of ceramics a year and is rapidly expanding into other categories: mirrors, lamps, tableware, furniture. She brings a jeweler’s eye for beauty to everyday objects. “Why does something functional have to be boring?” she asks. “I want to bring artistic shapes into daily life.”

The shapes in question are the curves, lumps and bumps of the female body in all its glory. More than just a freeing of the nipple, it’s a riposte to her strict upbringing and background in corporate engineering, where 85 percent of her colleagues were men. “I spent the first three decades of my life repressed, so my work was always going to be loud and funky and daring,” she says. “Although I can’t say that my mother is very happy about that,” she adds with a smile. Kermiche grew up with the strict immigrant mentality of “books, not looks” (her family is French-Algerian), so she initially went into one of the Holy Trinity of immigrant-approved careers: engineering (it could well have been law or medicine, if she hadn’t fainted at the sight of a dissected mouse). She graduated top of her class a year early at École Centrale Paris and landed a prestigious job at one of France’s leading firms. She spent her early twenties climbing the corporate ladder, making jewelry on her lunch breaks and expressing her creativity by sprucing up the corporate presentations. “I even won an award for them, but essentially I was still dealing with information systems.”

At 27, Kermiche hit an all-time low and was suffering from severe depression that left her unable to leave the house. “I felt like I had sold my soul to the devil,” she remembers. “We were forced to drink in a mug with the name of the company on it and I developed an allergy to the corporate world: the carpets, the elevators, the jargon. I felt like I had no future.” At the behest of family and friends, she was urged to take some time off to try something new, so she decamped to London for a couple of months to take a summer course in jewelry design at Central Saint Martins. The creative environment was a jolt to the system. Kermiche quit engineering and enrolled on a full-time jewelry-design course at the revered art school. “My whole world opened up – I discovered nightlife, dancing, made friends with similar interests. I had my first taste of alcohol at the age of 27!”

Yet her background in mathematics, physics and computer science came in handy, as 3D design was in its infancy on the curriculum. “I started on the bench and it was a bit like being a mechanic,” she remembers. “I was burning my fingers all the time; I had to cut my nails; I couldn’t wear nail polish because it would burn when I was soldering… I couldn’t do it, and I have so much respect for people who do, because otherwise my jewelry wouldn’t exist. But there was an option to study 3D design, playing with shapes and being on a computer. I had the mathematical knowledge, so I was in heaven.” After graduating at 30, her earliest collections riffed on the straight lines and circles of geometry: thin diamond-lined Bauhaus shapes that still recur throughout her collections. “I find a circle or square so beautiful because it’s so pure,” she says, like a true math buff. Later, her work became about the organic shapes of a woman’s body, which may seem like an antidote to perpendicular lines and perfect circles, though she disagrees. “I see a woman’s body as a circle. You move a few points and it creates an individual shape. I’m fascinated by how we all have the same anatomy but every person is different.”

Keen to dismantle conventional beauty standards, her miniature nudes are often round and textured – an ode to imperfections and insecurities. That may sound paradoxical, considering her Amazonian beauty, sky-high legs, honeycombed locks and pillowy lips (yes, they’re real; I’ve seen the baby photos), but her work is inspired by the female pioneers of the art world: Peggy Guggenheim, Gertrude Stein, Ray Eames, Barbara Hepworth, Dora Maar, Charlotte Perriand to name a few. “Whatever object I design, I always refer to it as ‘her’,” Kermiche points out. “It always needs to be feminine in some way.”

The decision to start her business in London was a conscious one, given her cultural heritage. “In London, I was exotic being French – in France, I was North African and nothing else and it certainly wasn’t exotic. Especially back then – the political atmosphere was tense and I could feel the racism in the air. It was just before the terrorist attacks at Charlie Hebdo and you could really feel it.” It helped that in London, a city known for its emerging talent, the response to her work was immediately welcoming. “Here, if someone has a great idea, it happens right away. In France, they are spoiled with old fashion houses and iconic designs, [so] they’re more reluctant to embrace newness. The UK is proud of new, young designers. France is about history.”

It’s important to point out that Kermiche is also self-made – a rarity in the already rarefied world of jewelry. She didn’t come from a privileged background and so making accessible, wearable pieces was always paramount to survival as an entrepreneur. “I see a lot of brands that are admirably edgy and cool, but ultimately there’s no reality to them,” she says. “I couldn’t allow myself to not make it profitable. I couldn’t afford to waste money because it was all my savings.” From the start, she used the profits from commercial pieces to invest in experimentation for other categories. “I didn’t even know what a lookbook was, or a showroom, or a campaign. I remember I just went to Ikea and bought some furniture, printed a big picture and stood in front of it.” Today, her business is seasonless – it’s more sustainable that way, and she produces everything, from the recyclable packaging to the striking content on her brand’s Instagram – and her team consists entirely of women from a diverse array of backgrounds.

Back in Kermiche’s engineering days, she never thought she’d be working in an all-female environment. “I have to say, I was a bit worried that it might be difficult, but all the women I work with are amazingly supportive – they are the hardest-working people I’ve ever met, able to balance careers with being mothers and great friends.” She’s known for her intimate girls’ lunches (couscous and caviar are always on the menu) that descend into dance parties – well, they did pre-lockdown. In fact, her next vase is called ‘Multi-Tasking’, a pot with several hands to represent the myriad roles women perform, which she has been fine-tuning for more than a year. Businesswoman, designer, craftsperson, hostess, sister, a really great friend – it couldn’t be a more fitting reflection of Kermiche herself.

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