It's a cold windy night in Paris and hundreds of people are crowding into the underground exhibition space at the Palais de Tokyo. Others, disgruntled, are made to wait. They are far too well dressed to be kept behind a velvet rope.
Everyone is here for the unveiling of the latest in a long line of contemporary art collaborations with the historic champagne house Ruinart. The man of the hour is French artist Hubert le Gall who has created twelve impressive glass sculptures, all of which are illuminated and lined up along the middle of the exhibition space.
Made from Murano glass with a mixed palette of black, green, yellow and clear glass, the 12 pieces were inspired by the Sillery Vineyards in the Montagne de Reims, Ruinart's traditional vineyard. They each represent one month of the year and pay tribute to the passage of time, referencing the effect of the changing seasons and the work of man upon the champagne-making process.
Hubert is swarmed by admirers, so I am unable to reach him to discuss his collaboration. Luckily, the next morning I am taken to his Parisian atelier. Behind a discreet door in Montmartre, tiny pebbled pathways lead to a hidden group of artists' residences. These idyllic houses were once upon a time the homes of Salvador Dalí and Pierre Bonnard amongst others.
Once inside however, Hubert Le Gall's studio is an altogether more contemporary affair. Famous for his functional furniture, his playful and poetic approach makes for a fascinating environment: gold mirrors in varying shapes and sizes distort your reflection at every turn; a Pinokio lamp sits next to a life-sized plaster alligator climbing the wall and a green velvet chaise sits below a giant giraffe sculpture that appears to grow out of the office fireplace.
I sat down with Hubert, in a giant cushioned flower pot, to discuss the artist's latest collaboration with Ruinart:
What is the first piece of art you remember appreciating?
The first piece of art, my first real shock, was when I went to the Musée des Beaux Arts with my school and saw a painting by Pietro Perugino - a wonderful painter from the 16th century.
What is the first piece of art you remember making?
I was six-years-old and I made a drawing of a daisy. I have the drawing now, hanging in my study.
You worked at an insurance company for many years before becoming an artist full time. How did you end up working in such a formal job?
It was not a classic insurance job. I was the artist of the company. I had to make books and films to help customers understand what they sold. It was fabulous. They believed that to create, I needed to be out there, living, even if that meant that I had to be lying in a swimming pool all afternoon, because maybe I would have a great idea there. But I didn't have full creative control.
How did you decide to make art your living?
I was in New York and I met a guy around 40-years-old who explained that he had changed his life to do what he wanted. I realised that I was young - I was 27 - and also had the chance to do what I wanted. I started painting and made a few portraits with quite a lot of success. But when I delivered the paintings people would say, "very nice...I'm trying to find a table do you know where I can find it?" so I would say "I can do it." Then it became, 'I want to make a chandelier' and so on. With furniture, I can be free because it is functional. At the time I started, everyone in France wanted to be on trend. One minute everyone was painting and then painting was finished and it was all about video art. I decided to make furniture so everyone would leave me alone.
You have a lot of animals and nature in your work? Is that your primary inspiration?
HLG: A lot of people look at my work and think I am inspired by nature, but in fact my inspiration is art. See my daisy table for example. The flowers were not inspired by nature, but rather the daisies in Andy Warhol's prints. The flower pot that we are sitting in was inspired by a very big pot that the French Artist Jean Pierre Raynaud made. The same with my bookshelf which was inspired by Roy Lichtenstein. A lot of artists today sacralise the mundane and useful things. I am interested by the opposite. I am inspired by art, and then make it functional.
How did Ruinart serve as inspiration?
I was inspired by the history of the brand and the high quality of champagne. And the process. When you go to Reims and see where they produce it, you understand how sophisticated the champagne-making process is. I used to go to a vineyard in Lyon in September when the vineyard was full of grapes and leaves. I had never thought about going in winter. When I went to Ruinart in February it looked like land art with all the bare sticks poking out from the earth. I understood in winter how important and how precise the work of man is to the art of champagne. My idea was to express both things - nature and man controlling nature. I also wanted to express the notion of time - the weather, but also the time to produce the wine, the time you must wait to drink it and even the moment you drink it.
Why did you choose Murano glass?
With Murano glass you can feel the material, feel the manual work like the process of making the wine. And it has small bubbles like champagne. I also wanted to work with wood as the expression of nature.
Ruinart is a big brand with a long history of collaborating with artists. Did you feel a lot of pressure?
I had a lot of pressure, but not from them, rather myself. They left me to express the vineyard how I wanted to. But I wanted to be proud of my job. I was very happy yesterday at the Palais de Tokyo. I love the sculptures. It's my portrait. Actually it's their portrait. Or maybe it's a portrait of the vineyard.
A Portrait of Hubert Le Gall by Ruinart
Favourite virtue: For a designer: sincerity, even if it is mistaken.
Ultimate luxury: Silence! Increasingly rare...I do not like noisy people or things and I prefer not to go near them and prefer to do without them.
The country you would like to live in: In a France that sparkles.
Favourite animal: The rabbit with large ears. When I look at my work I see them everywhere: in a candlestick, a mirror, an armchair. There must surely be an explanation.
Book on your bedside table: I prefer auction sale catalogues.
Ideal holiday: With close friends for laughing and sharing, or alone with paper, pencils and pieces of string. I like to feel surrounded, but I keep a lot of time for tinkering alone. To celebrate good news with: The first onlooker as long as there was chilled champagne.