Funnels, sponges and even a plunger: the sculptor who creates playful pieces for Van Cleef & Arpels

'It is important to create things that people can look at and just have fun, and that might give them pleasure, yet keep the humility of what creation should be,' says French sculptor Arthur Hoffner

Arthur Hoffner Hoffner uses everyday objects such as funnels and sponges to create his pieces. 
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“The colours are inspired by the stone, like the turquoise, the topaz,” says artist Arthur Hoffner. “What is really funny is that I started with these colours at the very beginning and only later realised they are the same colours as the jewellery. It was a purely random match.” The French artist is talking about his touring exhibition with Van Cleef & Arpels, which sees him create window and other displays for the jewellery maison’s boutiques around the world, including in Dubai and Saudi Arabia.

The sculptures rest on gravity-defying edges and are painted in sugary tones of lemon, mint and pale blush with spheres of green and blue. They are made from seemingly household objects – bits of pipe, blocks, sponge and even a toilet plunger – and piled into towers. While it is unexpected to find such artwork in a high-end jewellery house, given Van Cleef & Arpels’s love of whimsy, colour and play, it also feels curiously natural.

“Sometimes when people do art or design, they get very serious about it and say: ‘I am going to change the world’, or ‘I am super-interesting and so conceptual’, but for me, creation should always stay light,” says Hoffner. “It is important to create things that people can look at and just have fun, and that might give them pleasure, yet keep the humility of what creation should be. That’s why I use things like funnels, sponges and even a plunger. For me, it is funny to play with jewellery that is pure gold and put it next to something so cheap, to combine them so they both became different … it is a new way to create preciousness.”

This sense of play is very much part of the historic jewellery house’s DNA; after all, Van Cleef created a necklace based on a zip back in 1938 for Wallis Simpson, spawning a high-­jewellery masterpiece that is still as charming today (and, yes, the zip works).

“Of course, we are in very beautiful stores, but we can still play and have fun. The Zip necklace is exactly the same thing. To take something we all have and turn it into something exquisite – for me, this project is in the same spirit,” says Hoffner.

The sculptor bagged the dream collaboration when he was but 29. It began three years ago at the contemporary design show Villa Noailles Design Parade in Hyeres, France, of which Van Cleef & Arpels is a partner. Hoffner was there to accept the People’s Choice Award, and ended up being approached by the maison’s president and chief executive, Nicolas Bos, to partner on a new project. “I knew the name Van Cleef & Arpels, of course, but I didn’t really know the jewellery itself,” Hoffner says. “Nicolas said: ‘Oh, it’s funny, your universe, your colours and shapes look very similar to what we want to do with the Perlee collection.”

Launched 12 years ago, Perlee (meaning beaded) is one of Van Cleef and Arpels’s best-loved lines, and comprises tiny metallic spheres clustering the surface of rings, bracelets and watches. Realised in 18K white and rose gold, plus diamonds, it is also filled with colour from vivid stones such as turquoise, malachite and carnelian. The result is precious, yet almost playful against the skin.

“For me, the idea behind the Perlee collection is a feeling that the little sphere is moving around the finger, so I wanted to capture that within a static object. There is no perfect sphere in nature, so the shape is very symbolic, almost ­connected to the sacred,” ­Hoffner explains.

Amid the discreet lighting and expensive carpets of Van Cleef’s boutiques, Hoffner’s pieces feel fragile, leaning so artfully on one another that one false move could bring the lot crashing down. Kitchen measuring funnels are sprayed a velvety Prussian blue, while the plunger comes in a cheery pink. Seen against the glittering beauty of the rest of the jewellery boutique, it is impossible not to be amused, which is precisely what Hoffner is aiming for.

Best-known for his Interior Fountain series, he is a master at capturing a sense of movement through his precariously balanced sculptures that look ready to tip over at any moment. Hoffner forces viewers to look twice, straining to figure out how a piece is made and, more pressingly, how on earth it stays up – how heavy marble can hover on a sponge, or how a ball can sit balanced on a corner. In pastel, almost ice-cream tones, Hoffner’s work brings to mind the colourful optimism of the 1980s Memphis movement, or the wry irony of Marcel Duchamp’s 1917 Urinal fountain.

Jewellery displayed on a sculpture made by Arthur Hoffner. Courtesy Van Cleef & Arpels

Van Cleef, it seems, trusted Hoffner so much they gave him free rein to suggest whatever he wanted. “I was free to create things that are not common in jewellery. A jewellery store is a very specific context as you have very precious objects, and I like to play with the idea of preciousness. If you have a sponge at home it could be beautiful material, but you will not look at it any more. But putting it here in a boutique, we turn it completely. It is humorous, because the collection too has this joyful, light feel. I want people to have the idea [the sculptures] will spill everywhere in the boutique. It’s a game of balance.”

The exhibition launched in April 2019 in the Milan boutique, before travelling to New York and then Dubai. It is currently in Jeddah. For each location, Hoffner reconfigures the installation to fit a new space. “It is all about different scale, like the window, where there is a strong link with the jewellery, but there are different sizes, and different links to the body, so it is not all the same feeling,” he says.

Interestingly, despite being inspired by the Perlee collection, both the artist and the maison were content to have little interaction between the artwork and the jewellery. Only in the in-store cabinets do the two come together, on sculptures shrunk to match the scale of the jewels. “This is the only place where my work meets the jewellery. There is an interaction between them, it is about balance. The ball sitting on the top and the ring just hanging on the side, normally you don’t put things like this in a boutique."