Maxime Genauzeau, a French designer living in San Francisco, is the creator of the striking decor of Amélie, a wine bar on Polk Street that feels more like New York than San Francisco — pure elegance, a touch of wonder and a lot of captivation.
The success of the design is due in part to the beautiful volume of the space that enlivened the designer’s imagination. “Having a gorgeous space to work with is every designer’s dream,” Maxime told me as a matter of fact during our interview.
He traces his vision of space to the work of two influential 20th century Austrian theorists/deconstructivists — Lebbeus Woods (see “Radical Construction”) and Coop Himmelblau (Austrian Architects Coop). “In my opinion, they were pioneers (pioniers),” he explains. “Their theories on the representation of space were so influential on post-modern architecture, that the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, built by Franck Gehry, exists today because of the thinking of these avant-garde architects.”
The center point of Amélie is an elliptical bar in the form of a boat hull (coque de bateau) over which hangs a huge white sail (voile), bestowing the entire front space with a soft aerial touch and an improvement in sound quality. Dropping down through the sail and over the bar are a dozen gorgeous round Bauhaus lamps in different shapes. Maxime found them one by one in flea markets, entrusting old glaze to set the mood, illuminate conversations and brighten faces. The mirror behind the bar, a French Bistro tradition and a must, invites participation and creates cohesion among guests while a Victor Hugo poem inscribed on the back ceiling adds mystery and a touch of sentimentality to the overall effect. The result is what Maxime strives to accomplish in his designs:
“A space needs to be enjoyable and beautiful at the same time (agréable à vivre et beau à voir), and it must produce a lasting effect on the senses.”
The designer credits his years spent in architecture school in Bordeaux for teaching him how to work under constrains and to continually justify his concepts. He compares his creative process to script writing, and he tells me that when focusing on a single project, he channels his creativity to arrive at the logic behind it. Giving meaning to his projects is a crucial step in his technique, which also includes a lot of sketching. And like a sculptor, he always gives priority to the essential — refining his work and taking the unnecessary pieces out of the composition (faire des épures) to leave a timeless impact. His classical side is concerned with the longevity (pérennité) of his designs, but his aesthetic, as a rule, tends to fuse old with present, classic with contemporary.
Upon opening the door of Amélie, one’s gaze is stirred by illuminated red bottles, exciting and heightening the senses. The bottles are meant to connect the bar to the rest of the space, and their exact placement on the wall is not as random as it might appear. The French expression — plonger en bouteille (to dive the legs first) — reveals the whole story. The last shelf above the bar extends as a diving board (plongeoir), from which the bottles dive down to a pool of red wine. The first diving bottles are empty, as suggested by their lack of color, but as they reach the wine pool (the red lacquered panels) they become befuddled (enivrés), making pirouettes. During the agitation, they get filled with wine and become red.
“This is poetry,” he tells me. It is poetry to my eyes as well.
His latest project was transforming a dark hallway in a private house in Pacific Heights. One day, the cleaning lady told him that the children like to spread their hands across the walls of the hallway on their way back from school. The walls were sensual to the kids and the design needed to be friendly and attractive to their touch and feel. He decided to cover the hallway with luminous spots, convex mirrors, bull’s eyes (des loupes) filled with pictures of the kids, and smooth wooden balls (des boules de bois) in all sizes. The design, surprisingly fresh and original, looks like a galaxy, an explosion of matter, and it constitutes a feast for the kids. The entire project took one month to research and four months to build.
Besides being a designer, Maxime is also an accomplished abstract painter, fascinated with the world (l’univers) of comic writer/movie/theater director Enki Bilal. He owes a lot to Bilal’s technique, which evolved from the classic ligne claire of comic books to a more direct color application of a painter. Examples of his paintings can be found on his website or seen in his studio located in San Francisco.
Maxime’s great passion is the ocean. From la Rochelle, where he was born, to San Francisco, being near water is a constant in his life. This is a passion he shares with his favorite singer Brel. And like Brel, he has sailed to les Marquises (French Polynesia).
“Only from the cost of Mexico,” he adds. “Brel sailed to Tahiti all the way from France.” On the island, he visited Brel’s tomb and spent memorable hours alone in his museum learning about the singer’s life and unlocking the secrets of his moving songs.
“In Quand on n’a que l’amour,” he says, “Brel tells us everything that is essential in life. And of course, I love Ne me quitte pas... because we have all been there.” “When Brel sings,” he continues, “you can hear his passion for life.”
He tells me that for Brel, Les Marquises were so special, that “one had to deserve them.”(“Les Marquises, cela se mérite !”) And Maxime did, of course! One more accomplished project to be proud of!
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