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Play, Possibilities And In Passing: The Story Behind Hermes' Doll House Window Display At Liat Towers

Where artist Sonia Rentsch first learnt how to play.

From playing catch to toys we have enjoyed, the notion of play can evoke many different memories.

For New York-based creative director and still life artist Sonia Rentsch, the idea of play (Hermes’ 2018 theme) reminds her of the doll house her father had built. This toy, together with the memory of her childhood home, became the central motif for her latest work — the window display at Hermes titled En Passant, or “In Passing” in English.

En Passant, Hermes Liat Towers

Hermes’ artistic window displays first began in the 1930s with the work of Annie Beaumel, a young sales assistant from the glove department. She replaced the window manager who called in sick and went wild with the placement of products and even hung a saddle upside down. Leila Menchari, who succeeded Beaumel in 1978, continued this creative and uninhibited manner of display and it became a reflection of Hermes’ identity and uniqueness.

In Singapore, Hermes’ flagship store at Liat Towers has been chosen to display these imaginative installations since its reopening in 2016 and partners with three to four designers from around the world yearly to showcase their artistry. Rentsch, an Australian artist who has worked with brands like IKEA and the Museum of Modern Art, worked with Hermes for over six months to conceptualise and finish the window we see today, which will be displayed from now till Feb 25.

Other elements of play show themselves through the incorporation of games we might’ve grown up with. Checkered chessboard design as flooring sets the stage while oversized chess pieces help viewers navigate between rooms and floors. Staircases, which were absent from Rentsch’s childhood doll house, are featured prominently — their unique placements blurring the lines between art and toy.

We pick Rentsch’s brain on what motivates her, her journey as an artist, and how she developed En Passant.

Sonia Rentsch

What made you decide to become a still life artist?

“If only I’d had any idea choosing to be a still life artist was an option when I left high school! I studied Industrial Design at university and worked in that field designing products, spaces and installations for a good 10 years after. I moved to Berlin from Melbourne in 2009 and found myself unemployed for an extended period. So I started looking outside the box for work options.

Eventually I was employed as a studio assistant for a 3D illustrator who made conceptual sets for photoshoots. It was like someone had opened a magic door to a reality I could only dream of, and by the time I made it back to Australia, I knew that was my destiny. Still life is a work where magic becomes reality. Anything you dream can be made real — as opposed to my previous existence where there were constant constraints. Now, sets for photoshoots are an endless world of possibility.”

What is the inspiration and motivation behind your work?

“The adrenaline rush of building something completely new. I’m inspired by the tangible and the intangible. It could be the rubbish on the street in the afternoon sun or a book I’m reading that stirs the imagination. The constant drip of my oil heater has me thinking a lot about fluidity; it’s the oddest things that spark a flame.”

How did majoring in industrial design shape your current career as a creative director and still life artist?

“It gave me an understanding of how things are built and taught me to feel confident about building them. I have a firm understanding of materials and process. I can come up with an idea but also sketch it out, specify how it should be made and discuss problems with my build team. It gives me a very all terrain outlook on my job.

Still life sets require the same principals of good design. Everything comes down to problem solving. In this world my daily challenges are focused around balancing objects, space, scale, colour, light — things that when manipulated quickly, enable visual outcomes. They’re really joyful problems to tackle.”

Why is the name of the installation En Passant?

“In Passing stems from several thoughts: it is the mere act of passing the work on the street; an exchange — like a quiet nod or eye contact — even if only briefly and in passing, a daily occurrence for an undefined number of strangers every day. It’s also the name of a chess move, which ties nicely to the inclusion of the board and the players in the piece. Finally, it’s a reflection of a memory that triggered the idea. Something that existed in my reality that has passed, but inspired in its place a new story.”

Why did you relate the “notion of play” to your personal childhood for this exhibition?

“When Hermes briefed me, they sent a list of their own notions of play. I pondered all of their inspirations and then my trip to Singapore, my career, my interests. I think so much of who we become as adults stems from those idealistic days of make believe. My notion of play and how I approach the world is very much rooted in those memories. I simply chose to share my playground with new playmates.”

Since En Passant is modelled after the doll house that your father built, do share with us the background story and the importance of this doll house?

“Mining the formative memory of role play and how that action grew into a love of manipulating space is intriguing to me. That doll house was my first blank canvas. It has walls, doors and windows but what happened within those spaces was up to me. When I was slightly older I had an obsession with the constant rearranging of my bedroom furniture. For someone who’s say 12, that’s clearly a further interest in spatial relevance and the emotions that altering it avow. My career in reflection seems like an obvious choice, but it wasn’t so simple as say declaring, “I want to be a Doctor” — it’s tougher to communicate that you want to manipulate space and objects to evoke emotion. In referencing that doll house, I’m sharing a story — how I learnt to play.”

We see a lot of stairways in your installation. What is the significance of this?

“My dad holds an intensely keen attention to detail. I watched him recently pack a shipping container worth of furniture into the boot of his car. He’s like a surgeon with his precision and understanding of space — not a centimetre was left unused. Yet, the doll house was perfect but it lacked one important detail: stairs. A two story house minus stairs, how could it be! I’ve asked my father why he didn’t add them [to her first doll house] but he can’t recall. It’s so clear in my memory that they were absent. This was dad’s thing — details — and yet here was a gaping hole. Literally. But, the vivid imagination of a child conjures all it needs and in my mind, the stairs were plentiful.

Hence, I’ve added stairs with indulgence when I reconstructed the space for Hermes. I had been roaming the malls on Orchard Road going up and down, getting lost in a maze of possibility. Those spaces reminded me of Escher drawings, the surrealism that they could possibly go on forever. I liked the connection between place and time. I hoped that when the audience in Singapore stroll by, they too might make the connection to their own local experience but also ponder where those steps led. Possibility is the nicest feeling, so why not attempt to evoke it?”

How did you incorporate the essence of Hermes into your art installation?

“For me, Hermes is a purveyor of idealism; the company remains family owned and grew from a saddlery to a luxury house. It reinvents its classic products to keep them fresh, and inspires masses through its support of the arts and artists. By making my installation a personal story I attempted to share my own understanding of what it means to imagine great utopian things. It’s a hopeful reminder that small things have the possibility to grow into large things.”

What do you hope for the audience to take away with them when they visit it?

“Possibility. The stairs are a symbol to me of what can become from the seed of imagination.”

What makes a good artist?

“I think story telling is a vital part of being an artist. Even if the story the passer-by on the street takes away is completely different from the one I envisaged, the hope is always to evoke a sense of a reality beyond the one we exist within. The small child who stood in front of that doll house never dreamed that one day she would build a house for Hermes and yet there it is. Possibility is a wonderful thing.”

Images: Edward Hendricks (with the exception of the portrait of Rentsch)