In Conversation with Sophie Dries

Posted on October 7, 2020

French architect and designer Sophie Dries is the creative visionary behind Inner Glow, an experimental sculptural chandelier exhibited by Kaia at Walden exhibition 2020. Sophie collaborated with luxury design and architecture firms including Atelier Jean Nouvel and Pierre Yovanovitch before starting her own studios in Paris and Milan. Her experimental approach to materials and sustainably-minded ethos work in perfect harmony with Kaia, and in this month’s journal we find out more about her life, work, and inspiration.

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French Architect and Designer, Sophie Dries – Photo: Valentin Fougeray

What’s been your journey to where you are today?

I started out studying architecture in Paris, and while studying for a Masters in Design I spent a year at Aalto University in Helsinki, Finland doing furniture design. Scandinavian design is more focused on making than French design, where the schools are centred on theory and the abstract. I got very much into making, using materials like glass, wood, ceramic, metal, and textiles. From then it was clear I wanted to do something involving furniture.

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Marble Shades by Sophie Dries – Photo: Piet Albert Goethals

When I graduated in Paris. I did an extra diploma to allow me to sign plans equivalent to RIBA in the UK called HMONP in France, European license. I worked at Jean Nouvel and Musee D’Orsay before getting a project manager position in a luxury firm Pierre Yovanovitch, which I enjoyed because we were really involved with the process of building things and talking with carpenters, wood and metalworkers. We spent two years renovating a building in Paris, where I got the chance to design furniture and became clear I wanted to merge furniture and interior design.

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MARAIS, Paris. Apartment designed by Sophie Dries – Photo: Stephan Julliard

After Pierre Yovanovitch I moved to Christian Liaigre and a year later I decided to start my own practice. I started designing unique, hand-made pieces influenced by my craft background and collectible editions for the Nilufar and Giustini/Stagetti galleries. It’s now been six years and I’ve exhibited at Salone del Mobile Milan, PAD London, Collectible Brussels and the Salon in New York.

What inspired you to take your career in this direction?

Combining interior and furniture design makes sense to me. If you consider Alvar Aalto in Finland, Frank Lloyd Wright in the USA, and Carlo Scarpa from Italy, you see these architects took an all-encompassing approach to design. They created everything from the rugs and curtains to the furniture and the buildings themselves, which makes sense because you want something complete. It’s quite a recent thing to split these into different departments.

As a kid, I wanted to be a chemist and archaeologist. I’d spend hours mixing products and potions and was really into Ancient Egypt architectural aesthetic. Although I never actually planned to be an architect, in a way this past translates into what I do now in that I always research my materials, like experimenting with organic paper and glass while working on Inner Glow with Kaia.

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Papier mache by Paper Factor

What did you learn working in the studios of design masters such as Pierre Yovanovitch and Christian Liaigre?

I learned how to build at Pierre Yovanovitch, because it was a very locally-based studio in Paris. We spent a lot of time talking to the craftspeople, and I learned a lot because they’re the ones with technical knowledge. The most interesting part of this was challenging them to push the boundaries of materials and tradition.

The work at Christian Liaigre revolved around learning how to design a project that could be perfectly implemented on the other side of the globe. Christian conceptualised the idea of interior designers creating a furniture line. This meant there was a lot of forward-planning and designing very technical prototypes of furniture before it became a collection and entered the shops. It was a brilliant way to learn how to be a brand.

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RUE DE L’UNIVERSITÉ, Paris. Attic apartment designed by Sophie Dries – Photo: Stephan Julliard

What does it mean to you to have been long-listed as an emerging Interior Designer of the Year by Dezeen?

It’s really an honour to be long-listed, especially as this award is for all my practice. On top of this, the publisher Phaidon has selected me to be part of its upcoming book called BY DESIGN: The World Best Contemporary Interior Designers which will feature some of my projects including a flower shop and two apartments.

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FLOWER GALLERY, Paris. Shop designed by Sophie Dries – Photos: Brice Chatenoud et By Castel

Where do you find inspiration for your designs? And specifically, what inspired the design of Inner Glow? 

Everything started following the invitation to take part at year’s Walden exhibition at Schloss Hollenegg – The theme was nature and going back to the woods. I started formulating ideas by looking at Kaia’s previous collections and considering how we could look at nature through the lens of brass and glass. Kaia’s CEO, Manuela, suggested working with another material, too. I originally considered leather and then met PaperFactor, a historical and organic papier-mache producer based in Italy, and we ended up going for it.

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Inner Glow chandelier exhibited at Walden exhibition – Photo: Lupi Spuma

It became a three-way collaboration between Riccardo of Paper Factor, Manuela, and me – all in the context of going back to something natural. I never use plastic, pollutants or fake materials in my projects and if I arrive in a space and there’s something interesting about it, we try to keep it. As a citizen of the world, it’s essential to care about the planet. Design seems unsustainable in itself because it brings new things into a world that’s already full of products and waste, so longevity and timelessness are important.

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Photos: Lupi Spuma

Can you talk us through the process of creating Inner Glow, from conception to completion?

Everything started at the initial meeting with Manuela. We discussed materials and decided it would be interesting to merge papier-mache with glass. Kaia had been experimenting with bubbles and spheres, so by just chatting we arrived at the conclusion it’d be more interesting to have an egg than a sphere.

There were five prototypes of the paper and two prototypes of glass, which was challenging because we were in three different countries and couldn’t meet due to Covid-19. The initial Inner Glow chandelier was a manifesto piece, designed for the Walden exhibition, but we’ve now designed a full range of sizes and colours on the same theme of egg-meets-paper.

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Glassblowing at our Bavarian workshop

One of Kaia’s guiding principles is to create lighting pieces that bring together talented artisans from across Europe – what’s your experience of that collaborative process and why do you think it’s important? 

For me, this collaborative process is essential. Doing things alone doesn’t work, it’s all about teamwork. Manuela is really open-minded and always wants the creator to have the result that they want, plus she always listens. Lighting products are quite technical and doing them well is difficult, so it’s also important to work with an editor who knows the technicalities.

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Refining design

How much of a role do quality, ethical materials play in your designs? How much of a role does sustainability play in the products you create with Kaia? 

There are both ethical and aesthetic points of view at play here. When a material is natural, it will age with elegance. Wood and metals evolve and get more interesting with age, even after 20 or 30 years. Nowadays in architecture, there’s a lot of plastic and fake metal on facades, and the buildings aren’t ageing well. This translates across to interior design, too. For the past 100 years, we’ve been creating buildings that last. To build with natural materials is the only way because building with fake materials simply isn’t long-term.

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Applying papier-mache to egg-shaped glass shades

You’re a product designer but also an architect, what interiors projects are you working on at the moment?

At the moment, as a designer, I’m working on business-minded hotels based in Sidney, Melbourne and Brisbane, Australia. In Paris, I’m working on a shoe shop, which should be completed next month, as well as on private residences in Rue St Honoré. Over in Milan, I’m doing a luxury apartment in an old palazzo.

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RIVE DROITE, Paris. Apartment designed by Sophie Dries – Photo: Stephan Julliard

Location plays a significant role in my designs. Strong lighting in Australia shapes how I design there. The aesthetic in Sydney is orientated around its seaside area while in Melbourne around its metropolitan green spaces. I’m always adapting to the site, and avoid having a ready-made style that can travel everywhere. Everything has to relate to its territory.

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Sophie Dries limited edition, handmade ceramics

What’s your dream project?

The experimental work and collectible designs I create for galleries are already part of my dream project – working on a piece for one to three years before it’s out in the world. During lockdown I’ve been working with my ceramicist and designing vessels for restaurants, so doing a line of vessels is another part of this. My big dream would be related to landscape, working somewhere like a desert or canyon.

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