say hi to_ Joseph Dirand
Starting with his first client, a family friend, at the age of 20 while still completing his studies - Joseph Dirand has now become one of, if not the most, recognised of French interior architects of our generation. From international hospitality projects to translating some of the world’s most renowned fashion houses vision through his architectural lens to the development of a virgin island (yes that's right!) - Joseph has a hand, and his vision, in every corner of the international interior architecture landscape.
He was heavily influenced from an early age, joining his father, an architectural photographer, to shoots and across many different inspiring interiors. Growing up in a creative family led to his path in architecture, which he was always damn sure of, and his brother to being an architectural photographer himself.
We get the chance to join Joseph Dirand at home to chat getting first clients, maintaining one’s creative voice throughout commercial projects and the dream project of developing a sustainable virgin island in the Bahamas - from scratch.
Photo_ Manuel Obadia-Wills
| Kristen | Can you please introduce yourself and what you do?
| Joseph | I’m Joseph Dirand and I feel like I’ve been an architect since I was born. My father was an architectural and interior photographer, and because of him I grew up surrounded by this environment. I was raised in this culture because of his work; I never wanted to be a firefighter, even as a child. Other kids wanted to be firefighters, but I always knew architecture was meant for me. My father’s passion for architecture was passed on to me, so I learned it at an early age. I learned how to be aware and sensitive to all of the possible styles and all of the imaginable combinations.
| Kristen | What is a typical work day for you?
| Joseph | Honestly, they’re not very typical. Most of the time they are spent running around. In general, I work with my team during the day, which is composed of 25 architects and interior designers. We are always working on very different categories of projects. The projects keep getting bigger and bigger, but we also still work on mid-sized projects.
I like to try to concentrate on projects working in the hospitality industry because it’s a field that connects many people, through hotels and restaurants. I focus on trying to select a lot of projects in this direction.
Usually during the day I’m working with my team and then also working on conception. At the early stages of any project I mainly work alone on the conception, normally at home, at night on this coffee table.
| Kristen | It’s the same for me, during the day we go to the office or meetings but at night I turn the phone off and work.
| Joseph | You need to be quiet and in your own inner world, to have no distractions from others, and you need total concentration. I can spend hours looking at the same drawing, and the drawing is only one part of the process of conception. You spend this important time alone, creating a virtual world in your mind and then you start to sketch.
I develop a lot on transparent paper and then I go back to the office the next morning and share those drawings with my team. This is typical for the early stage of the project, which gets everything started.
I work on every project, if not every day at least a few times a week. For each project the work is a mix between things I am conceiving at home and things that my team is developing. It’s great because a lot of these people have been working with me for many years, and I have built a team of passionate creatives. We are always trying to reinvent ourselves as much as we can.
It’s easy to repeat things, so of course sometimes you recognize elements or material, or some kind of signature, but I prefer the idea of having a signature which is moving. Because I am young in terms of art, my sensibility in design has always been more minimal. Minimal art, minimal architecture…I think this is probably because during my childhood the information I received about design was too much for a such a young person to comprehend, it would have been hard to develop my own taste because the spectrum was so wide. So the more minimal things were what resonated with me.
Also our home was very minimal; my mother was a fashion designer and we had a lot of friends who connected us to many tastes and styles. I think the only way for me to build something from where I began was to start with a white blank page. All of my work from the early years was extremely minimal and conceptual.
I started out very minimal, but I began to integrate some classical elements because I needed to branch out for other projects and programs. For example, Balmain - when I did a concept for Balmain my intention was not just to treat the subject like a designer, to bring my ego and my design, or something that was only my style… It was more a question of what should Balmain be today, considering all of the history of the brand. For me there was definitely an idea that resonated - French Haute Couture: a brand that was important during the golden age of fashion, very cinematographic, very sophisticated.
So I tried to bring the brand back to that idea, I wanted to give a similar feeling that Balmain stores have always given. Actually, it was more resonant of the early ages of Balmain because this particular store was originally the apartment of Pierre Balmain when he first moved and started to set up his studio. The space had a lot of history but over time everything had of course been demolished. My work was not to create a new identity of Balmain, but was to bring back the original Balmain. In the store I mixed this very classical environment with a square column that had mirrors on every side in the center of the room.
| Kristen | So you first got interested in architecture from your father, how did that influence you at the beginning - did you go to work with him?
| Joseph | During my studies in architecture I had a little bit of free time, so the first year or two I assisted my father on some photoshoots. It was very interesting to discover new places, but also spend some time with my father. I really enjoyed seeing how he explored architecture and how he found the feeling of capturing a space. With architecture, the photography of the space is the essence of everything - where you decide to stop and frame is what you consider the essence of the place, and it can be transmitted with one detail sometimes.
| Kristen | I heard that you use cinematography a lot in kind of your references.
| Joseph | I use cinema sometimes but I consider my projects to be lived as if they were cinema. My projects are something you actively live, it is not just something you look at. It is not an art piece, it is a living experience. I am very focused on this aspect of it. I like to highlight the relationships and interactions of people in a place, especially in a hospitality project like a restaurant, a hotel. How do you want people to connect? How do you want the mood and the light and the atmosphere to be conveyed? These are the questions I ask myself and to try to answer with my designs.
When my work is finished the project is born, and the hope is that the project lasts for a very long time. It is very frustrating, especially in fashion, for example, that sometimes people are there simply to create a nice frame for something, but things change a lot and people are revolutionising the thing according to the designer, to his strategy and his direction. Then the brand changes, and the store changes, then they demolish the shop and move two stores away and start the process again. That is a bit frustrating for me because the entire experience does not last long.
I want to try to focus on developing things that last because they usually take a lot of effort, and after the creation is finished I feel a stronger connection with what I did, which is my life. I dedicate my entire life to this and it is very engaged - I don’t really care for the idea of things disappearing if they are substantial or valuable.
| Kristen | So you studied, what were your first jobs when you first got into architecture? I read that you had started your own firm quite young.
| Joseph | I had the opportunity to get my first commission at the beginning of my second year of school. I was around 20 years old.
| Kristen | How did you start that? Did you approach clients?
| Joseph | No, no no. I think starting out is always the same for everyone. It begins with friends and family; you don’t exist as a name yet, so the only people you have are your friends and your family. My first commission was actually two things: my first apartment of course, and the other was a store for a Japanese fashion designer in Paris. The store was called Junk and it was on rue Etienne Marcel, and it was pretty big at that time, probably 300 square meters. I remember I had done something a bit industrial, but very design oriented at the same time, really detailed, and not really comparable to things I am doing today. I was very immature, I had no experience, I knew that I liked some styles, but I didn’t have my own taste or personality yet. You can tell from the pictures that I was already trying to do something special as a 20 year old with no real design individuality yet . After that store I did small apartments for friends.
Yeah and then you know, little by little, after some small publications some things started to grow. I did a couple of small apartments and, through friends or through more publications I began to get a little bigger, older. During my studies I did a couple of projects that really helped me grow, and it was very important because if I hadn’t had those opportunities, I would probably not have been able to start my studio three years later when I finished my degree. So that little start, doing small things first, that is what created the possibility for me to build my studio with some commission right after completing university.
“I choose to live from passion, and that has given me the freedom to select the people I surround myself with, whether it be clients or other architects. This freedom has probably always been what I value the most. “
| Kristen | At the beginning it is always like that, you get your first job. if it is something that you love, you’re like ‘Oh wow, they’re going to pay me to do that!’. Then you are willing to work for not much.
| Joseph | Yeah at the beginning you don’t care. There is no real financial worry, you’re only focused on pure passion while you grow and learn. I had a very slow and precise evolution during those 20 years. There is no one big project or event that created me, it’s a combination of all of the little experiences. But eventually things evolved to exactly what I always wanted them to be. I choose to live from passion, and that has given me the freedom to select the people I surround myself with, whether it be clients or other architects. This freedom has probably always been what I value the most.
| Kristen | I think this is really the biggest dream in the world when you choose, when you don’t have to make as many compromises. I mean you choose the clients you want to work with so even if it’s something very different, you get to make that choice. That you get to put your own touch to it.
| Joseph | It’s good because I need constraints. I’m not someone who is trying to invent; I am not an inventor. I am someone who really takes inspiration from everything that surrounds me. I’m more like a witness; I love to watch people, I love to analyse things, I am sensitive to everything, smell, taste, lights. I put a lot of effort into paying attention to these things, but I also need to try to create new emotions through these constraints, which is a space, which is a client, which is a location, which can even be financial.
Sometimes architects or interior designers can be artistically constrained. There is a duality in these two expressions - the expression of freedom and at the same time an element of limitation because of the constraints that are present. You can let the constraints frustrate you, or you can try to play with them and maybe they can give more consistency to your choices.
| Kristen | So what is something that you learned when you first started your studio that you maybe didn’t expect? For instance when I first started the magazine, I quit most of my freelance work and I wish I would have known that i probablyyyy should have saved more money….. (laughs)
| Joseph | I consider life a miracle, and it’s surreal, especially now that I’m going back, looking at the whole picture through this book about my work over the years. It’s crazy to think that if only one thing had been different, one choice would have changed my whole career. If I would have done this store, or these things or these publications or met these friends or went to this country…it is crazy how everything is so connected. All of the choices we make are connected, and life is the result of these choices and connections. You can’t regret your choices, because everything is so connected. The choices you made led you to where you are. There are moments of course when I regret some choices, but not at the same level of happiness I feel for having made others.
I remember the first guy who gave me an opportunity to work with a little more freedom in terms of budget, to explore and to push the limit a little bit further. This probably allowed me to evolve to a certain point, and to get other commissions afterwards. The Balmain store was an important project for me because it created a certain method of incorporating different elements to produce a specific style, but also because it taught me how to build a story. In fact, it was primarily story telling that resulted in me getting commissions afterwards to create and tell other stories.
| Kristen | Was there a moment that made you go out and start your own firm? What made you decide to start your own rather than working for someone else.
| Joseph | There has never been another option for me. I think I grew up knowing there was only working for myself; I saw my mother working at home and I saw my father traveling or working for himself. I grew up in an artistic surrounding, seeing all of these creatives who worked only for themselves. My parents and their friends were designers, artists, photographers, writers, all working for themselves. I didn’t really see myself in a position where I was working for someone else. Working for myself, creating, was the only reason for my existence.
Also to mention one very important thing - my brother is the same way. We had a great admiration for my father because he was amazingly talented, but he was complicated in terms of emotional relationships at the same time. He had a very strong character, and was not someone who could easily express his feelings. It was kind of difficult for his children, who really tried to get the attention of their father, and who wanted to feel that he was interested in what we were doing at that time.
Not only did we want his attention as children but we eventually grew to desire his respect for our work. This took a lot of time. I think the first time I felt like my father respected my architectural work was about two weeks before he died. It’s good because at least I finally got it! I’m sure that my father loved me, I don’t doubt that at all. Of course, as a child, I wanted more attention from him, but as an adult I understood the respect he showed for my work, considering all of the things he had seen and done in his life. It took time and practice before I could deliver something that he truly considered as good as the best things he had seen during his life, and now I understand that is normal.
| Joseph | My brother has been taking all of the photos of my work for the past 20 years, and considering that my father sort of hesitated between being an architect and a photographer, now to have had one son become an architect and the other a photographer is a bit interesting.
| Kristen | That must kind of be his dream come true though to see his sons follow his influence.
| Kristen | So what I had read, you have done a lot of boutiques with luxury brands. I don’t know how it works in architecture but with magazines and photographers, if a photographer shoots with a certain magazine maybe another magazine will not want to shoot with that photographer. Is it similar with clients? Is it a thin line like if you work with this client then you can not work with another client?
| Joseph | I think you can have more than one. It mght be a bit more limited in the world of fashion but it’s also a question of timing. The reason why I have been able to collaborate with so many different brands, and also brands which are owned by different groups, is because there is an idea of competition between them. Starting out I wanted to work with brands that were really different from each other, in order to avoid repeating ideas. But after the Balmain store, I had some opportunities to work with a couple of different brands at the same time. I signed confidentiality agreements, so i couldn’t tell the brands which other brands I was simultaneously working with. Finally they all realised that I was working on a couple of projects, all very close in terms of timing but also all very different projects. When it’s that type of situation that the clients don’t care so much about me being ‘owned’ by this group or that group.
The politics aren’t important to me, but I focus on the message. I’m here to create interior design and décor that tells a narrative of a brand. I want people to see my work and think ‘Oh, this is very Chloé, Pucci, etc.’ This is the idea that allowed us to continue to get more and more commissions - translating a brand into an interior so that it was immediately recognized in a subtle way by people. This can be challenging for some brands, but if they are consistent then the challenge can be met. If it is just for opportunity’s sake on both sides, it is not interesting.
| Kristen | That is what i was going to ask, how do you choose what type of projects or clients you want to work with? I guess going forward it is kind of a challenge or how you can add something special rather than just doing a job.
| Joseph | The first thing I consider is how the location inspires me, also the brand and what image comes to my mind. If I have to work in a specific place, for a specific project, it might not go as well as possible. I am very, very selective. I know that can sound a bit pretentious, but it is reality.
If I make a wrong choice and I have to work in a space that I am not very inspired by, my project will not be as good as the projects which truly inspire me, course. It’s a long process, sometimes I spend a few years working on one thing. If it takes so much time and effort I should love the process and the end result.
| Kristen | Also to be proud that it is your best work.
| Joseph | I’m selective because after 20 years of experience I’m able to recognize the projects that could wind up being a loss of time and effort for me, which would frustrate me. I think I have a creative mind, which can be full of doubts and questions. To avoid doubting myself I try to find a subject that makes me feel totally comfortable, not in a way that is easy, but in a way that requires a lot of creativity. I think more like comfort in the difficulty or pushing my creativity.
| Kristen | What was the hardest part about opening your own business?
| Joseph | The beginning it was a nightmare because I was doing everything myself. I was dealing with money, which I hate, and dealing with all of the dark sides of running a business. Thankfully it was small, so it wasn’t too difficult.
| Kristen | But it still takes away from what you do, your creativity.
| Joseph | It is very difficult to start on your own at such a young age because at first there are only problems. You aren’t mature enough to face all of the problems and everything stresses you out. Now it’s rare that I panic about anything because we can find a solution for everything. I don’t want projects to be run under stress, I much prefer when things are run with ambition and vision. I try to work with visionaries and I try to be a visionary along with them. I want to try to invent something that adds more to what already exists, not invent something that doesn’t come from somewhere.
In a hospitality space, like hotel or restaurant for example, I want the atmosphere to be better for the guests than it was before. Everything from the living room, the level of comfort, the feeling, the service - I can’t do a restaurant without comfortable chairs, the light needs to be perfect, ideally the food needs to be good, and I even want to music to be great. Every element counts. If you have good décor but bad food, the whole project is bad. That’s why it is important to collaborate with the right people so that it all comes together perfectly.
| Kristen | So what is a dream project of yours?
| Joseph | I’m already working on it!
| Kristen | Is it confidential….?
| Joseph | No, no - I can talk about it! It’s a miracle. It is for the owner of the Four Seasons. So, I’m doing the Four Seasons but I am also doing another building right next to it where I am designing the actual building. It’s going to be my first big building that I design from scratch. The tower, the interior design, the furniture, the entire hospitality experience- I get to do it all.
| Kristen | Wow 360!
| Joseph | Yes, 360 from very large scale, to extremely small scale. So that is amazing, but it’s not the ultimate dream. Well, it WAS my dream project until I got a another one with the same client. I’m developing a whole island in the Virgin Islands.
| Kristen | I HEARD ABOUT THIS SECRET PROJECT!!! I heard some rumors!
| Joseph | So there is a very incredible story about this island, which was owned by Carlos Lehder, who was the right hand man of Pablo Escobar during his prime. It is one of the most beautiful virgin islands in paradise, called Exuma Island. The water is pure, clear, and turquoise because there a really low tide surrounding the shore, but it becomes very deep only a couple of meters away. It’s not a round island but it’s long, about 8km, with lagoons.
| Kristen | …. and you have the whole island?
| Joseph | I have the whole island. I mean, the idea is that I am going to develop this island with a partner very slowly. We want to create a perfect paradise for others but also for ourselves, so we need to be detailed and selective during the whole process. We don’t want to fill this beautiful place with concrete and hotels or houses, which would probably create more profit, but would destroy our dream of enhancing one of the last rare Virgin Island paradises.
We will start with building one hotel which will have 25 little homes of one and two bedrooms. After this we we will develop larger villas of 4-10 bedrooms. The goal is to design two houses per year, al unique masterpieces that have been designed precisely and without creating waste or pollution so that we can respect and preserve the land as much as possible of course. There is a lot of open space but we will create shelter that allows the guest to feel private, hidden, not exposed to other people. I hope to be able to sell and rent the homes after they are finished.
| Kristen | Oh so it will not be a hotel?
| Joseph | There will be a hotel but there will also be houses which can be sold in the future. We will design and create them, and then we will select the people who we would like to buy them- ideally. It’s especially great because it truly is a virgin island, so it’s sort of an Eden. It’s a bank page for me during a period of my life where I have the maturity and respect to put a lot of energy into something and produce consistency. This will be a project that I’ll be working on throughout the rest of my life. The next 15 years for me will be the most dynamic yet, but after I build this island I will continue to have new projects in new lands.
| Kristen | and of course you will have a house there, I guess?
| Joseph | I am already looking into purchasing a small piece of the land to start building a small house, and I have already planned the same for some others in the future. It really is a paradise that I am creating for others, but it’s a personal paradise for me as well.
| Kristen | What is the DNA of Paris?
| Joseph | I think it truly is ‘la ville lumière’ (city of light). Paris has a very specific light. We are surrounded by classical and historical influences, the city is rich with culture and heritage. Paris has evolved while simultaneously remaining preserved for a long time, which is nice. I think this defines Paris, the classic part of it. There is something about Parisians which is good, too, a good and a bad side like there is in every culture. We don’t really care so much about money, which can be either good or bad.
| Kristen | It is the opposite to New York! That is also why I’ve stayed here seven years.
| Joseph | Yeah, no one is really impressed by you being the best or the most successful, in fact it might be the opposite. If you are too boastful it can create some jealousy, or negative feelings. That’s not a great thing, but it can also be the reason people prefer to establish more ‘real’ relationships, making a lot of their choices based on love or pleasure, rather than on business. There is more to France, but this is definitely a part of it.
| Joseph | Paris has also been the capital of lifestyle for a long time - food, fashion, architecture. Maybe more interior design rather than architecture because we there aren’t too many contemporary architects in the city, but there are a lot of interior designers. If you think about he art-deco movement, if you think of the modernists like Le Corbusier, Royère and Prouvé, there were a lot of really strong signature styles during the 20th century in France. Every decade we had a sort of revolution of strong style. I think that’s what Paris is all about, creating a reflection of an inner world that is transmitted into a lifestyle with a lot of freedom.
French people love to spend time together, but now with Facebook and things like that the relationships between people are changing a little. There is more connection with the rest of the world.
| Kristen | How would you describe the current design landscape in France or the current trends in architecture? Are there any common threads or do you think there are a lot of people doing their own thing?
| Joseph | In hospitality you see a lot of projects that are kind of vintage, a little bit of what has been tried in London and New York before has come to Paris as well. They are more ‘décor’ for a younger crowd; it is very dynamic, it is very good in Paris to see that cool restaurants and cool hotels are starting to appear because I think we lost a little of the power to do that for a long period of time. A lot of talented French creatives are working worldwide, so the relationship with other cultures brings an experience back to our city. But it is eclectic and we want it to be eclectic as well. We don’t want a world where everything is the same.
Sometimes there are trends, but I don’t like trends. As soon as something is trendy, I feel as though the end of the trend has already come. I love the idea of timelessness, and I try to put that into my work as much as possible. I want to maintain a connection to the past, even if the project is demolished and recreated from scratch, and then evolves over time. This connection to the past creates a respect for the project that is deeper than ‘this is décor that we can get rid of and start from scratch.’ If I come into a place and there is something already existing that is beautiful, of course I will keep it.