For his latest collaboration, architect Frank Gehry has taken a stab at designing something slightly smaller than a building, a Hennessy XO Cognac bottle made to commemorate the brand’s 150th anniversary. Though smaller in scale, Gehry’s approach to the bottle adheres to the freeform principles used in his larger projects. The collaboration maintains the original shape of the bottle while covering it in a decanter made of a crushed gold, giving the product an overall vibe of a Ferrero Rocher wrapper on acid.
Frank Gehry arguably created the mold for the “starchitect” that we now use to address the likes of Rem Koolhaas and Bjarke Engels. And while architects have always made products along with their buildings, from furniture to trinkets, the trajectory of postmodernism has been to turn buildings into products in and of themselves. It’s an emphasis of style over use, exemplified by Robert Venturi’s duck house, or Rafael Vinoly’s 432 Park Avenue skyscraper that was designed after a trash can. Continuing on this line of thought, when Frank Gehry designs a vodka bottle or a piece of jewelry, the main thing separating that object from being a “building” is scale.
Gehry cites that the main inspiration for the bottle comes from Cognac, which he visited on a trip to Hennessy’s distillery as part of the collaboration. But ultimately, the shape of Gehry’s decanter brings to mind videos of his design process, which in part involves the architect crumpling up pieces of paper and tossing them around his work-table like a disgruntled child. A process that may seem funny at first, until you see that piece of paper manifest as a billion dollar building on the streets of Paris or Abu Dhabi.
We spoke with Gehry over Zoom about Cognac and how he’s holding up in the pandemic.
How is the process of designing a product different from designing a building?
I've done smaller things before. I did a lot of jewelry for Tiffany and designed vodka bottles, things like that. I enjoy the challenge of doing small scale as a counterpoint to big scale. It keeps your talents honed, keeps you on your toes.
Was the decanter designed by hand?
So the bottle, the decanter and the design we came up with, is handmade. It's not something you produce on that assembly line. It's made from a metal cast, but the original base model from which the castings were taken were handmade by kneading the metal the material was going to be cast in. This bottle is an object that you hold in your hand, that you put on your dining room table, that you live with in your house and only bring out for very special occasions. It becomes a symbol in one's family. It speaks of a more intimate relationship with the people involved in the making.
What influences did you have for the decanter?
The great sculptures of ancient Greece have always made me cry. They're so beautiful and able to transmit this feeling from a human hand of centuries ago to the present through an inert material. I kind of wish that we could do that. And so that was the intent, to make it feel handmade and feel special in that way.
How did your visit with Hennessy to the production facilities influence the design of the decanter?
I was impressed by the amount of involvement and commitment of the people involved in making cognac. There’s a lot of hands-on work that goes into it. Going through the storage spaces, and the attention given to the barrels, and the selection of the liquid as it went through the stages of production. The attention to detail was extraordinary. I know great wineries have a similar process, but this was on a whole other level. I wasn’t ready for that, and I didn’t expect it. The Charente River and the town of Cognac is an incredible location with incredible history. The aesthetics of being there were staggeringly beautiful and engaging.
How has Covid-19 affected your firm?
Well a lot of business is done over Zoom now. Or, others go into the office and make models based on what I say and then they leave and I go in. So it's a different environment, it's a different process. The end result seems to be okay, we're getting there. The clients seem to be understanding and working with it. I think if this went on for longer than a couple of years it could change the game substantially. But I think we have to be optimistic that somehow we're going to prevail and find ways to work around it. If we respect each other's time and efforts, we can overcome.