THE CHALLENGE OF QUALITY. Rémi Tessier was trained in France as a cabinet maker. Since opening his studio in 1988 he has joined the ranks of the world’s most admired designers for private boats and planes, working globally with the best craftsmen.
You can listen to the podcast of this interview here.
Rémi Tessier, why did you leave school at a young age and become a cabinet maker?
I always dreamed about freedom. I have an issue with authority. For me, it’s important to do what I want to do when I want to do it. I was also in love with wood. I love to work with my hands, and was very attracted by wood as a material. Aged 13 years old I started working wood in my bedroom.
Who taught you how to work with wood?
My parents could not afford a school like the École Boulle in Paris where you can learn to be a cabinetmaker. The other option was the Compagnons du Devoir, a brotherhood with different trades that has been going from the time when they built the cathedrals. You change city every six months, working in a job during the week, and at night and on the weekend you train with the Compagnons. You work 12 hours a day and it’s intense, quite tough.
What did they start you with?
Cleaning the workshop, and then smoothing the mouldings with abrasive for hours and hours. They give the dirty work that nobody wants to do to the rabbit, the young guy. They test you, doing that for six months or a year. Most people give up, but I kept going. For eight years I learned to be a cabinet maker doing refined furniture, marquetry, sculpture. I did the Olympiad, the young Cabinetmakers International Competition.
“The first boat I did became a kind of benchmark in the industry, because at the time there was nothing that was contemporary, timeless, chic and elegant.“
Rémi Tessier Design Yacht. Project : Motor Yacht MOONRISE – 99m. Shipyard : Feadship. Delivery : 2020.
Photo credit : St Barth Flycam
Rémi Tessier, what was your path to design?
When I was cabinet maker I was in love with what I was doing, but one day I realised it was over. I closed my toolbox and went to see my boss and said, “I’m sorry, I have to leave.” He said, “What’s happened?” I said, “Nothing, I have to do something else with my life.” All the Compagnons were very surprised and didn’t understand, but it came to me that I had to do it and I had to do it now. So I left.
What did you do?
I went to an aunt near Lyon who could give me a bed and a roof over my head. I didn’t know anybody, and nobody wanted me. I had no background in design and I had dirty hands, because when you work with wood the stain gets under your skin. I knocked on the doors of shopkeepers, and asked them if they wanted to refurbish. One guy with a flower shop said okay and I started like that.
How did you move from shops to boats?
I did a lot of shops and discovered that in retail the guidance is really the business rather than desire or instinct, and because of this I wanted to work on interiors with private people. A good friend of a client of mine sold his company and bought a boat, and he asked some famous designers to do the interior. They all failed to come up with what he wanted and he asked me to try. It was a great mix between my design knowledge and my cabinet maker knowledge, because a sailing boat does not have much space but you have to put luxury inside it. It is all about proportion and detail, and I discovered that I loved it. The first boat I did became a kind of benchmark in the industry, because at the time there was nothing that was contemporary, timeless, chic and elegant. I did another boat and another one, and then I moved to Paris.
Do you have a specific style?
No, I don’t think so. My design is by the same person, obviously, but I don’t want to have a style, I want to have style. I design the entire design and do the styling, working as a team with engineers or with the shipyard. I like to design the dream of my clients. I don’t want to design my own dream.
One of your clients is the billionaire Swiss sailor, Ernesto Bertarelli?
I’ve done 10 projects for Ernesto, all amazing. I only work with people like Ernesto. I love extreme expectation and I want to play in the first league with the best, with the most demanding guys who are pushing the limits. If you don’t have this kind of clients who do exceptional projects it is just boring.
What is an exceptional project?
When you do something exceptional it is unique, there is no prior reference. You have to create something from scratch, not be inspired by this or by that and copying, cutting and mixing together. Those guys don’t want their boats looking like somebody else’s. They want boats that reflect their personality as a dream, and they don’t want that to be repeated. They are all like that.
Is it a big challenge to work with clients like that?
There are two challenges. The first challenge is to figure out a unique design and the consistency of it through the boat. You have to create a composition of style and material that makes a unique design to reach the dream of the client. My clients don’t come to me with a picture and say, “Oh, I like this and I like that.” They don’t tell you what they want; you have to figure that out and I’m good at understanding what they dream about. You have to read through them what is good for them, what is special for them. This is the number one challenge.
And the second challenge?
Number two is to go to the end of every single detail, because those guys are extremely sharp. You have to go to the end of that, and reach it, and when they say, “I have no comment. This is it.” Then you got it!
“I have a very hard time mixing quantity and quality. I’m really an artisan, so I like to design something unique.“
Rémi Tessier, is perfection what you want?
Perfection doesn’t exist, unfortunately and fortunately, although you try to catch it as a dream. Trying to reach perfection is very interesting, because for humans it is a very good thing to try to reach this goal of doing things better rather than doing something commercial. I’m not attracted by money; I don’t really care about it. I don’t want to be rich and I don’t dream about my clients’ lifestyle. I don’t even think it’s something to envy.
Is it true that you now also design private aeroplanes?
Yes, big aircraft. I just delivered a 787 a month ago.
What’s the difference between doing a boat and a plane?
A boat is like a moving five star hotel with a driver. An aircraft is the same, but it flies! So the regulation is higher, and the weight challenge is higher. It’s crazy complicated, and this is why in the aircraft industry people repeat, because it’s certified. As soon as you do something which is not certified, you enter the void of the unknown – where no engineer wants to go because the risk is too high. So it is up to you to convince the team of engineers which wants to stay in the comfort zone to move out of the comfort zone and take the risk of doing something else. Another challenge! Challenge is what is interesting in life. If you have no challenge in your life, you die.
What is the challenge when you do a house or an apartment?
In terms of design it is easier, because you have less technical constraints, but the execution is tougher because in the industry of yachts and aircraft, the craftsmanship, the engineering level, the whole process is very well organised. You are playing with complexity, but you are playing with a very competent team. This is not so much the case when you work on land, but I bring my experience from yachts and aircraft into the residential business. I bring craftsmen, but the most challenging thing in residential is to get equivalent quality to the quality I get in boats and aircraft. The design is one thing, but the quality is everything.
What is quality?
It is exponential, because you have to push the limit of every single thing to another level. My clients like Ernesto and others want what nobody else has. When you see and live in an interior at this level of quality you understand the differences. It is like wearing cashmere rather than wool. I have a very hard time mixing quantity and quality. When you go to quantity it’s an industrial process, and you design one thing to be repeated many times. But I’m really an artisan, so I like to design something unique. I like handmade things. Something done by hand is a different thing to something done by machine.
When clients commission you, who does the actual work?
I work with a European and worldwide network of artisans and very good craftsmen. For example, when I did an amazing project in Turkey I found a very skilled guy there. When you want to do a project at the ultimate level, if you don’t find the best there is no chance you can get there. I’m very instinctive as a person. I feel it or I don’t feel it, and with the clients it is the same. I never run after a client, because if the client has no desire to work with me what is the point? And when they come to me, if a feeling is there or not, I either do it or I don’t do it.
Do you only work with private clients, never with cruise lines or airlines?
The companies haven’t asked me, so that’s one thing, but the other thing is my design has a level of quality and I want to push the limits, so they will not be able to afford it. I am doing some work for commercial entities, like the penthouse of Claridge’s hotel for example.
Is this not extreme luxury also?
It’s a crazy project, and I always thought that it would cost too much money for a business, but Paddy McKillen is a visionary and was very persistent, and at a certain point I said, “OK, but if we do it, I want to do this roof opening , this glass length, this fixture…” Soon it’s going to be finished, and it will be at the level of my clients because it will be for my clients’ kind of market. A night will be something like €100,000 pounds; a serious thing for serious guests, of whom there is only a small club.
Rémi Tessier Design Aviation. Project : Boeing 787. Delivery : 2021.
Photo credit : Dan GLASSER
Rémi Tessier Design Architecture. Project : Chalet l’Ourse. Delivery : 2017. Location : Gstaad
Photo credit : Mark SEELEN
Rémi Tessier Design Yacht. Project : VAVA II –. Shipyard : Devonport Royal Dockyard. Delivery : 2020
Photo credit : Jeff BROWN
Rémi Tessier Design Yacht. Project : Motor Yacht GRACE E – 73m. Shipyard : Perini Navi. Delivery : 2014. Photo credit : Mark SEELEN. Sunbeds « Shell » designed by Remi Tessier
Rémi Tessier Design Yacht. Project : Motor Yacht LUNA.
Photo credit : Thierry DEPAGNE
Photo credit : Jeff BROWN
“Freedom is in your mind, and the most wealth in life, no question, is children. Nothing else.”
Rémi Tessier, isn’t it a bit strange only to work for the super-rich?
It is not about the super-rich. Historically cabinet makers worked for kings and nobles. The high hand artisanal, which is my area, has always been driven by the top. I’m excited to do incredible things at the highest quality level with the top craftsmen. It’s not about money, it’s about love, collaboration and doing something great. I’m so grateful to my client who brings me up, as well as my team and all the workers behind a project at every single level: I admire them all.
How many people work with you in your office in Paris?
15, a small group, and I’m working with all of my amazing collaborators.
How many projects do you work on at the same time?
Twenty or twenty five.
Isn’t that too much?
No, it’s not too much. You see, I have arrived at this stage when I can’t refuse a project that is so exciting that I want to do it. I don’t need or take new clients. I’m working with the clients I have and the projects they give me are incredible.
Do you want to have your own boat?
No, if there was one thing it would be a plane because it is an amazing freedom tool, but I can fly when I need anyway. I’m not dreaming about being a billionaire. I don’t care about that. I’m not even dreaming about having the same lifestyle. Freedom is in your mind, and the most wealth in life, no question, is children. Nothing else.
How do you raise your children?
They educate me more than I educate them. Children are astounding. I have nine children and I want to have a big life. There is only one life and you have to make it amazing every day.
Do you work many hours?
My mind is always at work. My challenge now is to dream to have more time, and balance my life as much as I can.
Are you doing a new boat project?
Yes, a nice project, but I don’t want to only be doing boats, or planes, or residential. I like to do many things. It’s important for the health to mix things up. I don’t want to do only this, only that. I don’t want people to call me for my style.
What is the basic idea of your style?
I like purity and consistency, which you can translate through classic, contemporary, or minimal. You have to travel over these, but when you do a design it’s important to bring your soul into it. That is my main goal. So that at the end you feel it’s an emotional interior, not something only perfect and cold. You have to put a spirit into it.
Are your clients difficult to work with?
I don’t look at them in that way. They are very interesting. If you want to work for someone easy you won’t do anything, because there is no challenge. Challenge in life is everything.
You’re driven by challenge?
Yes. It’s important. It keeps you alive.
Portrait of Rémi Tessier by Dan Glasser
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