Mexico-born London-based French designer, Leo Sentou, sits down with Cabana to share the inspiration behind his debut furniture collection, and discuss some of the challenges facing the design industry today.
INTERVIEW BY CAMILLA FRANCES | MARCH 2023
Designer Leo Sentou, photographed at home in London
Your furniture is beautifully detailed and crafted. What drives your desire to create?
I’m interested in the idea of heirloom furniture, that will be passed down from generation to generation, which is, inherently, the antithesis of the sort of fast design pedalled by mainstream media. Quality of craftsmanship was at the core of the process and as such, sympatico with the makers was essential. I see it as an inherent part of the design process. Everything is made entirely by hand, and developing any one piece is a learning curve where, often, dimensions and details are modified along the way, so as to ensure the final product, be it a chair or table, is as close to the original design intent as possible, whilst also functioning as a practical, useful piece of everyday furniture, and as something that people aren’t afraid to use. Each piece is, essentially, unique and bares the mark of the artisan that made it — something I find utterly inspiring, and to an extent, humbling. I like the notion that everything good takes time. Time is essential to create beauty.
What challenges have you faced in bringing your designs to fruition?
The distinction between craft and craftsmanship is of great importance. The fact merely that something has been produced by hand doesn’t necessarily make it good. I had a design for a console, similar to my L.A side table, prototyped by a small, independent iron worker recommended to me by a friend; it was an utter disaster. Seeing a piece translated from the drawing board into a three-dimensional, functional object is an exhilarating process, but can be agonisingly painful at times. However well-intentioned or ambitious the design intent, at the end of the day it’s an artisan who has to physically make the piece, and, as such, their limitations become yours. That said, as one achieves a greater understanding and knowledge of manufacturing, and in turn, what can or cannot be achieved, it helps the design process and makes for a far better end product. As it turned out, my initial design couldn’t be produced in wrought iron, so it called for a redesign - and, in retrospect, it’s much more elegant for it.
What are the best and worst things about being a designer and maker today?
As a result of the democratisation of design through social media, we have the ability to show our work to an international audience, attracting buyers from around the globe. On the flip side, such exposure can lead to furniture being copied, mass-produced and sold for peanuts by companies interested in nothing more than making a quick buck. For many designers, the need to stand out and be seen, whilst at the same time protecting intellectual property rights, can be a constant challenge.
What would you be doing if you weren’t a designer?
When I was ten, very briefly, I wanted to be a notary. Essentially, the father of an old school friend was a notary and I absolutely loved their country house - so chic, a wonderful balance of old and new.
G.J Chair; Leo Sentou © The Invisible Collection
Your capsule is highly curated. How did you choose which pieces of furniture to design?
I find the late 18th-century an endless source of inspiration. I’ve always been fascinated, sometimes to the point of obsession, by proportion and the search for the sort of simple, pure shapes that such makers as Georges Jacob and Jean-Baptiste Tilliard endeavoured to achieve. The first piece I designed was the armchair, which, despite its apparent simplicity, and lack of adornment, is a contemporary take on an oval bergère by Louis Delanois. It might sound paradoxical, but I wanted it to be understated and refined, in the sense of it not screaming for attention, whilst at the same time having a strong, bold presence. The design process led organically to a family of pieces, composed of a chair, credenza, side table and ottoman; all of which work together and independently.
Where is home?
I live in South-East London with my partner and our French bulldog. We moved there six years ago as we were looking for something full of light, with a lot of wall space, that was close to enough to central London for work. I’m fortunate in that my partner, who works in publishing, has an impeccable eye, and our tastes either merge or complement one another. It’s somewhat eclectic — a combination of 18th and 19th-century furniture, mixed with modernist works by the likes of Jacques Adnet, Charlotte Perriand and René Gabriel, African artefacts, contemporary works by designers we love, such as Stephen Antonson, and a collection of largely abstract Catalonian art by Aythamy Armas, Bruno Ollé, Jordi Alcaraz and Sito Mújica. Everything works in harmony, in conversation, and it’s a wonderful place to relax or entertain, something we both love to do.
L.D Armchair and L.A Side Table; Leo Sentou © The Invisible Collection
What does relaxation look like for you? How do you switch off and recharge?
Personally, I find nothing more relaxing than spending time by the sea; I would happily while away every summer on the Italian Riviera. Day to day, entertaining at home and sharing a meal with friends; great company and laughter are a wonderful way to recharge. Also, I try and take time out for moments of peace and quiet introspection. I love reading and recently finished “Le dernier mot” by Virginie Mouzat, which is so incredibly moving and well-written; it touches one to the core.
Your favourite museum or gallery?
Fondation Maeght in Saint Paul de Vence is the most incredible place to visit. It was born out of a desire to create a space where art, nature and the built environment come together in perfect harmony. Modern masters, such as Braque, Miro and Giacometti, worked in close collaboration with Catalan architect, Josep Lluís Sert, to design a place where, in essence, both painting and sculpture can be viewed to its best possible advantage. As such, it’s the perfect example of “mécénat”, in the purest possible sense, where there was no commercial motive, and it was driven by the simple ambition to celebrate art and culture. And, of course, there’s la Colombe d’Or, almost around the corner, where one can dine under Léger's mesmerising mosaic mural.
An artist you’d collect if you could?
It's hard to name only one artist. I would start with pieces representing my love for both abstract expressionism and figurative art. In my wildest dreams, works by Antoni Tàpies, his paintings and sculptures from the 1970s through to early 2000. I would pair them with 18th-century Mexican school paintings, especially those of Domingo Ortiz, and in particular, his votive paintings, which informed the work of Frida Khalo.