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In 2017, interior designer and art historian Kate Challis commissioned Valerie Sparks to customise her 2014 work, ‘Le Vol’, for the kitchen and dining area of her own home, thereby creating an immersive art installation. Here, she talks about the commissioning experience and the transformative power of art in the home.

What was your motivation for commissioning an artist to produce a work on such a monumental scale?

Art is always integral to my work as an interior designer. When I was designing our own home I wanted to create something striking and really blur the boundaries between design and art.

Our home is a 19th century building and was originally a shop with a dwelling. The old shop is now our kitchen/dining room. As soon as you open the door and step off the street you enter another reality - the dreamlike landscape of Valerie Sparks.

The commission slowly evolved in my mind. I loved Valerie’s Le Vol series and was contemplating purchasing ‘Le Vol. I’ as a large framed piece for the main wall of my dining area. Only once I started enquiring about Valerie’s practice did I learn that her works were also available as wallpaper.

Wallpapers are one of my favourite elements of interior design, especially when they envelope an entire room so no wall is left uncovered. So, when I discovered that the wallpaper was a possibility, the idea of a 360 degrees immersive installation quickly took hold in my mind. The idea of living in an artwork I found mesmerising.

My PhD research focused on early Renaissance art, a time when artists were captivated by illusionism and pushing the boundaries of reality. If you think about Mantegna’s frescoes in Mantua or the four Raphael Rooms in the Vatican which culminated in Andrea Pozzo’s extraordinary ceiling Sant’Ignazio, Rome (c. 1685), the artists make walls or ceilings disappear and open up the space into another other worldly realm.

The subject matter of ‘Le Vol’ also holds personal meaning. My grandfather, art historian Bernard Smith, was a major influence in my life. As a young child, I recall looking at the pictures in his seminal work 'European Vision and the South Pacific' and being drawn to the illustrations of Joseph Dufour’s wallpaper 'Les Sauvages de la mer du Pacifique' (1804-5). These panoramic landscapes depict the journeys of Captain Cook and the peoples, flora and fauna he encountered in the Pacific Islands and were installed in dining and living rooms of manor houses. Dufour produced these with the intention of "instructing and pleasing, to provide a new enjoyment of fantasy.”

Valerie’s work draws inspiration from this tradition and in particular 'Le Bresil' made in 1862 by Jules Desfossé and designed by Louis Joseph Fuchs which depicts the plants and exotic birds of Brazil.

Weren’t you worried about placing the work in a kitchen? That it could get damaged or ruined?

It is a question I am asked frequently. We installed an industrial rangehood and an induction steam-oven which minimises the need to cook on hot plates. Also, there are marble splash-backs with a floating shelf which create a cooking zone that can be easily cleaned. Often stone is the feature of a kitchen so it was vital that I choose a piece of stone that complemented, but didn’t compete with Valerie’s work.

As the room has a practical function, all the details including the practicalities of a family kitchen and dining room had to be considered including the colour of the kitchen joinery and most importantly the lighting. I commissioned a light from Melbourne-based lighting designer, Christopher Boots, for above the dining table. It is a stunning piece made from 300kg of smokey quartz.

Why is art important to you and how is it integral to your approach to interior design?

Art is integral to life and living – just like good books, music and conversation. My grandparents’ house was seminal for me. Their home was filled with art from friends and others whose work they wanted to support. When I was living in London in my twenties I started purchasing art for the same reasons. Great art transports us. It makes is think and reflect and ask questions which are greater than our day to day existence. It can connect us very deeply with where we have come from and who we are as humans.

Working with clients who have art collections is a great privilege. Art can reveal so much about a person, it elevates an interior into something deeply personal and totally unique. 

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